‘Once a Laker, always a Laker’

Senior Quarterback, Cullen Finnerty, runs the ball while the Lakers tackle North Dakota on Saturday advancing to the semifinals. GVSU defeated North Dakota 30-20.
GVL / Nicole Bernier

Senior Quarterback, Cullen Finnerty, runs the ball while the Lakers tackle North Dakota on Saturday advancing to the semifinals. GVSU defeated North Dakota 30-20. GVL / Nicole Bernier

Ryan Jarvi

The body of former Grand Valley State University championship quarterback Cullen Finnerty was found May 28 after he was reported missing for two days.

There were no signs of injuries or foul play, Lake County Sheriff Robert Hilts said. An initial autopsy did not determine the cause of death, but additional tests, including examining Finnerty’s brain, will be conducted.

“All our thoughts and prayers go out to Cullen’s family,” said GVSU President Thomas J. Haas. “I’ll always remember the victory embrace we shared on the field after the national championship game in Alabama his senior year. You can tell by the outpouring of support, and now grief, just how much this young man means to the Grand Valley community.”

Finnerty, 30, was fishing alone Sunday, May 26, near Baldwin, Mich. Family members had dropped him off near Bray Creek State Forest Campground, close to where Finnerty’s family owns a cabin. He was found Tuesday night in the woods wearing a camouflaged jacket and fishing waders less than a mile from where he disappeared.

Hilts told The Associated Press that Finnerty’s family members were worried he “might be having some kind of a mental episode,” which may have caused him to flee into the woods.

“(Finnerty) talked to his wife on the phone and told her he had concerns about people following him and he was getting off the river,” Lake County Undersheriff Dennis Robinson told the Ludington Daily News.

Finnerty led GVSU to multiple NCAA Division II championships in 2003, 2005 and 2006 and became one of the most successful quarterbacks in college history. He was married and left behind two children.

A ‘Grand’ Effort

Matt Mitchell, head coach of the Laker football team, organized a search-crew, which included current and former team members and staff of the football program, to join authorities in an effort to find Finnerty.

Tim Nott, associate athletic director at GVSU, said he believes that decision was a just natural reaction.

“When you’re part of a close-knit unit like a football team, and the history this program has built over the years, it wouldn’t matter if it was Cullen,” Nott said. “It wouldn’t matter if it was a guy that didn’t really see the field. The football alums are a very close-knit group (and) they take care of each other.”

Individuals from the search-crew included former players from every decade since GVSU has had a football program.

“There were guys that played on the first team that were up there looking,” Nott said.
Nott was in South Carolina May 27 with the GVSU baseball team and didn’t know what to think when he heard Finnerty was missing.

“Initially you’re hoping he just got lost, or his boat broke down,” he said. “You’re hoping he’s doing the right things for survival in the wilderness…(but) after 24 hours you start to really worry.”

Nott remained in touch with members of the football team and staff as they updated him on the progression of the search and the finding of the body.

“Obviously you’re heartbroken for the family, the wife and kids,” he said.
The ‘Legend’

On the field, Finnerty was a great leader and one of the fiercest competitors Nott has seen in sports, and off the field he was a good kid.

“He was a normal college student who liked to have fun,” Nott said. “He liked hanging out with friends. He went to college with a good group of guys that remained close.”

Brad Iciek, former quarterback for GVSU who knew Finnerty and was involved in the search, said it was like going on a mission.

“You’re a team, you’re still a team, you’re always a team,” Iciek said. “Once a Laker, always a Laker. And that’s how it was. We had no doubt in our mind that we were going to find him, and we were going to stay up there until we did.”

Curt Anes, another former Laker quarterback, said he last saw Finnerty at a football game last year.
“Leaving a family fatherless,” Anes said. “That’s what rips me up… It’s so surreal. Your mind knows it, but your heart doesn’t know how to receive it.”

Many people described Finnerty as having a great personality with an easy laugh.

Blake Smolen, former wide receiver for GVSU, said Finnerty threw him his first touchdown.

“He’s going to live here at Grand Valley forever,” Smolen said. “The guy is a legend, you can’t say anything else. The stuff he did here is just, I mean, it hasn’t been done anywhere else in the country at any level. I don’t care what you say—the guy—he’s a legend.”

Bill Brechin, current GVSU wide receivers coach, was also a teammate of Finnerty.

“Had he not won three championships, had he not had the success that he had on the field, we still would have all come together and looked for him,” Brechin said. “This was above football. This was above anything that the football program has done. This was about Cullen Finnerty and the person he was.”

Specific plans for honoring Finnerty’s memory haven’t been formalized yet, but there will likely be discussions, Nott said. For now, they just want to give the family some time.
[email protected]