It was Easter Sunday, nighttime, and Matt Finnin was back on that familiar road.
From one Illinois town to another he'd travel — Crete to Glen Ellyn, Glen Ellyn to Crete. Back and forth. For love of family. For a football dream. Back and forth. Helping his father out of bed on Monday. Driving a defensive end to the turf on Saturday. All the while, taking 21 credit hours. Back and forth.
The commute took at least 50 minutes each way. Very often a daily ritual, it might have seemed bothersome if not for the man he did it for.
For him, Matt would give a couple hours a day to the road. For him, he’d give up a promising football career if need be.
He loved the game. But it'd never come before Dad.
“He always told me that you’re the best in the country. His judgment was a little clouded,” Matt says with a laugh. “He was so proud of me.”
Gary Finnin certainly knew how much his son loved him.
And Matt knew how much fight Dad had in him.
Around the time Matt was born, doctors told Gary he better get his affairs in order because he had just two or three years to live after a heart transplant.
Yeah, they were wrong about that.
He had kept on despite the setbacks: triple-bypass surgery, the amputation of a leg, a diabetic coma that family worried might take his life right then.
The man who coached high school football for two decades and once made his own music between the lines as a tight end for Central Michigan, long holding the school’s yards-per-catch record, kept seeing Matt grow older … and bigger.
“He’s the reason I believe in God,” Matt says. “I saw the miracles right before me. Just the fact I was even able to know my dad is such a miracle and a blessing.”
Gary had lived to see Matt turn 21. He'd coached Matt in youth basketball until he was a freshman in high school. He had seen Matt sign on the dotted line to play football at Nebraska.
The latter was the biggest thrill of all.
Gary had often told his son he thought Oklahoma was the place for him. But when it was clear Matt was all-in with Nebraska, well, then Gary was all-in with Nebraska.
When Matt visited Lincoln on a recruiting trip the third weekend in January, he walked into the university’s bookstore, buying Husker T-shirts for family.
He wanted a little something extra for Dad. What to get? There it was. A straw hat with a red ribbon and an “N” on it.
Best described by Matt: “A big ol’ Nebraska straw hat.”
There was no more Sooner talk after that.
“He wore it every day. He was so happy to wear that hat.”
But something wasn’t quite right during Easter weekend. Matt could see it on his dad’s face.
He was on so many medications and shingles had created giant blisters on his hands. Getting in and out of bed by himself was impossible.
How many times had his son helped him do that in recent years? There is no counting when love is involved.
And there is no time to put off a phone call when there's that internal tug.
As he drove back to the College of DuPage campus that Easter evening, Matt was overcome with a feeling. He'd just seen his dad, but something was telling him to call him. Right then.
“I told him just wait three or four more months, man. I need you to be there for the season opener so you can see me run out of that tunnel. And his last words to me were, ‘I love you. I know you’re going to make me proud.’”
He’d already made him proud.
Matt Finnin is coming to Lincoln to begin his Nebraska football career next weekend. He took a winding road to get here. He's quite sure it was the right one.
You might assume there were grade issues. Or maybe he needed to put more evidence on film that he’s worthy of a scholarship.
None of those were the reasons Matt was playing junior college football.
Sure, he was a late bloomer. He was just 5-feet-11, 180 pounds early in his high school career. Played quarterback. Ran the double wing. Wasn’t very good at it, he’ll admit.
Then he added eight inches and 110 pounds his junior year. Western Michigan coaches noticed. Part of the 2010 recruiting class, he was 6-7 and 305 pounds by signing day.
But his dad’s health grew worse that first year in college. Stay at Western Michigan or come home to Crete, Ill.? Easy answer.
“He had no one to take care of him and I’d be damned if I saw him in a nursing home,” Matt says.
Still, he knew there was so much more football in him. The next year he walked on at a school closer to home — Eastern Illinois.
But being 2 1/2 hours away from his dad was a strain. His dad’s primary nurse quit. Matt came home again.
He provided a helping hand and got his dad's living situation settled. He tried to go back to Eastern Illinois.
“They told me no, they didn’t want me.”
If it was a setback, it was also fuel.
"When I left Eastern Illinois, I kept telling myself I'm going to prove these guys wrong."
Again, he came home.
Maybe, just maybe, the answer to playing football again was just down the road. About an hour away from his dad's house was the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn. The school had a football program. And the program had some understanding coaches.
They were no dummies. When a man that size knocks on your door, you open it. They listened to Matt’s situation. If he was willing to make a go of it, coaches were willing to work with him.
“We weren’t about putting any pressure on him to pick and choose between us and his family," says Ken DuBose, recruiting coordinator and defensive line coach at DuPage.
If Matt couldn't make the 7 a.m. weight lifting session, he could make it up later.
Coaches were flexible. Matt was reliable.
“He did everything we needed him to do,” DuBose says. “He really wanted it. And more than anything, he wanted to prove that he could play. He knew it wasn’t ever an issue of him being able to play. He just had so many other things to choose from: Do I take care of my dad? Do I do this? Do I do that? What’s my bottom line?”
Pat Arthurs, the interim head coach at DuPage last year, says Matt went "the extra mile on many occasions" to get back in time for workouts and to bond with teammates. And that heavy class load? He was positioning himself to be set up academically to return to major-college football after just a one-year stay at the junior college.
Even while sick, Dad was ever the supporter, offering as much encouragement as anyone for Matt to get on the fast track back to a big program.
“I think his dad respected and appreciated that he wanted to come back and be close to home and family and him,” Arthurs says. “But I think his dad also knew, the best thing for your long-term future is to get back to a four-year college as best as you can and enjoy all that a program like that has to offer.”
Matt shared an apartment with some of his teammates a few blocks from campus, but Arthurs says Matt was going home almost daily, especially on those days when his dad had a rough dialysis treatment.
"It's by far one of the most heartwarming stories that I've ever been associated with," says the coach of 34 years.
Even with all the obligations off the field, Matt was performing remarkably well on it. Some lower-tier FBS schools started to offer scholarships.
Then DuPage took on Iowa Western, a powerhouse squad with tough-to-block defensive end Devon Nash, a Lincoln East grad who ultimately signed with Kansas State.
Iowa Western won the game. But ask DuPage coaches and they'll tell you Matt won more battles than not against Nash.
After that day, some of the biggest schools in college football were calling.
The momentum kept building. The team piled up a 9-2 record. Before too long, Matt had 35 offers on the table, including from Ohio State and Oklahoma.
That was nice and all, but it was Nebraska’s young offensive line coach, John Garrison, who Matt liked most.
Garrison was wowed as Matt shared his journey with him.
“He told me his story, and you just think about this society where it’s so easy to be selfish, in this kind of ‘Me’ and ‘I’ generation," Garrison says. "This guy was going the complete opposite way because of what his family and what his dad, Gary, meant to him."
And Matt liked that Garrison was a guy who didn’t come with guarantees.
“Everyone was promising me, ‘You’re going to start, you’re going to start,’” Matt says. “He came in and said, ‘You know what, you’re going to come in and have to beat out three returning seniors who all have starting experience. But if you put your mind to it, I don’t see why you can’t go in and contend with them.’”
While seniors Jeremiah Sirles, Brent Qvale and Andrew Rodriguez will come into fall camp with an advantage in experience, Matt is showing up with plans to contribute right away.
He’ll have at least two years to play, and potentially three if the NCAA grants him a medical hardship year because of the situation with his father.
Year 1 is all he’s thinking about now.
“I didn’t come to Nebraska to sit the bench,” he says. “I want to give it my all and try to take a starting job.”
Garrison believes Finnin will fit right in with the Nebraska culture.
Humble. Hard-working. A down-home guy. Those are some of the words Garrison uses to describe Matt.
“He’s a great football player on film," Garrison says. "But his story and stuff, it’s one of those things where you want him to have success at this next juncture in his career. I think he will because of who he is and what he’s all about.”
* * *
It was the day after Easter that Gary Finnin died. He was 72.
He coached many athletes during his life. He was admittedly biased about one.
“I think in the back of his mind he always knew I could live up to his potential,” Matt says.
When Garrison attended his dad's funeral, Matt told his new coach how happy his father was that he was going to Nebraska. You see, Dad had become a Husker, too.
As Matt said his final goodbye, he placed inside the coffin a special gift for his father to take with him.
A big ol' Nebraska straw hat.