Cullen Finnerty was found dead in May of this year after he disappeared on a solo fishing trip while on a family vacation, less than 100 yards from a road near Baldwin, Michigan. He had been dropped off to go fishing for a few hours, and when the family returned to pick him up, the boat was there but he was not. The circumstances surrounding the death were confusing; he was just a short distance from civilization, even if he got lost, and there were no signs of foul play.
Of course, the circumstances reflected the possibility of someone plagued by the symptoms of head trauma, and the possibility that his involvement as the star quarterback and three time national champion at Grand Valley State was part of the puzzle.
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.
The New York Times now has the follow up. According to the autopsy performed by the Lake County Sheriff’s Department, Finnerty died of pneumonia complicated by oxycodone toxicity and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, commonly referred to as C.T.E. It is the same diagnosis that has been made post-mortem on former NFL players like Dave Duerson and Junior Seau.
Finnerty was taking the oxycodone for a back injury. The pneumonia diagnosis was caused by Finnerty becoming incapacitated, vomiting, and inhaling his own vomit.
Finnerty was described as a tough guy playing quarterback in that earlier NY Times story at the time of his death. He sought out contact, and was a multi-purpose threat who ran for over 2,000 yards in college. He was the ideal; a college coach’s dream for a team leader. He did not want to slide, seeking out contact on runs. He missed one half of one game in his college career, playing through a broken collarbone, an elbow injury, and cleat marks to his head. He was also, according to the NY Times, officially diagnosed with only one concussion during college, in his redshirt freshman season.
Remember, he played a decade ago, and as recently as just a few years ago, we know that the NCAA was not diligent in enforcing or requiring schools to have concussion plans in place. His younger brother, who also played at Grand Valley State, estimates the real number was 4 or 5, “but realistically, it was probably dozens. You know, football. Hard impacts to the head.”
That earlier NY Times piece noted that the family did not blame football for what happened (“Some even resent the speculation that it played a role.”) Will that opinion change with the findings? Finnerty appears to have shown paranoia, and disorientation, and expressed difficulty with sleep in the very short time period right before his death–all symptoms that those who have later been diagnosed with C.T.E. have expressed. Wrong place at the wrong time, with no one around to help at the specific moment he needed it?
Junior Seau’s death was a shock to the public. Junior Seau also played in the NFL for two decades, after being an All-American linebacker at USC. Very few people will play that long and take that many hits; the population size can be counted on your hands. Finnerty’s story, on the other hand, should hit a lot closer to home for the average person. He had a few brief stints in camp with NFL teams, but never appeared on a NFL roster in the season. He was a star at a smaller school, not facing crushing hits in the backfield from the likes of a Clowney. According to his father, he started playing football in the third grade, as part of a football family (his dad played for Bill McCartney).
It was in his nature to seek contact and fulfill the macho aspect of the sport. That nature may have been at the root of what happened in Michigan earlier this year. He died at age 30, alone in the woods, less than a football field away from a road, in what appears to have been a horrible death. He left behind a wife, two very young kids, and plenty of questions about where we go from here.
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