UB punter Finegan still upbeat after his crazy year

UB Bulls

Evan Finegan still has the letters, tucked away in a box back home in Sterling Heights, Michigan. There must be 700 of them, notes of sympathy and encouragement from people who witnessed the injury on national TV last Sept. 7.

“My mailing address got out somehow,” Finegan said. “I got letters from all over the country, people sending prayers and stuff like that. It was pretty special.”

Early next month, it will be nine months since Finegan broke his right leg when an opponent tried to block his punt during UB’s loss at Penn State. It was an injury so horrific — similar to a broken leg suffered by Joe Theismann in a national NFL game decades earlier — they wouldn’t replay it on the FOX telecast.

Finegan, a sophomore who had set a school record as a freshman, had broken his tibia and fibula. He was rushed to the hospital in State College, where he underwent a four-hour surgery. Early the next morning, a Sunday, he looked at his phone and saw that he had received hundreds of tweets and texts. 

Barely out of surgery, Evan sent out this tweet: “I have been overwhelmed with the amount of love and support from family, friends, and college football fans all across the country! Your text have been keeping me positive and encouraged.”

The messages and letters kept coming in the days and weeks that followed, as Finegan discovered how it feels to receive the kindness of strangers, and how they can lift a person through a lonely and painful struggle. 

That seems especially relevant today, with the entire nation in the midst of a global pandemic that has shut down much of the society, while shining a light on the countless little acts of kindness out there in the world.

Finegan made a full recovery. Like many athletes, he was ahead of schedule much of the way. At first, he wondered if he’d ever play again. But gruesome as it looked at the time, the hit by Penn State’s Journey Brown could have been a lot worse.

“A lot was in my favor,” Finegan explained. “The break was in the middle of the leg. It didn’t affect the ankle or the knee. They had to put the rod through the knee, so there’s some stiffness there. There was a clean break. It wasn’t a shatter. 

“The doctor said he would expect me to play again. That was really encouraging. I was expecting to play, but you just don’t know until you get back out there.”

Finegan did physical therapy six times a week. A few days after the injury, riding in a wheelchair, he had an emotional reunion with his UB football teammates. In early October, he sent out a tweet of himself walking in a boot for the first time (he likes Twitter, yes.)

On Nov. 7, he tweeted himself running on a treadmill. “God is good: First run exactly two months from my tib-fib fracture!” His goal was to be punting when the Bulls began spring practice on Feb. 23. No problem there.

“The way he was punting in the spring, it was unbelievable,” said Taiwo Onatolu, the UB special teams coordinator. “It’s like nothing ever happened to his leg. If he wasn’t 100 percent, he was about 98. He was back to the old Finegan.”

The Bulls put in nine “spring” practices before the coronavirus came crashing down on the country in early March. No more football practice. No spring game. The students had to continue classes remotely. 

So twice in a single school year, Finegan had to endure an unanticipated disruption in his life. Six months after the injury, he was back in isolation, away from his team.

“It’s been a crazy year,” he said last week from Michigan, having finished his classes. “a lot of things to adjust to. But it’s been all right. I tell people all the time: When you can’t walk or even get up to get something, you appreciate all the easy stuff. 

“When I couldn’t do that, I tried to imagine living without being mobile. So you definitely appreciate it more when something’s been taken away.”

Finegan, who redshirted as a freshman, will be able to repeat his sophomore season in the fall. He could end up at UB for six years. The question is what sort of football season is in store. 

The NCAA voted last week to lift its moratorium on football and basketball activities on Division I campuses. Things are looking up. Still, there’s lingering talk of canceling some non-conference games and holding games with limited crowds, or without fans altogether.

“We’re waiting and not getting a lot of information,” Finegan said. “It’s all understandable. Nothing is official, but I’m not really seeing fans being able to be there. But I think that we’ll play in some way or form. I know there’s a bunch of different possibilities.”

Finegan, a finance major, is more tuned in than most college athletes. He was recently elected vice president of UB’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee. In February, he was named the MAC’s male representative to the NCAA’s Student-Athlete Leadership Forum. 

“It interested me to be on the conversation and give my opinions or perspectives on certain issues,” Finegan said. “I get to talk to a lot of really interesting people, people on the NCAA board that make rules.”

Finegan served as community outreach officer for the UB advisory board this year. It largely involved setting up service events that connected the university’s athletes to the Buffalo community — lending a hand in parks, say, or visiting city schools.

“We planted trees at Riverworks. That was really cool,” he said. “I think the ones we enjoy most are working with kids in Buffalo public schools — playing games or reading a book, getting inter-active with them. Some of our players get to visit their old schools.”

Finegan, who was academic all-MAC last year, is no ordinary student. He’s no average punter, either. As a redshirt freshman, he averaged 41.8 yards a punt, setting a school record and landing on the Ray Guy Award list for college football’s best punter heading into 2019.

The Bulls wound up with an 8-5 record and a trip to Bahamas Bowl, where they blew out Charlotte for their first-ever bowl win. They did it with backup punters averaging 5.5 yards less than Finegan had in 2018. Maybe those two crushing MAC losses, by 1 and 3 points, would have gone the other way with Evan, who was also the regular holder for place-kicks.

“Oh, absolutely,” Onatolu said. “We had to use a true freshman who’s really a place-kicker. Our quarterback, Kyle Vantrease, was punting, too. It was kind of a make-shift position. A guy who averages over 40 yards a punt can flip the field. With Evan, we could have won two more games, but I don’t like to guess.”

It was a memorable season, and the Bulls’ hobbled punter was right there cheering for them, at least for home games. Onatolu said Finegan never displayed any self-pity or negativity. He did whatever he could to help his teammates achieve their own goals.

Both of Finegan’s parents went to Michigan State, as did three of his four siblings. But UB had a nationally ranked management school, and less competition at punter. It would have been nice to follow in the family tradition, but he’s never regretted the decision.

“Buffalo has honestly been the perfect fit — academically and location-wise,” he said. “I love Western New York and playing in a conference close to home. So I’m in a great situation. I’m very fortunate to be at UB.”

You never know who’s out there, feeling your pain and rooting for you. Finegan felt people’s support when he broke his leg. And those 700 letters that came in the mail? He answered every one of them. 

“I did,” he said. “I actually wrote them back. My aunt owns a printing company, so she put together these little thank you cards with my picture on them. It took a while. I might have missed a few.”

We can probably let that slide.

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