From the frontlines to the D-line

by Brock Borgeson, sports editor

Each fall weekend, around 100 million fans tune in to watch what the United States has glorified as a domesticated form of war on the field. The head-jarring hits, the romanticized stories of Ronnie Lott breaking off a dangling portion of a severed finger, and the tales like Terrell Davis playing through Super Bowls with eye-crossing migraines all add to this war-like image that the public likes to give to football.

Even with the likes of CNN covering the ongoing war in the Middle East, where bullets are flying and lives are at stake everyday, the “real war” is often forgotten.

But for Chris McKinnon and Clay Finley of the Simpson football team, the “real war” is never forgotten, and it factors into every snap they line up at defensive end in the war on the gridiron.

Back in 2011, senior Clay Finley walked onto Simpson’s campus following three and a half years in the Army, and one year in Afghanistan. Finley was stationed in Fort Brague, North Carolina in the 82nd Airborne and considered himself a “utility guy, who did all types of stuff.”

Since then, the 25-year old from Muscatine has taken himself from utility guy in the military to one of “the guys” on Simpson’s defensive line after being converted from tight end at the start of his career.

Finley’s brother, who played football at Wartburg, had to cajole Finley to consider football out of the military. He initially intended on heading to University of Iowa or Iowa State University.

“Clay was unique. He was just looking around at places, especially Central College and here [Simpson],” head coach Jim Glogowski said. “He was 6’ 1”, 160 lb. defensive back in high school, and here he is four years later and he looks like the guy from Bowflex.”

Finley took his brother’s input and pursued Simpson after finding a connection with the Simpson coaching staff and players, creating a brotherhood that was a taste of what he experienced in the military.

“I always enjoyed the camaraderie with the guys in the military,” Finley said, “and that’s part of the reason I like football. I always like the hardcore pushing yourself to the next level type of things. I’m really happy where I’m at and what I’ve done.”

Initially, making the transition to the high-stress military lifestyle into college life was an adjustment for Finley.

“It was different acclimating to college life,” Finley said. “I think the biggest thing is that I learned to relax and enjoy life. Certainly there’s some culture shock and I was high strung but I learned to relax and realize it was college.”

After a little over three years on the field at Simpson, Finley has earned four varsity letters, Second Team All-IIAC honors in 2013, First Team Academic All-District 8 (Capital One) honors, and Academic All-IIAC honors in ’12 and ’13.

He’s also made 79 tackles, 21 tackles for loss and nine and a half sacks. Most notably, Finley was also named to the USA College Football Preseason All-American Team this year.

Although just in his first month at Simpson, defensive end Chris McKinnon is beginning to carve a path similar to the one Finley has paved for himself.

McKinnon spent a similar length of time in the military as Finley, serving in a scout sniper platoon, doing recon work and doing regular multiple day stays in the wilderness. McKinnon spent part of his time at Fort Riley, Kansas and also did time in Afghanistan, spending nine months in what “was definitely an eye opener” for McKinnon.

“You know, I thought about joining the military right out of high school,” McKinnon said. “Then I decided I’ll probably make it a career but I eventually decided that wasn’t for me, and that’s when I came to college.”

The freshman from Las Vegas initially began his college career at University of Wisconsin – Oshkosh, but had to head back to Las Vegas after a financial aid issue. Still interested in getting his degree and getting an opportunity to play football, McKinnon was contacted by ’08 Simpson graduate and Storm football player, Jason Courtney, who also served in the military. Courtney directed McKinnon to Glogowski and shortly after McKinnon joined the next line of veterans who have played football at Simpson.

“So I came out here to Simpson and liked the campus, liked the team, and I based my decision off of that,” McKinnon said. “I think there’s more of a sense that when I played in high school that I had the opportunity to play in college but I didn’t so I miss it a lot. So you got to take advantage of every opportunity to play.”

Although Finley was instrumental in getting McKinnon to Simpson, Glogowski attributes much of the successful recruitment of McKinnon and the other veteran Simpson graduates to the work done in administration at Simpson and through their Yellow Ribbon Service financial aid program.

“The Yellow Ribbon Service bill can cover from 40 to 100 percent of your tuition depending on the amount of time you’ve spent in active duty,” assistant to the registrar, Rhonda Pooley said. “We’ve had servicemen from WWII who came out of the war to attend Simpson through this bill.”

Glogowski would like to credit people like Pooley for ensuring athletes like McKinnon and Finley were able to play at Simpson;eEspecially because the 6’ 1”, 225 lb. defensive end has already been paying dividends for the Storm in the first three games, using his explosiveness to get into the backfield often.

McKinnon has appeared in all three games, making four tackles, one sack, one tackle for loss, and both a fumble forced and a fumble recovered, proving his versatility to the Simpson coaching staff early.

“Chris is very athletic,” Glogowski said. “He’s very fast. His explosiveness and ability to react is not coaching. Chris is a guy that recognizes things and can get from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’ and we are fortunate to get a guy here like Chris. You tell him once to do something and he does it, you don’t have to tell him twice.”

Having shared experiences, McKinnon has added to his natural physical repertoire by reaping from Finley’s experiences at defensive end.

“He [Finley] shares insight, especially the mental aspect and things like that,” McKinnon said. “I mean, I have been out of the game for four years. The college game is a lot faster than high school, but teammates have helped me get back into it.”

Obviously good coaching, practice, weight lifting, and film are all necessary steps for McKinnon and Finley to succeed on the field. But there is a unique factor that sets them apart in competition: their military experience.

“They’re so mentally tough,” Glogowski said. “They physically grind it out, they’re not complaining and always first in sprints. For them this is nothing. When some guys think its tough out there in August, those guys have been out there carrying their gear in a sandstorm in Afghanistan or in buildings being shot at. Overall, they’re just great leaders.”

With the line of veterans like Darrin Seamster, Courtney, Finley, McKinnon and others that have panned out for Storm football and Simpson as a school Simpson may expect to see more veterans on the gridiron in the future.

Finley and McKinnon and the whole Storm unit will head up to Storm Lake on Saturday to battle Buena Vista on for their conference opener and a chance to start the year 4-0.

“It’s been a pleasure coaching these guys,” Glogowski said. “We’ve had a phenomenal experience with every guy that’s come from the military to Simpson. They’ve panned out as people and players. They’re real American heroes, and I’m in awe of what they’ve done for our nation. I can’t explain how much they’ve meant to our team.”