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Cullen Finnerty (Long Read)

  • New York Times
    June 8, 2013
    Questions Linger About Death of Former Quarterback
    By GREG BISHOP
    BALDWIN, Mich. — The search started the night of May 26, a Sunday, when Cullen Finnerty went missing in the woods here, amid towering white pines and shrubby scrub oak trees and owls and white-tailed deer. By Monday morning, helicopters circled overhead as cadaver dogs combed through the brush below.

    By that Tuesday, the search party had ballooned to include 13 officers from Lake County, 22 reserve officers, almost 100 local volunteers and so many friends and family members that the assembled lost count. They fanned out in small groups, separated by 100 yards, walking the same direction, crossing square-mile sections of the Webber Township grid. Some waded through waist-high swamps. Others fought through dense foliage.

    As darkness approached on Tuesday, there was one final section the authorities planned to check that day. Finnerty had been missing for nearly 48 hours. The group closest to the nearest road, near enough to hear cars purr as they drove past, assumed it would never find him as it stamped through backyards, past trailers and huts and cabins and deer blinds.

    Among that group stood Chuck Martin, Finnerty’s football coach at Grand Valley State, now the offensive coordinator at Notre Dame, and Curt Anes, the quarterback Finnerty succeeded. The group pushed through branches, into a clearing.

    Anes’s wife, Lindsay, was between Martin and her husband.

    “Oh, my God,” she said, voice rising. “Oh, my God!”

    Martin’s gaze shot in that direction, and there lay Finnerty, face down, arms at his side, wearing olive waders and a camouflage jacket. It was 7:40 p.m. Lindsay Anes dropped to her knees. Her husband fought the urge to turn Finnerty over and embrace him. As the police rushed in, the group slogged back to the road.

    “Is this really happening?” Curt Anes asked over and over again.

    One search had ended. Another, the search for answers, had begun.

    So little about Finnerty’s death made sense. Here was perhaps the most successful quarterback in college football history, a three-time national champion who was crowned the Division II player of the decade by one Web site. He was 30, married, the father of two children, one age 2 and the other 3 months. One week earlier, the family had gathered for his daughter’s baptism. On Memorial Day weekend, he accompanied his wife’s family on vacation.

    None of it made sense. How he complained of headaches and restless sleep in the days before he disappeared. How he went fishing by himself. How he ended up dead not much more than 100 yards from a road, out in the open, about half a mile west of where he docked his pontoon boat.

    His last two phone calls proved most haunting. One was to his wife, the other from his brother-in-law. Family members said that in both, Finnerty sounded panicked. He said he was uncomfortable. He said he ran into two men on the Baldwin River. He thought they might be following him.

    Finnerty was 6 feet 2 inches. He weighed about 240 pounds. He ran to fights, not away from them. Friends called him Superman and Rambo, and yet his final known actions did not square with the life he lived.

    Here was a man widely described as fearless — whose last known words were spoken in fear.

    A Singular College Career

    After Martin dropped his son at school on Tuesday morning, he heard from friends who sounded optimistic. The police had not found Finnerty in the river. They hoped he was hiding in the woods.

    Martin called his wife.

    “You’re going, right?” she asked him.

    “I’m going,” he said.

    Martin stopped home, grabbed his boots and pointed his car toward Baldwin. The player he called Crazy Horse and Knucklehead and Vinnie Barbarino was out there somewhere, alone, he thought, afraid. Martin was certain he would find him, and then it would all make sense.

    Finnerty grew up in Brighton, Mich. He arrived at Grand Valley State in 2002, after a short failed stint at Toledo the year before. He played quarterback, but with broad shoulders and a chest as wide as Lake Michigan, he looked and acted more like a linebacker. Most quarterbacks skip the bench press when they audition for professional scouts. When his chance came, Finnerty did 25 repetitions at 225 pounds, the most that year for any quarterback.

    Martin nearly benched Finnerty his sophomore season but decided instead to stop coaching him like a quarterback and let him be himself. Finnerty scoffed when coaches instructed him to slide and avoid defenders, offended by the very idea. He wore the quarterback’s usual red jersey in practice, so defenders would not tackle him, and yet he charged their way, arm extended or shoulder lowered. He wanted to hit. He wanted to be hit. His style reminded teammates of a blender, turned on, blades churning and chopping. He was Tim Tebow before Tim Tebow.

    “He was the only quarterback in the history of football who would want to go knock the daylights out of somebody,” Martin said. He leaned forward inside a meeting room at Notre Dame and smiled. “Everybody spends their life trying to protect their quarterback. Not Finnerty. No one loved contact, the physical part of football, more than him.”

    Before home games at Grand Valley State’s Lubbers Stadium, Finnerty led the Lakers from the locker room as air horns sounded in the crowd. His teammates followed him across the field to the student section, where he jumped into the arms of fans for a “Lubbers Leap.”

    None of the usual coaching methods worked with Finnerty. Martin yelled at him more than anyone else, and most times, Finnerty agreed with the criticism. “I can’t believe I missed him!” he would say of an open receiver. When nerves frayed on the sideline, Finnerty filled the silence with a laugh that bordered on obnoxious. He nicknamed everyone — he addressed Martin as Chucky instead of Coach — and wrapped even the university president in a suffocating bear hug.

    Finnerty passed for nearly 11,000 yards and ran for more than 2,000 in his career. He won championships as a redshirt freshman, a junior and a senior. He went 28-0 his last two seasons. Children wore his No. 16 jersey for Halloween. He took the freshmen out to dinner every Thursday and showed up to parties clad in skintight, youth-size jerseys and played all four “Rambo” movies on long team bus rides, shouting “John J. Rambo!” from the back of the bus.

    The Neck Roll story ranked among his finest. Before his senior season, Finnerty persuaded all the freshman quarterbacks to wear old neck rolls, the kind that linebackers used to have, atop their shoulder pads. This was, he swore to them, tradition. Except Finnerty, in true Finnerty fashion, screwed the neck rolls on the shoulder pads.

    Todd Kolster, then the quarterbacks coach, spied Finnerty on the ground, in hysterics, and suggested that Martin would be upset.

    “I know,” Finnerty said. “It’s going to be great.”

    Finnerty pushed through an entire playoff run with a broken collarbone. He played through an elbow injury. One defensive lineman left cleat marks on his head, and he spent part of another game spitting up blood. He missed one half of one game because of an injury. He never missed a practice.

    Such machismo only endeared him to his teammates, only bolstered his growing legend. Before his final game, the 2006 championship, he finished second to Danny Woodhead in the Harlon Hill voting, Division II’s version of the Heisman Trophy. Upset, jumpy, he sprayed errant passes all over the field. Martin stopped calling pass plays, opting for quarterback runs instead.

    Finnerty carried 22 times for 115 yards. He scored the winning touchdown. He finished with a 51-4 career record as a starter, a mark that did not include his first game, when he missed the first series throwing up on the sideline.

    Those teams cemented the Grand Valley State dynasty, and a sign went up next to the scoreboard. Winningest program in Division II history, it read. If the team was an atom, Finnerty was its nucleus, the player that most typified its success.

    “What he went through,” Kolster said, “the pressure he dealt with, the way he handled himself, everything he did, nobody has done it the way he did. At any level.”

    As Kolster talked last week, an American flag flew at half-staff outside the football field.

    Troubling Phone Calls

    To find the Lake County Sheriff Department, drive north from Grand Rapids, then west on U.S. Route 10. Drive past the billboard advertising “year-round fun,” past the closed restaurants and boarded-up houses, past the Tin Cup Trailhead, the Shrine of the Pines sign and the Cattail Cafe.

    On the last Friday in May, a couple came to report a stolen butterfly sign. Lost dog posters hung from the wall, next to homemade bail bonds advertisements. Dennis Robinson, the undersheriff, settled behind his desk after lunch, surrounded by trophies with dog figurines on top, which he had accumulated for canine training.

    The first call about Cullen Finnerty came in on May 26, around 10:30 p.m. Finnerty’s family had dropped him off at the Bray Creek State Forest Campground a few hours earlier. When they returned to retrieve him, his boat was there.

    He was not.

    People end up lost in those woods on a regular basis, Robinson said, a few times annually.

    “Normally, folks will walk around for a day or so, and then we’ll bring them out, and they’re fine except for some scratches and bug bites,” Robinson said. “This was not a normal outcome.”

    Lake County officials called the state police to marshal resources. Three officers walked the nearby creeks and rivers, poking in the holes underneath the banks. Helicopters flew over an area of 16 square miles.

    Officers found a vest, though relatives did not believe it belonged to Finnerty. They also found footprints a mile and a half north of where he was dropped off. They had a phone company ping his cellphone, and the results came back as far as three miles south and five miles north. Still no answers. Only questions.

    The family lingered on the phone calls, the pain Finnerty reported in his left arm and jaw, the hour or two he slept each night that weekend. He always slept longer than anyone else. Sometimes, they called him Mr. Nap.

    Finnerty answered his phone for the last time at 9:36 p.m. Sunday. The police said the call lasted about 20 seconds.

    “I don’t know where I am,” he told his brother-in-law, according to family members.

    This brought to mind an incident from December 2011, the other time Finnerty’s actions could not be explained, the only time his older brother, Tim, had ever seen him scared. Finnerty was out in Detroit with co-workers. He thought he was being followed. In a fit of paranoia, he drove to Tim’s home in Grand Rapids, more than 150 miles away.

    Nobody was behind him.

    “He was not himself,” Tim said.

    The family says it does not blame football for Finnerty’s death. Some even resent the speculation that it played a role. But his siblings do wonder, after all the stories about head injuries, after all the research into concussions and their cumulative effect, especially with the way Finnerty played football, the way he craved contact and hid injuries from the trainers.

    Grand Valley State sent Finnerty’s medical records to the authorities. He had one diagnosed concussion, in his redshirt freshman season, when a defender wrestled him down from behind and his head bounced off the ground. After the game, he stared blankly at his brothers, eyes vacant.

    “For real serious concussions, I’d have to guess and say maybe four or five,” his younger brother, Brendan, said. “But realistically, it was probably dozens. You know, football. Hard impacts to the head.”

    Now those dots have been loosely connected, placed in a larger pattern, disputed by the aura of invincibility Finnerty exuded. Last year, he signed up for a Tough Mudder run. He jogged no more than one mile at a time in training. He finished it anyway, a 13-plus-mile obstacle course.

    In the year since, his back had stiffened. He was prescribed oxycodone for two herniated disks, according to his siblings, although in recent months, he had told them his back felt better. He was weaning off the medication, ready to return to the gym.

    The family said that researchers at Brown University were examining his brain. Coaches and teammates refused to believe that Finnerty fit any sort of pattern. They noted the rush to blame all the ills of retired players on concussions.

    “Some people like to speculate,” Finnerty’s father, Tim Sr., said. “This and that. This and that. It’s meaningless. I come in the door at his home, and I see his son, and he’s looking for his daddy. I lost my son. My wife lost her son. It’s devastating.”

    An Enduring Toughness

    Dead? Not Cullen Finnerty. Anyone but Cullen Finnerty. He fell off a zip line once, perhaps 30 feet to the ground, and stood up unscathed while his neighbors scrambled to call 911. Despite the nerves that churned before his first college game, he was soon napping before kickoffs, oblivious to pressure. Each time he scored, he posed like Superman, hands on hips, twisting back and forth.

    This comforted those who drove toward Baldwin, from Chicago and Detroit and so many points in between. Finnerty seemed invincible. Finnerty was invincible. The first time he rode a BMX bike, he launched off jumps. The first time he tried golf, he scored the lowest round in his party. In one football game, a defender turned Finnerty’s helmet sideways, but he scrambled away and tossed the ball 50 yards down field, helmet askew, vision partly blocked. Touchdown.

    Finnerty was big. Powerful. Broad. Strong. Tough. A Ford truck commercial sprung to life. John Wayne in shoulder pads. He landed in trouble his redshirt freshman season when he stalked to a campus fraternity house. According to the recollection of several people familiar with the incident, Finnerty asked seven members of the fraternity which of them had attacked a teammate. When no one responded, he promised to go after all seven, and when he started for them, two jumped off the nearest balcony. (He was disciplined for the incident.)

    The Finnertys passed such toughness down through the generations. Cullen reminded siblings of his grandfather, Patrick, the toughest Finnerty of all, a former Golden Gloves champion and union leader who served in World War II. Even as Patrick Finnerty fought stomach cancer, he showed up for football games and practices and vacations. The boys called him Boom Pa. He died in 1998.

    Football also connected the generations. Tim Finnerty Sr. played for Bill McCartney — who would win a national championship at the University of Colorado — in high school and became a coach in 1975. He never asked his three sons whether they wanted to play football. It was assumed. Cullen joined his first team in the third grade.

    His football career became an excuse for the family to gather and travel. It was the thread that connected them. When Cullen won, they all won. Brendan and their younger sister, Courtney, followed Cullen to Grand Valley State. Brendan played defensive back for the football team. Naturally, his brother charged at him in practice.

    “We could have just as well been a bowling team,” Tim Sr. said. “But it was something that brought us all together. Football did.”

    When the family gathered for his daughter’s baptism, after all the Irish step dancing, Cullen dragged his brothers outside. He wanted to show off his new boat, the bench in the middle flanked by pontoons on each side. He seemed so proud of that little boat. Around midnight, he paddled around the small pond in his backyard and emerged with his rear end soaked.

    The night Cullen Finnerty disappeared, Tim Jr. attended a bonfire and became overcome with emotion for no reason, at least none that he could figure out. His father called the next morning. Tim Jr. screamed and cried and sped toward the woods.

    Brendan, who lives in California, packed only survival gear. They all assumed the same thing. Cullen was hiding in a deer blind, a trailer, an abandoned house. They would find him.

    “Some people talked about him getting abducted,” Martin, Finnerty’s college coach, said, as he waved his hand dismissively. “There would have been a standoff. There would have been a quick resolution if that happened.”

    Instead, the search dragged on. Two separate local residents e-mailed the undersheriff with a clue. Finnerty, they wrote, had been spooked by Bigfoot.

    Life After Football

    Across the street from the campground where Finnerty docked his boat, Dave Kibbey owns a 10-acre parcel of land. He purchased it two Easters ago as a getaway, a place to camp. He fishes for trout nearby.

    On the final Sunday in May, Kibbey sat with his wife outside their camper. They heard yelling around dusk. The owls were out that night. They heard fireworks in the distance. He figured it was all part of the holiday weekend festivities.

    On Monday morning, the campground was filled with cars. That particular campground, he said, is never full, not even during the annual Blessing of the Bikes festival that can draw thousands of bikers to Baldwin. Kibbey introduced himself to a woman with blond hair. She was Finnerty’s wife, Jennifer. She looked distraught.

    Kibbey followed all the news reports, some of which speculated that Finnerty went north from the campground, into the woods. That would be Kibbey’s property, or the properties right next to it, where he cut through the brush last weekend. Pinecones and brown leaves and tree branches snapped as he walked, the ground spongy underfoot. Signs hung everywhere, tacked to the trees.

    In block capital letters, they read KEEP OUT. Or: NO TRESPASSING.

    None of the reports made sense, Kibbey thought. They said Finnerty walked more than a half mile north, and if that was true, he would have traversed all of Kibbey’s property. He would have hit another road. If he followed Bray Creek northeast, he could have hit a conservation property, which is lined with low-slung barbed wire. He would have run into something, someone, in any direction he walked.

    Kibbey tried to imagine where Finnerty had died. How he arrived there. What went through his mind. He wondered if he stumbled into methamphetamine activity, or into the wrong backyard.

    “It’s so hard to actually get lost in there,” Kibbey said.

    Thing was, the quarterback who was lost in those woods had found himself in recent years. He had carved himself a life post football.

    Before, Finnerty clung to football. He signed with the Baltimore Ravens as an undrafted free agent in 2007 and later latched on with the Denver Broncos for a short stint. He went to Europe and joined the Cineplexx Blue Devils in Austria. He became their starter and earned most valuable player honors in a league championship victory, after he threw for three touchdowns, ran for another and kicked a field goal against the Swiss national team. He went back to Grand Valley State to finish his business degree.

    While there, he signed with an indoor football team called the Muskegon Thunder. They played their games in small hockey rinks. Throws that sailed high collided with various ceilings. This was low-level arena football, and while his family attended every game, they felt embarrassed by how far their champion had fallen. Not Cullen.

    “It didn’t matter how ridiculous it was,” Brendan Finnerty said. “He was that competitive.”

    Finnerty met his wife, a former all-state volleyball player, in Grand Rapids. Family members described her the same way as her husband: unwilling to cede an inch. They married in 2010, and Finnerty shook and cried as he stood at the altar, this big man, this big-game, big-time quarterback, shaken by nerves. His older brother gave the best-man speech. “Something along the lines of, Well, this big meathead right here, he’s lucky he found you because he’s no longer getting into bar fights,” Tim said.

    The couple had two children, Caden and Makinley. Finnerty missed on a series of job interviews but eventually landed a gig in medical sales. He purchased a house in Howell, near Brighton. His Catholic faith and his Irish heritage, always important, now helped fill the void left when his playing days ended.

    In mid-May, there was the gathering for the baptism of Makinley, the daughter Finnerty called Little Princess. Husband and wife argued playfully over Caden’s batting stance. He wore one of his Grand Valley State championship rings and slow danced with Brendan in the kitchen. (His mother, Maureen, would later note it had been his last dance.) If he was being honest, Brendan felt pangs of jealousy at the life his brother had built.

    They all retreated downstairs, into the basement, for a game of darts. Jennifer won. Her husband said he needed some air and stepped outside.

    His job responsibilities had grown in recent months, and that had increased his stress. He called his mother and brothers for reassurance. Then he got the promotion, and he felt better, and he went up to Baldwin, up to the woods on vacation with his wife’s family.

    When Finnerty disappeared, Grand Valley State sent a bus of coaches and players and staff to look for him. Perhaps as many as 300 people came in all, until eventually the authorities had to turn some away. Older alumni set up a tent for food and water. Mostly, though, they waited. That was frustrating. Tension surfaced with the police, who were overwhelmed by the number of volunteers, who needed to keep the areas clear for the dogs and helicopters. The volunteers stood more than they searched.

    Tim Jr. rode with his father around the woods. His mother called.

    “Cullen’s dead,” she said.

    His father drove 100 more yards and pulled over. Both men climbed outside and fell to the ground. “I haven’t stopped sobbing since,” Tim Jr. said.

    Finnerty’s body went to the Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital in Grand Rapids. An autopsy ruled out a heart attack. Robinson said there was no indication of foul play, no bruises, no cuts — no answers. He expected more test results that week. On Thursday, though, he sent an e-mail that said, “There is no new information at this time.”

    The Lingering Questions

    The family held the viewing Monday, less than a week after the search ended, at St. Mary Magdalen Parish in Brighton, their hometown, about 45 minutes outside Detroit. Pictures of Finnerty — in his uniform, at his wedding, with his children, with the boxer Sugar Ray Leonard — lined the walls.

    Chuck Martin came. So did Brian Kelly, now the coach at Notre Dame who coached Finnerty and hired Martin at Grand Valley State. Both approached the gray coffin with silver handles and knelt before it. They made the sign of the cross and said goodbye.

    Grand Valley State alumni met that night, at Buffalo Wild Wings. Martin organized and paid for the affair. So many stories surfaced, none more popular than that of the neck roll.

    Eventually, Finnerty’s father settled at a table outside, the conversation meandering in all sorts of directions. He kept a few hundred letters his son received from college coaches. He remembered when Notre Dame said it did not have a scholarship, after Michigan State had already pulled its offer. His son kicked extra points and field goals in high school with his left foot. He could have played college soccer. He was the friendliest guy around, his father said, the best father.

    “I wish he was here to talk to you,” Tim Sr. said. “He would smile. He would tell you to write about someone else. You would see the kind of guy he is.”

    He paused.

    “The kind of guy he was.”

    The funeral was Tuesday. A helmet and jersey from Grand Valley State adorned the coffin. The Rev. Dan O’Sullivan, Finnerty’s great-uncle, officiated, same as when he married Cullen and Jennifer, same as when he baptized their daughter. More than 1,000 people filled the church.

    Tim Jr. gave the eulogy, his mother by his side. Cullen, he said, “had a way of making you feel protected and safe.” A friend walked quickly out of the church, unable to contain his sobs.

    Martin spoke last. He told the neck roll story. He said he had received a text message from his nephew, who typed that Cullen was his idol.

    “He was my idol, too,” Martin said he had written back.

    The longer Martin stood behind the lectern, the more the assembled laughed, the more they cried, the more they forgot about all questions that surrounded the death of Finnerty and remembered the wisecracks and the savage bear hugs, the nicknames and the practical jokes. Martin noted that everyone loves star quarterbacks. This star quarterback, he said, loved everyone instead. “Not many people change a whole university,” Martin said. “And he did. He changed a university forever.”

    The family returned to the woods on Wednesday. They retraced what was known of Cullen’s final moments. Brendan floated the pontoon boat down the river as his father and brother walked alongside the bank. They found Cullen’s fishing line stuck in an overhanging tree.

    Then they went into the woods, state-owned land where one local resident, David Tuttle, said he hunted deer with a bow and arrow from a tree blind held up on stilts. He saw a black bear in there once, but he too could not understand how Finnerty had died in an open clearing, so close to the road.

    “It’s so close, it’s eerie,” he said.

    The family wanted closure. They wanted to understand what happened to Cullen Finnerty, or attempt to. Since his death, they found out that he donated money to an orphanage without telling anyone. That he sent cash to a friend with cancer. That he stopped and helped coach random soccer practices. That his jersey might be retired.

    They set up a memorial trust fund for his children, but they did not find the answer they most sought, not immediately. The initial autopsy was inconclusive, the toxicology report negative. There was no explanation for how he died, not in the week that followed. His death remained a mystery, even as it revealed a fuller portrait of his life.

    “I don’t know,” Tim Jr. said, “if we’ll ever know.”

  • What aan, what a story. Thanks for sharing. May God bless the finnerty family and may Cullen rest in peace.

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  • I been following this story pretty closely. Thanks for posting the article. tragic.....bizarre event.

    I fish the river right there several times a year - it will never be the same.

    This post was edited by ebeamish 10 months ago

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