But, as often happens with professional athletes, the end came suddenly during a 2013 game. In the immediate aftermath, Finley didn’t realize exactly what happened.
Now 30 and officially retired, he recalls the experience in a piece for The Players’ Tribune.
So it had been maybe 30 minutes since I went across the middle and number 39 from the Browns hit me on the crown of my helmet, and I still couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t move my neck. I couldn’t feel my fingers or toes. I was numb.
For a second I thought, Maybe this IS the morgue … maybe I’m actually dead.
Even in the hospital, with his jersey cut off him with scissors and sweat still clinging to his body from the game, Finley was planning a comeback.
It was his second major injury in just a month’s time. Four weeks earlier he suffered a concussion against Cincinnati. Finley describes how everything looked blurry and the only detail he could notice was the yellow pants of his teammates. Afterward, his five-year-old son, Kaydon, told him he didn’t want him to play football anymore.
Of course, that didn’t happen, because Finley was a football player.
That’s just how football players are wired. When you’re in the NFL, you sacrifice everything to play the game. Then, when you’re on the ground after a big hit and you can’t move, you think, Why do I do this to myself?
But then you get treatment, your body heals, and you get right back out there.
Instead, the game decides when you’re done. Finley suffered five concussions across his career, the first of which came when he was at Texas. That wasn’t what ended his playing days.
In the play against Cleveland, Finley leaned down to protect his knees after making a catch and took a head-on collision. He said he fumbled because his hands stopped working, and his legs went numb.
Officially, he suffered a spinal cord contusion.
Six months later Finley was cleared to play again. However, he’d made the smart move to set up a $10 million disability insurance policy he could collect on due to the injury. Even then, he at first tried to make a comeback, and had several teams interested in his services.
He was ready to take a spot with the Seahawks, but the deal fell through when Finley failed a physical. Word got out around the league and the other teams backed out as well. The next fall, a full year removed from the injury, he finally knew it was time to call it a career.
I eventually collected the $10 million from my insurance policy, basically setting myself and my family up for life, which was a blessing. But I was saying goodbye to something I had worked my whole life for. It’s not how I wanted to go out, but most guys don’t get to decide for themselves when they’re done with the game.
Unfortunately, that’s not where complications from his football injuries ended. Finley began having memory issues, forgetting his car keys multiple times in a row, or having difficulty holding a conversation. He became more isolated while he attempted to figure himself out.
Finley also had a tough time adjusting to private life away from the game — no coaches, trainers, teammates and fans constantly evaluating his performances. He worked out to try and validate himself, and tried to sound busy when talking to old teammates on the phone.
So I was depressed because I felt like my identity as a football player had been taken away from me, I was lonely because I felt abandoned by the game and my friends, and I had anxiety because my entire future felt like an empty calendar that I had to fill up somehow.
I was 27 years old and I was retired.
I had no idea what to do with myself.
It took a long time, but Finley’s wife, Courtney, finally talked him into attending a neurological clinic in California. He’d seen enough older players dealing with memory loss and mood swings, some even committing suicide. That was enough to push him over the edge.
The clinic made a huge difference. For one, it was a beautiful, resort-style setting with palm trees out front. More importantly, the doctors there mapped out his brain using several tests and developed a plan to improve his condition.
Eventually, it led to his decision to get involved in coaching. He puts on camps in the town of Aledo, where he lives, and is a family man through and through.
And I honestly believe that if it weren’t for my wife and my kids, I never would have gotten any kind of help, and 10 years from now, I might have ended up one of those former players who put a bullet in his chest. That’s the path I was on.
He still meditates daily, stays in shape and visits the clinic on occasion.
Now Finley says he wanted to share his story so that other newly retired players can read it and learn they are not alone.
His message for former players?
The bravest thing to do sometimes is to ask for help.