Wayne Memorial assistant football coach Tim Finnerty Jr. couldn’t see his younger brother during Monday afternoon’s practice, nor could he hear him – but he definitely could feel Cullen Finnerty.
“Oh yeah, I can feel Cullen’s presence,” said Finnerty Jr., as he watched the Zebras fine tune their kick off return formations under the guidance of Tim Finnerty Sr., who is Wayne’s new head coach and the father of Tim Jr, Cullen and Brendan. “There is no doubt in my mind – in the minds of any of the coaches out here – that Cullen would be coaching with us today if he were still alive. No doubt about it.
“But even though he’s not here physically, he’s here.”
Cullen Finnerty, a former star high school quarterback at Brighton and a Division 2 All-American signal-caller at Grand Valley State University, passed away in May of 2013 at the age of 30.
Finnerty’s premature death shocked everyone whose life had been enhanced by his energetic spirit – from his immediate family to the teammates, coaches and fans who admired his immense talents and leadership abilities.
“Cullen was the most competitive person I’ve ever met,” Tim Finnerty Jr. said, smiling. “It didn’t matter if it was football or something stupid, he wanted to win. And that’s what we’re hoping rubs off on these guys; the feeling that, hey, they deserve to win as much as anybody else, especially with all the hard work they’re putting in.”
Wayne hasn’t won a varsity football game since Oct. 2, 2009, but that didn’t dissuade Tim Finnerty Sr. from seizing the opportunity to attempt a daunting reclamation project.
“I enjoy challenges,” said Finnerty Sr., who has a remarkable 35-year football coaching resume. “Football has always been a big part of my life. To be out here coaching with Timmy and the rest of the guys feels great.”
The younger Finnerty started coaching with his dad close to a decade ago in what started out as a temporary gig.
“My dad was in charge of the Brighton junior football league and they had so many players for the 7- and 8-year-olds that they had to have two teams,” recalled Tim Jr. “He said, ‘Hey, why don’t you help us out just until we can find somebody else.’ I instantly fell in love with coaching and working with the kids and I’m still doing it today.
“My dad and I stopped coaching together about three years ago and I think we both went through kind of a withdrawal. It was kind of depressing. It feels really good to be coaching with him again, now more than ever.”
Wayne offensive line coach Caleb Bowersox grew up with Cullen Finnerty and is one of several Zebra coaches who make the half-hour trek from Brighton every day.
“Cullen was a natural as a coach,” Bowersox said. “I still use things I remember him saying at clinics.”
Bowersox said the early stages of turning around the Wayne program has been a fulfilling experience.
“It’s been a total culture change for most of these players,” he said. “We’re teaching them how to play, how to win, how to wear their equipment. They’re not used to being held accountable, at least to this degree.
“We’re showing them some tough love, but I’ll tell you what: They’re responding. The progress we’ve made in practices and at our scrimmage has been very positive.”