Cullen Finnerty, former Grand Valley QB, had brain trauma, died of pneumonia

9:06 PM, Aug 8, 2013   |    comments
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Former Grand Velley State quarterback Cullen Finnerty stretched before a workout with former NFL quarterback Steve DeBerg, hoping to be drafted by the NFL, at Ed Radice Park on Thursday, March 8, 2007 in Tampa, Fla. / Craig Litten / Associated Press

LANSING (Detroit Free Press/WZZM) -- Cullen Finnerty, the former Grand Valley State football star who disappeared in May after a late-evening fishing trip into the wilderness near Baldwin, died of pneumonia caused by inhaling his vomit, according to autopsy results revealed Thursday by the Lake County Sheriff's Office.

According to the autopsy report by Kent County Chief Medical Examiner Stephen Cohle, Finnerty's disorientation and paranoia from being alone in the woods "could have been exacerbated by an elevated oxycodone level combined with CTE" or chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

"Although witnesses stated he had been drinking before he went fishing, his blood alcohol level was negligible and did not contribute to his incapacitation," the report said.

Finnerty's brain was studied at the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University. The brain disease CTE has been found in former football players.

The report doesn't change this fact, his father Tim Finnerty said: "We wake up every morning and he's not here."

His father said of the results being made public: "It will be the end of speculation by people who like to speculate. In that regard, we can move on. That will be better. We knew how it was going to be written up.

"It's a theory. As the doctor said, it was a perfect storm."

Grand Valley State football coach Matt Mitchell, a defensive assistant coach when Finnerty led the Lakers to three NCAA Division II titles, said there's a bit of closure in learning the autopsy results.

"I don't think it makes it any more or less of a tragedy than the day that we found out he passed away," Mitchell said.

Cohle wrote that the pain medication, oxycodone, "was prescribed for documented back injuries, most likely received during his football career."

Grand Valley State released the following statement on Thursday: "Our thoughts and prayers continue to go out to the family of Cullen Finnerty. Only one time during his collegiate play at Grand Valley did Cullen suffer a concussion, which was determined to be mild. He was removed from the game shortly after halftime and did not play again that day. He was thoroughly checked by doctors and was later cleared for play in a subsequent game."

Grand Valley State established a concussion management plan in 2010. Incoming freshman football players all have baseline tests established to compare with tests after an athlete is suspected of having concussion-like symptoms.

After disappearing on a fishing trip, Finnerty, 30, was found in the woods May 28 near Baldwin.

Family members said Finnerty sounded disoriented and complained of being tailed. Former Grand Valley State teammates helped in the search for Finnerty, who was found two days later.

According to an Associated Press story, his wife told investigators it wasn't the first time Finnerty had a "paranoid" episode. He had gone from Detroit to Grand Rapids a year-and-a-half earlier fearing the FBI was following him. His wife said he had a past addiction to painkillers.

Dr. Joe Guettler, an orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist at Beaumont Health System, said is oxycodone is highly addictive.

"I would say, generally, I want my people getting off strong pain killers within the first month after a surgery," Guettler said. "People tend to obtain a high off of them, and that's why there's such a street value for them as well."

Guettler said the chronic traumatic encephalopathy revealed in Finnerty's autopsy results "could have had some roots in his playing days. Concussion, head injury, etc. could have led to his brain reduced capacity to function and this certainly plays into all of our attention as sports medicine physicians on trying to prevent and document concussions in high school, collegiate and professional football players so they don't end up with long-term cognitive deficits or brain problems."

The Boston University report said: "Although Mr. Finnerty's brain did show evidence of stage II CTE, it is highly unlikely that CTE alone led to his death. CTE possibly affected his judgment, insight and behavior, but there are other factors, including the use of medications prescribed by his doctor, that most likely contributed to the circumstances surrounding his death."

Finnerty played high school football in Brighton and followed Drew Henson at quarterback. In college, he helped Grand Valley State win three of the school's four Division II national titles. He was the starting quarterback in 2003, '05 and '06. Finnerty won more than any quarterback in NCAA history with a 51-4 record as a starter.

Finnerty made it to the NFL in 2007. He made the practice squad of the Baltimore Ravens and was on the active roster for two games. He signed with the Denver Broncos in March 2008 but was placed on waivers three months later. He later had a short stint with the Cineplexx Blue Devils in Austria and the Muskegon Thunder of the Indoor Football League.

By George Sipple & Shawn Windsor, Detroit Free Press.
Boston University's Center for Traumatic Brain Encephalopathy released the following statement:

On behalf of the Finnerty family, the BU CSTE is issuing a statement of its findings of the post-mortem examination of former football player Cullen Finnerty's brain.

At the request of the family and medical examiner, Mr. Finnerty's brain was studied by Ann McKee, MD, chief neuropathologist at the VA Boston Healthcare System and professor of neurology and pathology at Boston University School of Medicine. Dr. McKee identified multiple focal lesions in the frontal and temporal lobes of his brain in a pattern consistent with the diagnosis of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). The severity of the disease was moderate, with a classification of stage II out of IV.

Although Mr. Finnerty's brain did show evidence of stage II CTE, it is highly unlikely that CTE alone led to his death. CTE possibly affected his judgment, insight and behavior, but there are other factors, including the use of medications prescribed by his doctor, that most likely contributed to the circumstances surrounding his death. Unfortunately because of the complexity of his medications and medical status, it is impossible to determine the specific combination of factors that led to his tragic death. We continue to extend our sincere condolences to Mr. Finnerty's family, friends and colleagues.

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