By Ashley Dunkak
Eric Fowler needed to know what happened to Cullen Finnerty, and now he does.
More than two months after the mysterious death of 30-year-old Finnerty, the quarterback who led Grand Valley State to three national titles, recent reports have helped provide closure for Fowler, the wide receiver remembered as Finnerty’s favorite target.
It was almost inevitable, Finnerty and Fowler becoming like brothers. After college, Fowler moved to Texas, but both men worked in sales, and they stayed close.
When a search party found Finnerty’s body in the woods late May, with no signs of foul play, no visible injuries, Fowler wanted answers.
The idea that concussions might have contributed to his friend’s death never crossed his mind.
“There was no toxicology report, there was no CTE,” Fowler said. “There was just this role model, this rock star, this big strong guy … who had everything going for him, he was successful because he took that competitive nature from the field and applied it to his profession and work in sales, and then he’s gone, with no answer.”
When answers emerged this week, the discovery of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease connected to repeated head trauma, in Finnerty’s brain did not shock Fowler.
“It’s not surprising to me at all that people who are trying to make their living in a competitive sport where you have high collisions that you would find brain trauma,” Fowler said. “It was just surprising to me to see that that may have been a contributing factor to this death so far after the fact. We’ve been out of football, both of us, for a little while.”
The official cause of death for Finnerty was listed as pneumonia, which was contracted when Finnerty inhaled his own vomit. Oxycodone and CTE were listed as complications.
Finnerty was taking oxycodone for back pain that possibly stemmed from injuries suffered during his football career.
Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, is the degenerative brain disease that has long been known to plague former boxers but has more recently been found in football players also. The disease has been categorized into four stages. At the first level, individuals may experience headaches or have trouble concentrating. In the second stage – the one Finnerty was classified in – the symptoms include depression, explosivity and short-term memory impairment.
While Finnerty’s death still troubles Fowler, he said he can sleep a little better at night having an explanation.
“At the time of the death and the funeral, I was having a tough time, like many other people, understanding why he passed, but putting him to rest and then with the conclusions, with the findings that have come out … the toxicology report, makes a little more sense to me now,” Fowler said. “So at least now I have a plausible explanation of why colleague, my friend, is gone.”
Questions of Concussions
It is hardly newsworthy anymore when a football player’s brain is found to have CTE, but with Finnerty, it might have been even less surprising than usual.
Most quarterbacks learn to slide – take the lesser yardage, avoid the defender, preserve the body, try again next time. Finnerty always took a more rugged approach.
“Cullen wasn’t backing down from any defender ever, and the defender’s never going to back down from a quarterback,” Fowler said. “Football’s a pretty collision-heavy sport, and you can probably turn on any game tape and see Cullen taking a shot that you’d be like, ‘Oh! He probably got his bell rung there.’”
Finnerty only suffered one documented concussion at Grand Valley State, but it is likely he sustained more that went undiagnosed, probably because he always wanted to play as much as possible.
“I remember him sitting out some practices, but it’s hard to say,” Fowler said. “When the game’s on the line and you want to compete and you want to make sure you do everything in your power for your team, sometimes you put the team first, and that’s the type of guy Cullen was.”
By all accounts, Finnerty relished contact, lived to compete and loved the game of football.
“Cullen wouldn’t have traded anything in the world for the life that he led,” Fowler said. “He was a great leader, he was a positive role model to everyone around him, and he was one of the fiercest competitors that I’ve ever been around. He wouldn’t have done anything differently. The trauma that could have potentially come from the related concussions or the football-related activities, I don’t think he would have done anything differently, in his playing career or in his life.”
Playing football often comes with a cost, though. For some it is balky knees or a bad back, but more recently a string of suicides of former NFL players and frightening stories of others who deal with depression and dementia have put that sacrifice in the spotlight.
Fowler, who played three games for the Detroit Lions in 2009, said the NFL is doing all it can to protect players from head trauma, changing rules of the game, conducting seminars for players and researching CTE.
All that aside, football is an inherently violent game. Like auto racing, it cannot be cleansed of all risk – and quite frankly, that is part of the appeal, to fans and to players.
“It’s hard to have people slow down,” Fowler said. “It’s a high-intensity, high-impact, head-leading game. It’s hard to change some of those factors when you’re being paid to compete and you’re trying to earn a job and you’re trying to do everything you can. It’s just a tough dynamic.”
Fowler said Finnerty would not have changed the fact he played the game or the way he played the game. Similarly, Fowler said the occasional worrisome stories about former football players do not concern him to the point he would forbid his own children from playing.
In Fowler’s estimation – as in that of the medical examiner – Finnerty’s demise cannot be blamed on head trauma alone.
Clearly, though, getting hit in the head as much as football players do increases one’s chances of certain problems later in life. Then again, no one is being forced to play the sport, either.
“Everyone has a choice, and you understand – it’s kind of like surgery. You understand the complications associated with having some elective surgeries – but you still do so because you love to compete.”
“You’re fortunate enough to get an opportunity to play, but you do everything you can to be successful at your craft,” Fowler added. “It wouldn’t be surprising that people make sacrifices. Good, bad or indifferent, a lot of people wouldn’t change that for that opportunity they were grateful enough to receive. I know Cullen’s the same way.”
Most former football players say their time in the game was worth any injuries they suffered. Many say they do not regret playing, and many say they would do it again because they love the game, the competition, the camaraderie.
“It’s very unfortunate that [Cullen’s] gone,” Fowler said, “but he loved to compete. He was a competitor first and foremost.”
With questions resolved about how Finnerty died, Fowler and other teammates and friends of the family have turned attention to helping Finnerty’s wife and two young children.
Like Fowler, Finnerty’s football career had ended years earlier, and he worked in sales.
“He was in the process – it’s kind of ironic – he was in the process of setting up life insurance for his family,” Fowler said. “He hadn’t finished the process, so currently Jen and his family have no benefits from his professional endeavors associated with his life after football.”
To help out the family, there will be a Cullen Finnerty Fundraiser Golf Outing on Aug. 24. Almost two weeks before the event, which featured a breakfast, lunch, beer, golf, dinner, silent auction and raffle, the event filled. Over 200 people had registered. Those interested in helping Finnerty’s family financially can still donate, and information about how to go about that can be found by contacting the Cullen Finnerty Fund at firstname.lastname@example.org.