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Sports · August 20, 2014

Finnerty’s tough journey helps him lead Eagles

Photo/Lawrence Emerson
A clean-shaven Finnerty talks strategy with former quarterback Tyler Longerbeam in 2012, his first season as Liberty's coach. Finnerty's gone 7-5 in each of his first two seasons.
Sean Finnerty
Age: 32

Home: Remington

Hometown: Akron, OH.

Position: Liberty High School government teacher and head football coach.

Record: 14-10 in 2 seasons.

Family: Wife, Margarita; daughter, Nora (5 months).

Education: Bachelor’s degree, Clarion University of Pennsylvania, 2005; St. Vincent-St. Mary High School, 2000.
The Ohio native can recall his hardships in excruciating detail.

Liberty football Coach Sean Finnerty’s life changed dramatically before his senior year in high school. Then, the hits kept coming.

“There’s a plan for everything,” Finnerty says. “There’s a plan for everything.”

He knows his plans for the Eagles in summer practice. Finnerty believes Liberty will improve on last season’s finish – a regional semifinal loss to Sherando. The even-keeled government teacher pushes his team and accepts no excuses. After all, he’s never made them despite countless opportunities.

The son of two working-class parents grew up on the mean streets of inner-city Akron. His mother spent 25 years as a registered nurse at the city’s general hospital. Susan Finnerty refused promotions to stay where she felt needed – the psychiatric ward.

His father also embodied the city’s blue-collar identity. Jim Finnerty worked for a cemetery. His son got a job there his sophomore and junior years to help pay the tuition at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School.

“I went to football from 8 to 10, work from 10 to 5 and football from 5 to 7,” Finnerty recalls of his summer schedule. “That’s how I spent my days. I kept myself busy, and I tell the kids that all the time.”

Akron also posed challenges, but the Finnerty’s lived “on a good street” in the Rust Belt community. Still, he remembers drugs dealers and violence not far from their doorstep. Despite the tough environment, Finnerty has fond memories of his childhood.

Those pleasant recollections end at age 17, when the rising senior’s world changed in early summer.

Breathing “like she had a cold,” his mother sat in her home, just 10 days after a surgery to remove cancer from her stomach.

At 9 a.m., Finnerty left his mother, who had a doctor’s appointment an hour later.

The teenager never saw her alive again. When Mr. Finnerty arrived to escort his wife, he found her dead. A blood clot in her lung killed her quickly.

“It was difficult at the time because I blamed myself for the whole thing,” the third-year coach says. “Maybe I could’ve done something different – investigated further or something.”

The St. Vincent-St. Mary staff understood the circumstances and gave Finnerty a scholarship for his senior year.

The 6-foot-5 athlete quit basketball to better train for football. He knew how much a free trip to college would mean for his family.

The Catholic school’s incoming freshman class made Finnerty’s absence from basketball irrelevant. A ninth-grader named LeBron James took the court for the Fighting Irish.

“I told my coach, ‘I think you’re going to be pretty good this year and I don’t think you need me’,” he recalls. “He tried to get me to play so I said, ‘After two weeks, I’ll come back if you need me.’

“I didn’t hear from him. They went 28-0 and won the state championship.”

After graduation, Finnerty attended Clarion University in western Pennsylvania. He received an athletic scholarship and other financial aid to the Division II school.

The Golden Eagles redshirted the lineman his freshman year, and he headed home in the summer, excited about preparing for his first year of eligibility.

But, as Finnerty barreled to first base in a slow-pitch softball game, a wild throw struck him in the left eye.

His swollen face hid the damage. The ball jarred his retina and broke eight bones in his face. Finnerty’s concern went from a competition for starting position to fear of permanent blindness.

Three weeks of bed rest with no vision took a toll on him. Eventually, his eyes opened. He wasn’t allowed physical activity for two months. With three weeks to spare before fall football practice, Finnerty tried to get in shape.

“I don’t even recall that at all,” Clarion teammate and close friend Glenn Lovelace says. “It’s a testament to him. You’d never know anything was wrong with him.

“He’s had so many surgeries and stuff like that. Not many people would try to go through it to play college football.”

Finnerty failed in his last-gasp conditioning attempt. Time on a cot set him back too far to start on opening day. Still, he played in that first game after an injury sidelined the first-string center.

But, the redshirt freshman’s first three snaps against Youngstown State missed their target, with one returned for a touchdown.

Still, the stubborn hard worker remained at the position through the season.

He moved along the offensive line through his next two years for the Golden Eagles. As with everything in Finnerty’s timeline, he faced more challenges.

In May 2004, his father underwent successful quintuple bypass surgery. Finnerty also continued to battle injuries. He has undergone four knee surgeries in 15 years.

Finnerty started for the Golden Eagles and graduated in 2005 with a degree in social studies and secondary education. He took a job at Punxsutawney Area High School as teacher and assistant football coach.

The spring after an 0-10 season with the Chucks, Finnerty drove to Bealeton to interview with former Eagles Coach Tommy Buzzo. A long drive and short night’s rest at the Johnson Motel preceded the meeting.

Within two days, Buzzo offered a job as assistant coach. The second-year coach didn’t hesitate.

Fauquier County provided changes dramatic and subtle. Here, Finnerty makes sure to say “soda” instead of “pop.” Aside from vernacular, he has grown to love his new home.

But, the move came with another eventual rough patch.

In winter of 2011, doctors discovered a tumor in Finnerty’s chest. Successful surgery removed the growth in February 2012. It was diagnosed as stage-one thymoma cancer.

Two weeks after his surgery, he replaced Buzzo as Liberty’s head football coach.

Since then, he has enjoyed a number of blessings. Finnerty got married in December 2011 and welcomed his first child last March.

“They’re best friends,” wife Margarita Finnerty says of her husband and daughter Nora. “He spends so much time with her and is so proud.

“He’s very natural as a father. I haven’t noticed any big changes in him. She knows his voice and looks up whenever he walks in a room. Children just gravitate towards Sean.”

Fatherhood creates a broader perspective for the coach.

“It makes everything come full-circle,” Finnerty says. “We’re in the kid business. We’re here to build relationships with kids. It shows me why I do what I do. Everything I do with them I get to do with my own daughter in the future.”

On the field, he instills discipline. Liberty’s players must wear identical uniforms — down to their socks — for practice. When a reserve needs to scratch his head, he asks Finnerty for permission.

“Accountability and a responsibility to the team,” the coach says. “No one is treated differently here.”

A prime example of Finnerty’s policy stands on the sideline during a mid-August practice.

Senior Jaquan Sinclair started the last two years for the Eagles. Sinclair’s talent at linebacker and tailback made him one of the team’s top players.

The shifty back got dismissed from the team because of academic struggles. Finnerty made no exception for the star. He didn’t let Sinclair participate in team activities.

Sinclair took the classes he needed this summer and raised his grades enough to regain eligibility. But, he has fallen to the bottom of the team’s depth chart. The talented back must earn his position.

“It means a lot; he gave me another chance,” Sinclair says. “I learned nothing’s going to be given to me. It’s kinda showed me they can be good without me. I just want to be a part of it.”

Everyone must abide by the rules and uphold his end of the bargain. Finnerty got that from his parents, who worked around the clock to provide.

“He’s not just a figurehead,” Liberty Offensive Coordinator Scott Girolmo says. “He’s a football coach in the purest sense of the word.

“He has an unparalleled work ethic and his positivity is exceptional.”

His players respect their coach with little idea of his past struggles. Finnerty doesn’t talk about how he got to Bealeton. He rarely mentions the tough times.

The 32-year-old has persevered. He maintained something good stood around the next corner – even though it always seemed a few blocks away.

“Football’s a tool for life,” he says. “All the things that happen to you have a purpose if you use the game as a tool. If life gets tough, what are you going to do?”

Now, he jokes with the kids who he hopes will develop into more than football players. His branch of the “kid business” offers a chance to teach teenagers how to be young men.

He knows the journey well.

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