Grant Hedrick has spent his entire life surrounded by football players and coaches — some of the most competitive people in America. And still he found Ryan Finley’s competitive streak borderline annoying.
Finley, a redshirt sophomore quarterback, will make his first career start Friday night in the Boise State football team’s season opener against Washington at Albertsons Stadium.
His competitive drive helped him overcome a series of coaching changes and a damaged shoulder to become the first underclassman to start at quarterback for the Broncos since Kellen Moore was a sophomore in 2009.
Hedrick, the starter last year, went to Finley’s Arizona home during Fiesta Bowl week in December. He ended up in a not-so-friendly shuffleboard game. Finley’s dad, Pat, and younger brother, Ben (13), took the lead on the two quarterbacks.
“I’ve never met anybody as competitive as him,” Hedrick said. “... He was just throwing a fit because we were losing. That’s with everything. He just hates to lose more than anything. It doesn’t matter if it’s football or shuffleboard. He can’t relax.”
Finley developed his personality through a childhood spent playing a variety of sports: basketball from age 7 through high school, baseball from T-ball through elementary school, roller hockey from age 7 through middle school, tennis for a year in high school and track and field in high school.
He didn’t play tackle football until high school — he did play youth and middle school flag football — but made playing college football his focus.
“He understood he was going to be a top-level, Division I quarterback,” said Mark MacGowan, Finley’s basketball coach at Paradise Valley High in Phoenix.
Finley, who started as a shooting guard on Paradise Valley’s state championship team his senior year, likely could have played Division I college basketball, MacGowan said. He was the school’s top tennis player the one year he competed and became the top high jumper after the track coach asked him to try it (he was a straight-A student, too).
“He’s an unbelievable athlete,” MacGowan said. “He just loves to win and compete.”
MacGowan remembers one game in which Finley scored 37 points without missing a shot — from the free-throw line, the field or the 3-point line.
By his senior year, he learned to balance his competitive fire and the need to lead his teams.
“He matured year by year,” MacGowan said. “He became an outstanding leader. He would get on kids in the right way. ... He had the respect of all his teammates because they all knew how hard he worked.”
Former Paradise Valley football coach Donnie Yantis tells similar stories about Finley, who once threw game-winning TD passes on fourth down in back-to-back games. Finley tossed 35 T passes as a senior to earn all-state honors for all divisions.
He would get frustrated with himself if he struggled to learn a new concept, Yantis said. He expected to master every skill.
“He’s going to do everything in his power to help his team win,” Yantis said.
The same traits MacGowan and Yantis describe are the ones the Broncos cited when quizzed about Finley after he was named the starter Aug. 23.
Good leader. Hard worker. Smart player. And “unreal competitive,” sophomore tight end Jake Roh said.
“He’s the type of guy who’s going to get on you if you drop a ball — in a fun manner, but also serious,” junior wide receiver Chaz Anderson said. “That’s what makes him such a good leader. He’s going to show you he has emotions and he cares about what you do on the field.”
Finley remains a bit of a public mystery because he has been made available to the local media just once since arriving in the summer of 2013 — and that interview was 13 months ago.
Plus, his April arrest on alcohol and resisting charges doesn’t mesh with the qualities those who know him outline.
“His integrity and character are very important to him,” Yantis said. “I have no doubt he’ll never let something like that happen again.”
Boise State coach Bryan Harsin showed his trust in Finley by choosing not to suspend him for the opener. He doesn’t plan to suspend him when the court case is finalized, either, he said.
“I can’t ask him to do any more than what he’s done and I’m proud of him,” Harsin said in July. “This is obviously disappointing – we all understand that – but when guys make up for their mistakes, and I believe he’s done that from our standpoint, then we’re good.”
Finley committed to Boise State in 2012, nearly a year before he could sign a letter of intent. He expected to play for Chris Petersen, who will coach Washington against Finley.
Finley learned he needed shoulder surgery during his first fall camp in 2013. He rushed back in spring 2014 to get on the field and show a new staff that hadn’t recruited him what he could do.
His arm was still weak — he couldn’t make some throws his reads dictated, he said last year — but his mere presence made an impression.
“He just did a great job of earning the trust of the coaches and earning the respect of the teammates the way he battled through that shoulder injury and came out of that even stronger,” Hedrick said. “It was really good for him and kind of toughened him up a little bit.”
Finley won the backup job in fall camp and threw two touchdown passes in a relief appearance at Air Force, when Hedrick was benched.
Coaches decided to stick with Hedrick the next week — he rewarded them by leading a nine-game win streak — but Finley was a legitimate option.
“He competed really well last year in fall camp and really gave us a lot to think about with Grant,” said offensive coordinator Eliah Drinkwitz, who is Finley’s third coordinator in as many years. “So we felt confident in Ryan.”
Finley opened a big gap this past spring while competing against three inexperienced quarterbacks: sophomore Tommy Stuart, redshirt freshman Alex Ogle and true freshman Brett Rypien, none of whom have appeared in a major college football game.
Finley led the offense through summer workouts and fall camp and showed the consistency that’s so important to coaches.
“You could kind of feel it and you could see it — especially how much he’s taken a leadership role on the team,” junior wide receiver Thomas Sperbeck said.
Finley is unique in recent BSU history. He’s 6-4, 200 pounds — the tallest starter since B.J. Rhode in 2002 — but he’s quick, too.
Drinkwitz likes Finley’s accuracy. Roh complimented his field vision. Hedrick says Finley knew the offense as well as he did last year.
“It’s going to be fun to watch,” Hedrick said. “I don’t think people realize that he’s pretty fast. It’s going to be a lot like last year with a mobile quarterback, and I think it’s going to be exciting.”