Grand Valley State legend Cullen Finnerty was everybody's 'Superman,' up until tragic end
Detroit — The family had just moved from Redford to Brighton. Cullen Finnerty was 5 at the time.
That was when Tim Finnerty, the older brother by three years, first got a glimpse of the supreme athleticism that would come to define Cullen's short but impactful life as a history-marking football player.
"It's crazy the moves he was pulling off when he was 5 years old," Tim Finnerty said, laughing. "He would bob one way, and his bowl (hair) cut would go that way, while his hips would go the other direction. It was uncanny. He was always a good athlete, soccer, you name it. He was good at ping pong, skateboarding, snowboarding.
"You kind of got pissed, because he was a natural at everything."
Cullen Finnerty would go on to an epic career at Grand Valley State, where he was 51-4 — a college record, then and now, for any level — in four years as a starting quarterback, including three Division II national championships.
Amid the backdrop of an ongoing lawsuit against the NCAA that the family strongly wishes wouldn't invoke Finnerty's name, Cullen Finnerty will be posthumously inducted into the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame on Friday, one of eight members of the 2018 class.
Family, friends and teammates to this day still refer to Cullen as "Superman," more than five years after he was tragically and mysteriously found dead in the woods of northwestern Michigan. He was 30.
The evening will be a chance to smile again about Cullen, amid the backdrop of a lawsuit against the NCAA that his immediate family isn’t supporting. a model father of two off the football field, and a human highlight reel and the ultimate competitor on it — one who often wouldn't get rolling in a game until he'd run head-on into a defender, oddly motivated by a jolting, earth-moving hit.
"He always just played with reckless abandon," said brother Tim, suggesting that persona came from his Dad's side, as grandpa was a Golden Gloves boxing champion. "He'd get hit, and all of a sudden he got turned on.
"That's the Irish blood in us. You just get pissed off, you get slapped around a little bit and you're like, 'OK, now I'm done having fun with you.'"
'Never giving up'
Finnerty, during his junior year in high school, had looks from some big schools, including Notre Dame. Bob Davie, then coaching the Irish, even sent him a hand-written Christmas card.
But his senior year, the high-school coaching staff changed, as did the offense, which featured a lot more short, shovel passes and, thus, smaller statistics for Finnerty. The interest died down, and he headed to the University of Toledo. It wasn't a fit from the start. For starters, he had an offensive coordinator who was very religious, and often invited players to religious prayer meetings. That wasn't Finnerty's scene. Also, he quickly found himself well behind Bruce Gradkowski, a sophomore, on the depth chart.
By the time spring ball rolled around during his freshman year, Finnerty knew Toledo wasn't for him. Around the same time, Tim Finnerty, attending art school in Grand Rapids, was paying close attention to an up-and-coming program in Allendale, Grand Valley, and the star quarterback, Curt Anes, was about to be a senior. Tim grabbed Cullen's highlight film, drove to campus and dropped it right on the desk of the coach, Brian Kelly, who's now at Notre Dame. It all moved quickly from there.
"You could tell he was talented, but we had no idea," said Chuck Martin, the offensive coordinator when Finnerty arrived, the head coach for Finnerty's final three seasons, and now the head coach at Miami (Ohio).
"Curt Anes was so good and so dominant, we thought, 'OK, nobody could fill this shoes.' And yet, the next guy becomes the winningest quarterbacck in college football history."
In his first year at Grand Valley, as Anes' backup, Finnerty was part of a group of underclassmen who scrimmaged against Grand Rapids Community College. The game was on astroturf, and he hyper-extended a toe — it bent so far back, it touched the top of his foot. ("It looked like the most painful, torturous thing," Tim said.) It turned out to be a blessing in disguise, earning Finnerty a medical redshirt. That gave him four years of eligibility, starting with the first year after Anes' departure.
Anes led Grand Valley State to the 2002 national championship, the first in program history. He finished his career as the program leader in just about every single-season and career offensive record. He also was a friend and mentor to Finnerty.
In 2003, Finnerty's first year as the starter, he drove Kelly absolutely crazy.
"I just remembered BK screaming at him, just because Cullen didn't understand a ton, like most freshmen. He'd run around and around and round, sometimes making plays, sometimes not making plays," Martin said. "I just remember a couple times, he ran and ran, like the longest-yard play, and BK would be like, 'Stop doing that!' And Cullen would look at him and shrug his shoulders. He was just trying to make a play.
"He was the epitome of never giving up on a play. He wasn't going to accept having to throw the ball away. He'd figure something out, make this work."
By season's end, Kelly wasn't screaming as much — especially after Finnerty led the team to its second consecutive national championship, a 10-3 win over North Dakota in which he threw for 227 yards and rushed for 78. That triumph would earn Kelly a promotion to head coach at Central Michigan, and Martin succeeded him as head coach at Grand Valley.
In 2004, there were some hiccups, including a two-game losing streak during which Finnerty threw seven interceptions, five in one game.
"Most kids, that would ruin them," Martin said. "Obviously, it didn't ruin him."
During early week practice, it was standard that if a play got screwed up, they'd run it again. And again. And again. Until they got it right.
That reminds Martin of a funny memory, one that perfectly captures Finnerty's competitiveness and confidence.
"He hated so much if he ever did something wrong, I remember multiple times in a game, he would end up screwing up a play," Martin said. "And he'd literally yell at me, 'Run it again!' I'm like, 'Dude, this ain't practice, we don't get a do-over. 'Run it again! And I'll make it work!' OK, why not? I've never had interactions like that with a player. He was so much fun to be be around. He thought he was Superman."
That Grand Valley team finished 10-3, losing in the third round of the Division II playoffs.
Finnerty wouldn't lose another game during his career, leading the Lakers to perfect records and national tiltes in both 2005 and 2006 — the title-game victories, like the one in 2003, both one-possession wins.
It was early in Finnerty's senior year when he made the play that everyone remembers, especially Martin.
It was Game 2, against Ashland. It was a tight one, tied with a little more than 5 minutes left, and Finnerty was scrambling, as he often was.
Then an Ashland defender grabbed his facemask, darn near turning it sideways.
"He's literally looking out of his earhole," Martin said, laughing. "But he's still scrambling. He breaks through the facemask, running to his right, he adjusts his facemask and throws a (47-yard) bomb for a touchdown to win the game.
"No one breaks a facemask tackle."
Tim Finnerty recalled another play — he forgets the opponent, but it was a game between two nationally ranked teams. It was late, there was lock down coverage, and Cullen took off scrambling, jumped over a couple big defenders and flipped into the end zone. "Oh my God, he's paralyzed," Tim would think, as No. 16 lay on the turf. "Then he gets up, and does the hands-on-the-hips Superman pose."
There weren't many disappointments during Finnerty's collegiate career, but one came on the eve of the 2006 national-championship game in Florence, Ala.
Martin and Finnerty attended the Harlon Hill — Division II's version of the Heisman — trophy ceremony, and Finnerty was seemingly a shoo-in to win, and join Anes, who won the award in 2002. Then, amazingly, Finnerty didn't win. Instead, Danny Woodhead, of Chadron State, won it. The audience was so darn stunned, the announcement actually was met with several moments of silence, then some awkward applause.
To put it mildly, Finnerty was, ummm, not pleased.
"Finnerty, he's mad, he's beside himself," Martin said. "Sure enough, we go to play the national-championship game (the next day), and his first five, 10, 15 passes he'd throw, he throws it like 100 mph —14 yards over the receiver's head. (Fifty and four), he's gonna show the world he deserves the Harlon Hill, even though he has nothing to prove. He can't hit nothing, and I can't get him to calm down.
"We're in a crazy dogfight, and we're down late and we've got the ball and he's standing next to me and about to take the field. I call a pass play, even though he was off all day. He takes two steps onto the field, turns around to me and says, 'Hey coach,' and I go, 'Yeah?' 'I can't hit the broadside of a barn today, so if that guy's not wide open, I'm gonna run every play.'"
Martin laughed. An admitted hothead, Martin would be screaming at Cullen one minute, chuckling the next.
Finnerty held true to his word, rushing three times on the drive, including the 4-yard touchdown scramble that proved the winner in the 17-14 triumph over Northwest Missouri State. Finnerty rushed eight times in the quarter, and 22 times for the game, picking up 132 yards.
For his career, Finnerty was 51-4, winning his final 28 games. He missed just one start. He threw for 10,905 yards and rushed for 2,370, becoming the first Division II quarterback in the 10,000/2,000 club. His 13,275 total yards were third-most in Division II history when his career ended, his 110 touchdown passes were eighth-most, and he finished with 141 total touchdowns.
"He was kind of a normal kid to me off the field," Martin said of his 6-foot-3, 235-pound quarterback. "You put him on the field, he was Superman — like Clark Kent stepping out of a phone booth."
He went undrafted out of college, but signed with the Baltimore Ravens in 2007, spending most of the season on the practice squad before a late-season promotion to the active roster. The next year, he briefly was with the Denver Broncos, before spending a season playing in Austria, and one more in Muskegon in something called the Continental Indoor Football League. His football career was over after 2009, but the legacy and the legend lives on.
"When I think of him, other than the last time I saw him," said Martin, "there's always a smile on my face."
'Hell and back'
Finnerty had a good life once his football career ended. He was close with his siblings — older brother Tim, younger brother Brendan, and sister Courtney, as will as his parents, Tim and Maureen. His brothers enjoyed getting together for beers, especially in California, where Brendon was living at the time. He married Jennifer. They had two children, a boy, Caden, now 8, and a girl, Makinley, now 5. He had a good job, in orthopedic medical-device sales, living in Howell.
But Finnerty also struggled with opioid addiction — stemming from a back injury, the origin of which was either golf or weight-lifting, Tim's not quite sure. He thought about back surgery, but given he had two young kids and the recovery time would be significant, he opted against it. In any event, the addiction briefly sent Cullen to rehab in 2011, but he relapsed not long after, and multiple times it led to frightening episodes involving disorientation and paranoia.
Once, in 2012, Finnerty was hanging out with friends in Detroit when he called Tim.
"He's calling me and freaking out, thinking someone is chasing him," Tim said. "At the time, Cullen was the most level-headed dude. If you needed something done that was just impossible, like winning these national-championship games, you wanted the ball to be in his hands.
"A week or two before, I left my wallet and cell phone somewhere, he gets on his iPad and finds it in two seconds, with GPS. If you needed anything done, he was the guy. For him to be super-paranoid ..."
Then came May 2013.
One week, the family was gathered together in celebration, as Brendon was becoming the godfather to Cullen's daughter, a few months old at the time. The brothers played darts in the basement. Around midnight, Cullen got out his inflatable pontoon boat and took a spin around his pond.
The next week, he was gone.
It was Memorial Day weekend, and the Finnertys were in northwest Michigan, about 65 miles from Grand Rapids, for a holiday get-together at Jennifer's parents place.
He went missing in the woods Sunday, May 27. There were a couple brief and alarming calls between Finnerty and relatives, during which he seemed scared of something. Meanwhile, not knowing any of this and back in Brighton, Tim Finnerty was at a holiday bonfire, and, "Just had a feeling. I was just, like, off." Early the following morning, Memorial Day, Tim received a phone call from his father, asking if he'd spoken to Cullen.
The family sped to Baldwin, through a torrential downpour. A large search commenced Tuesday, and Martin, then offensive coordinator for Kelly at Notre Dame, was among the dozens who were there. Volunteers were sent into the woods in groups, in organized fashion. One of the last groups of the day, as night started to fall, included Martin, Anes and Anes' wife, Lindsay.
"We go over a small hill, and right when we go over the hill, Curt Anes' wife screams," Martin said. "And Cullen's laying right there.
"I'll never forget that."
Said brother Tim, who was out searching with his father when his mother called saying Cullen was dead: "We've been through hell and back a million times."
The saga made national news, including a lengthy, descriptive piece in the New York Times.
The official autopsy ruled Finnerty died of pneumonia caused by the inhaling of vomit, after becoming disoriented in the woods. The autopsy found painkillers in his system, and also ruled he had a degenerative brain disease — chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, which has been found in a number of former football players. His brain also was studied at Boston University, which ruled CTE was "moderate."
The funeral, Tuesday, June 4, was attended by a who's-who of the Grand Valley community, as well as Kelly, then about to start his fourth year at Notre Dame.
Late last month, Jennifer Finnerty filed a lawsuit against the NCAA, joining three other families of deceased college football players. They claim concussions led to premature deaths. Finnerty's family was stunned by the lawsuit, and wanted no part of it. They don't believe concussions caused his death, said brother Tim, who said Cullen only was diagnosed with one concussion in college, and that Grand Valley trainers and doctors treated him accordingly. Sadly, Tim said, the suit has caused tension in the family.
Jennifer Finnerty politely declined an interview with The News, other than to say in a text message, "I would love for your writeup to share with people that while he was a great athlete on the football field, I remember him as so much more. He is dearly missed."
Jennifer Finnerty plans to attend Friday night.
Brother Tim Finnerty will accept the honor of Cullen's behalf.
"I told my Dad after the lawsuit, 'How is this making anything better? When are we ever going to be able to move forward?'" Tim Finnerty told The News earlier this month, in similar remarks to a lengthy Facebook post he had written shortly after the NCAA lawsuit was filed. "Five years later, and it still feels like it's last week. We'll never be able to fully heal from this. We should all be enjoying and remembering Cullen for what he was, how great of a guy he was, and how fun-loving he was. ...
"This was our Superman."
Michigan Sports Hall of Fame
What: 2018 induction ceremony
When: 6 Friday
Where: Sound Board at MotorCity Casino Hotel
Inductees: B.J. Armstrong, Daedra Charles-Furlow, Charlie Coles, Todd "T.J." Duckett, Cullen Finnerty, Kate Sobrero Markgraf, Robert Porcher and Mick McCabe
Tickets: $25, available at mshof.org