MANHATTAN, Kan. — What might have been? It’s a question we all ask.
By KELLIS ROBINETT
The Kansas City Star
Most of us do it out of regret. We close our eyes and fantasize about a better life, convinced a single change in our past could transform the present. We create alternate universes that are visible but always out of reach.
B.J. Finney is guilty of this. He lost his father to a heart attack nine years ago. How could he not wonder? Still, he tries not to do it out of regret … quite the opposite. He does it to remind himself how well things turned out.
One moment Finney often thinks about was during his senior year at Andale High near Wichita. He was a standout offensive lineman and a state champion wrestler. He had several college choices, but he wanted to play football at Ohio University.
Playing major-college football was a lifelong dream, and he was ready to chase it for the only program offering a Division I scholarship. He hoped to commit while visiting the school. But that chance disappeared before he got to the airport.
News came that Ohio had run out of scholarships. Another offensive lineman had taken Finney’s spot. He was too late.
That left him with three undesirable options: He could accept a wrestling scholarship and say goodbye to the sport he loved. He could accept a football scholarship at Division II Pittsburg State. Or he could walk on at Kansas State, putting incredible financial strain on his family.
At the time, Finney felt cheated. But looking back, he thinks fate led him down an ideal path.
Without that series of events, he would not be where he is today, a center and a two-time captain who has 26 starts for Kansas State and a scholarship before the start of his junior year, which began Saturday with the opening of fall camp.
“There was obviously a divine power at work,” Finney says. “How else can you explain it? You can’t help but look back on the situation and wonder what happened? I am very blessed and very happy where I am.”
Finney is the epitome of K-State’s walk-on program. The Wildcats have a long history of transforming overlooked high school athletes into successful scholarship players under Bill Snyder, but few have climbed the ladder more rapidly than Finney.
He was promoted to scholarship status after one redshirt year on the scout team. Then, in 2011, Finney began the season in the starting lineup. He hasn’t left it since and is now considered one of the nation’s best centers.
“I saw the same thing you see right now,” Snyder says when asked what convinced him to give Finney a scholarship so quickly. “Everything was in place. He was an intelligent player and he worked at it diligently and had some success. When you have players who do all that you want to reward them. That is kind of the nature of our program.”
There are several other reasons for Finney’s rise, of course. His work ethic and stamina set him apart. He has the strength to push defenders off the line and the speed to play tight end, even at 6 feet 4 and 303 pounds. He is also smart enough to quickly learn a new offense and vocal enough to challenge teammates when others won’t.
Finney thinks that all played a part. But outside factors also sped up the process.
When Finney decided to walk on at K-State, his mother offered an ultimatum: Earn a scholarship in one year. She couldn’t afford to pay for college any longer than that.
“When I came in over the summer, there was no time to waste,” Finney says, “It was come in, work hard, make sure I was noticed and earn that scholarship faster than it was projected.”
And if he failed?
“I would be somewhere else right now,” Finney says. “I had gone the first year and we paid my tuition so we wouldn’t go in to debt, but that pretty much emptied my account and my mom’s account. So if I hadn’t gotten (a scholarship) by December before we went to the Cotton Bowl, I would have had to transfer.”
Finney’s mother, Christy, could take credit for pushing her son down an accelerated path, but she won’t.
She was simply being honest with her son when she offered the ultimatum. She works two jobs in the Andale school district and shares a house with her sister and daughter. She is a secretary at the elementary school during the day and a bus driver in the mornings and afternoons.
She used to have a corporate job in Wichita “making a hell of a lot more money,” but she switched jobs to be closer to her children after her husband died. She is the mother of three daughters and B.J., the youngest of the group.
Her new job had perks. When B.J. was in high school, Christy drove the wrestling team to meets and the football team to games. She was getting paid to spend time with her son, what could be better?
“I absolutely love being around the kids,” she says. “They keep me young. I love the energy. I love seeing their sleepy faces in the morning when they get on the bus. It’s just a great job.”
B.J. wasn’t about to ask his mother to change jobs, and the busy life of a college football player didn’t leave much time for a job of his own. But he also adored K-State.
Even though B.J. had scholarship offers from other programs, and a walk-on offer from Kansas, he was elated when Snyder invited him to the program. B.J. grew up a huge K-State fan, watching the Wildcats at home on Saturday afternoons and idolizing Snyder for guiding them to six 11-win seasons from 1997 to 2003.
“He really wanted to go to K-State, just not as a walk-on,” Christy says. “That’s what he ended up deciding to do, but it wasn’t an easy decision. …
“Coach Snyder made it a little easier. I would never have let him walk on for anybody other than Snyder. We knew he would teach him how to be a man and a better person on and off the field.”
Another calming factor: B.J. told his mother at a young age that he would play for K-State in the national championship game. You see, he’s good at setting goals and then reaching them.
Christy likes to tell the story of how B.J. won his first state wrestling championship at the youth level. It starts when he was 8. He finished sixth and watched as the top three wrestlers in his division were given medals at a disco-themed award ceremony. When it was over, B.J. told his mother he would be on that stage the following year.
“He worked his tail off all year at practice,” Finney’s mother says. “He put a calendar up in his room and wrote the words ‘state wrestling’ and ‘first place’ all over it. Sure enough, he won state the next year. I wrote him a letter and put it in my Bible. Just recently I gave it to him. I was so proud. He had a dream and did the work to get it done. He does the same thing today.”
Finney can recite the date before you try to ask — Oct. 18, 2004, the day his father died.
B.J. and his father were as close as a father and son can be. They were the only males in the family and they shared the same name — Benjamin J. Finney. His parents had more creative names picked out when they were young, but they kept having daughters. By the time Finney was born they decided dad would go by “J” and son would go by B.J.
Finney gets his size from his father, a former high school athlete who coached Finney when he was first getting into sports. They did everything together. They played sports, hunted deer and set off nearly $2,000 worth of fireworks every July. Dad worked overtime for months to pay for that holiday tradition.
His death hit the family hard. B.J. Finney was just 13.
“After that, my mom had this big fear that if anything happens in the family, she would be at work and not be able to be there for everyone,” B.J. says. “That’s why she switched jobs.”
“A lot of people tried to tell B.J. he was the man of the house now, and that he had to take care of me,” Christy says, “I didn’t want him to think that way at all. I worked hard to make sure he could still enjoy his childhood.”
That was another pivotal moment in B.J.’s upbringing, one he could lament forever. Instead, he and his family tried to make the best of it. They all realized how fragile life was. It helped him discover the importance of working with a purpose and making each day count.
Ask B.J. and his mother for their favorite memories of K-State, and they both talk about the night the Wildcats clinched the Big 12 championship last year against Texas. Fans poured onto the field and B.J. was invited onto a stage in front of everyone to raise the trophy as a team captain.
“That was a great moment,” he says.
“I couldn’t stop crying,” Christy says. “I was awestruck.”
Only one thing could have made it better. They both wish B.J.’s father could have been there.
No one expected Finney to start his first game at K-State, but Andale football coach Gary O’Hair was certain his player would be a starter at some point. How couldn’t O’Hair after watching Finney anchor the offensive line for four years?
It was beautiful.
“He was going to succeed wherever he ended up,” O’Hair says. “He’s like having another coach out there. When he didn’t know where he wanted to go, Christy asked what I would do. I said, ‘If B.J. was my son, I would send him to K-State. I think he can play up there and earn a scholarship. When those coaches get to know him, they are going to fall in love with him.’”
O’Hair was right within one year’s time.
Snyder called Finney into his office on a hot July afternoon two years ago and informed he was being promoted to scholarship status. Finney could hardly believe what was happening.
“It felt like a 10,000-pound weight had been lifted off me,” Finney says.
His coaches have since informed him he was a starter, a team captain and a Rimington Award candidate. They have told him he was destined for the Cotton Bowl and the Fiesta Bowl and they have handed him a Big 12 championship trophy. But that’s the best news they have ever given him.
He forgot all about what might have been. Reality was better.
When the meeting was over, he called his mother, who was grocery shopping.
“I started screaming and crying and making a fool out of myself in the aisles,” Christy says. “I was so happy for him. I knew from then on he would be able to focus on just football instead of stressing about me and being able to afford him being there.
“The way it all worked out, I can’t put it into words. I really can’t. It’s too perfect.”