It’s a spring evening in Michigan, and Cullen Finnerty heads out into the woods for a spot of solo fishing. But when his family arrive to collect him, the ex-footballer is nowhere to be seen. And even though Cullen is entirely capable of taking care of himself, as the hours pass his loved ones nonetheless begin to worry.
Cullen was born on August 18, 1982, in the Detroit suburb of Brighton. His father, Tim Sr., had played football in high school, so it was probably no surprise that Cullen and his two brothers would find themselves drawn to the sport. Cullen in particular began to shine on the field during his time at Brighton High School.
As a senior, in fact, Cullen was named the Livingston County Football Player of the Year. And that honor marked the start of what would be a successful sporting career. Indeed, by the time that Cullen left high school, he already had a handful of impressive accolades to his name. Then after graduation, he went first to the University of Toledo and subsequently attended Grand Valley State University in Allendale, MI.
In 2003 Cullen took his place as a quarterback on his college team. His bulky frame made him a more natural fit as a linebacker, mind you, and the young player was reported to have taken a physical approach to the game. His coaches and teammates at Grand Valley State have, however, remembered him as having been fun-loving and affectionate, too.
In any case, during his college days Cullen developed a reputation for being somewhat indomitable on the field. Apparently, he was known to conceal injuries from his coaches and would play on even with broken bones. And yet that attitude may have served him well, as by the time he graduated, he had cemented his position as a legend at Grand Valley State.
Then, after college, Cullen began to pursue a professional footballing career. As an undrafted free agent, he first joined the Baltimore Ravens before being signed by the Denver Broncos. He subsequently traveled to Austria, where he became a renowned starter for the Cineplexx Blue Devils. But after earning the honor of Most Valuable Player for the European team, Cullen headed back to Grand Valley State, keen to complete his degree.
While in Michigan, Cullen met a woman named Jennifer, whom he married in 2010; and in time, the couple would have a son, Caden, and a daughter, Makinley, together. Then, as his football career began to fade away, Cullen found a job as a medical salesman; he was consoled, meanwhile, by his Catholic beliefs.
But was Cullen’s life as idyllic as it might have appeared from the outside? Perhaps not. The former football player’s brother Tim has said that an incident in 2011 caused him to wonder about Cullen’s mental health, for example. Apparently, Cullen left a night out with co-workers in Detroit and then drove 150 miles to Tim’s home, claiming that he was being followed. When Tim investigated, however, there was no one on his brother’s tail.
Thankfully, though, the next two years passed without any further such incidents. And May 2013 seemed to be shaping up to be a good month for the Finnertys. During that period, they would celebrate Makinley’s baptism, and there was also a planned Memorial Day vacation – which Cullen, his children and wife took alongside Jennifer’s family. That holiday weekend, however, Cullen began reporting headaches and other pains. Furthermore, the man known for his prodigious ability to sleep started suffering from restless nights.
Then, on the evening of May 26, 2013, Cullen decided to go fishing by himself. And so, at around 8:30 p.m., his family drove him to the Bray Creek State Forest Campground in Baldwin, MI; the plan was to collect him later that night. But just an hour or so into the expedition, something seemed to have gone awry. Apparently, at that time Cullen would speak on the telephone to his brother-in-law, sounding disoriented and confused.
According to Cullen’s family, the ex-football star’s message was cryptic and short. “I don’t know where I am,” he is reported to have said. Then when family members arrived to collect him, they are said to have found his boat tied to a pontoon – with the man himself nowhere to be seen. As a result, at around 10:30 p.m. the authorities were notified that Cullen was missing.
That night, the state police duly began a search around the campground for Cullen. A thick forest of tall pines, the area is an environment in which people regularly get lost. The authorities usually find such persons without too much hassle, however, and it was expected that that would be the same in Cullen’s case. But even though investigators found a vest and some footprints, they came no closer to locating the missing man.
So, for the next two days, the hunt for Cullen continued; dogs searched the woods, and helicopters scanned the area. And while the authorities continued their investigation, Cullen’s many family members and friends also descended on the rural campground. What’s more, by May 28 a total of 13 officers from the Lake County Sheriff’s Department were attempting to organize scores of local volunteers and a large contingent of helpers from out of town.
Grand Valley State University, meanwhile, would send an entire busload of staff and players to aid in the search for Cullen. With some 300 people by now on the ground, then, the search continued. As some volunteers handed out water and food, others combed the scattered cabins and backyards that litter the area.
Cullen’s old college football coach, Chuck Martin, was part of a group searching the area of woodland closest to the road. As Martin entered a clearing, though, he saw that Cullen was dead – albeit with his body appropriately clothed for the conditions and showing no signs of injury. So, what had happened to the man who once seemed to have had the world at his feet?
At first, there were very few clues to go on. Details would emerge, though, that painted a stranger picture of Cullen’s final moments. For instance, Dave Kibbey, who owns some land near where Cullen went missing, came forward to report having heard yelling on the night that the former football player had disappeared. Kibbey had thought nothing of the noise at the time, however.
Furthermore, Cullen had apparently spoken to his wife on the telephone on the night when he had vanished. And as in his conversation with his brother-in-law, he’d sounded panicked and afraid. Allegedly, he told her that he had met two men on the river; and, in an echo of his previous behavior in Detroit, he said that he suspected he was being followed.
Just two days after that phone call, though, Cullen’s family found themselves trying to come to terms with the 30-year-old’s death. And in light of the tragic discovery of Cullen’s remains, the authorities began to determine what had actually happened to the man; they suspected that no foul play was involved, however.
Then, in August 2013, Cullen’s autopsy report was released, seemingly providing a clear answer to any speculation about the dad and husband’s passing. Apparently, the cause of death was pneumonia brought on by the ex-footballer choking on his own vomit. And although the events leading up to the incident could not be exactly determined, the report theorized that Cullen had become disoriented after taking painkillers. In addition, it suggested that he may have been suffering from a brain disorder that exacerbated the problem.
The report in fact hinted at a connection between Cullen’s bizarre behavior and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) – a disorder that’s been found to affect a number of football players. Indeed, over the years the NFL has faced numerous lawsuits relating to CTE, with many players claiming to have been misled over the sport’s potentially damaging effects. But for Tim Sr., the report’s findings don’t provide total closure on the tragedy. “None of this is going to bring Cullen back,” the grieving father told ESPN in 2013. “The only people that will know what happened will be Cullen and God.”