November 11, 2013

A Man Among Boys

Just before kickoff on Saturday afternoon at Buxton Stadium, Simpson College junior football player Clay Finley takes a knee in the South end zone.

With his helmet off and his head down, he takes a moment to reflect.

He thinks about where he came from. He thinks about what he's been through. And he thinks about those who joined him along the way.

Finley isn't your typical college junior. At 24 years old, he had a lifetime's worth of experiences under his belt before ever stepping foot on campus.

Finley is a veteran of the United States Army.

. . . . .

Following a semester at Kirkwood Community College in the fall of 2007, Finley enlisted in the Army. As a Specialist for the 82nd Airborne Division, he spent 358 days in Afghanistan. He held a number of responsibilities overseas, including personal security detail, tower guard and serving as the lead gunman on convoys.

On more than one occasion, he found himself under heavy fire.

"There was one point where I was out of ammo, I was behind a building and there were bullets hitting the dirt right beside me," Finley said. "I had to [leave cover to] go and get more ammo. I looked up and said, 'Well God, if I die, I'll see you soon.'"

It's experiences like that – and another instance when he found himself within feet of a live mortar round – that help the 6-2, 205-pound defensive end stay cool under pressure.

"When things get really intense, I've been trained to keep calm," he said.

Opposing quarterbacks have been anything but calm when they see Finley coming. Through nine games, the Muscatine, Iowa native leads Simpson with 10.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. He has helped the Storm to a 6-3 record and a second-place spot in the Iowa Conference.

Not bad for a guy who never thought about playing college football until his brother gave him the idea.

"I was talking to my brother [after I got out] and he asked if I had ever thought about playing football," Finley recalled. "I said I hadn't, but he said I should think about it."

With that, Finley decided to extend his career. He knew Division III was his best route, so he narrowed his options to Central, Coe and Simpson. In the end, location, a respected exercise science program and the coaching staff led him to Indianola.

"I really liked the coaches here, they had the academic program I was interested in and it was close to Des Moines," he said. "It was really the best fit for me."

As a veteran, Finley faced some challenges in transitioning from life as a soldier to life as a student. To ease the shift, he took advantage of the Hawley Academic Resource & Advising Center and made sure to surround himself with the right type of people.

Now, the physical education and exercise science major is a Capital One Academic All-District First Team honoree.

"If you need help, Simpson will help you succeed," Finley said.

Of all the support he received from faculty and staff, it was football that provided the best avenue for Finley make the switch from soldier to civilian.

"Football helped me the most in transitioning from the military back to school," he said. "I needed that to help me transition."

Looking back on his experiences in the Army, Finley applies the lessons he learned during his deployment to football and life in general.

"I learned a lot about teamwork and friendship," he said. "You can be in the worst place imaginable, but if you have really good people around you, it's not so bad. If you surround yourself with good people, you'll be that much more successful and life will be that much more enjoyable."

. . . . .

As pregame winds to a close and kickoff nears, Clay Finley – a veritable man among boys – makes his way to the end zone.

With his right knee on the turf, his weight supported by a red helmet bearing a gold "SC", and his chin tucked to his chest, Finley gives thanks.

"Some of my buddies are gone, so I thank God that I am where I am, and I thank God for the people around me. I think, hopefully I can play like God and my family would want me to."

After revering the stars and stripes he fought for, Finley buckles his chinstrap.

He is ready for battle.