Former members of the Grand Valley State football team gathered in a parking lot. Their faces frozen. In shock. Some hugged. Others just stood there. Staring.

They had found their quarterback. Cullen Finnerty. He was dead in the woods.

“This sucks, man,” said Joe Wohlscheid, who played offensive line when Finnerty was at GVSU. “Cullen was a great guy.”

Finnerty was found Tuesday night after disappearing Sunday. He was 30. Lake County Sheriff Robert Hilts confirmed the death at a news conference Tuesday night.

Finnerty, who was a part of three NCAA Division II national championships at GVSU, was found wearing fishing waders and a camouflaged jacket. He was in the woods about a half mile north of where he disappeared while on a fishing trip on the Baldwin River, about 65 miles north of Grand Rapids. There were no apparent injuries and no signs of foul play,Hilts said.

“There was nothing obvious to us, to the view, of anything that would have caused his death,” Hilts said.

An autopsy will be performed.

“We were walking a good line,” said Scott Boyd, who was on the search party that found the body. “I squatted down. We had seen some trail. And a girl shouted. She walked right up on it. I thought, ‘Oh no.’ ”

Boyd sat on a curb, staring off into space.

“I can’t believe it,” Boyd said.
United in a search

They searched through the woods. Through the swamps. Through dark, murky water that came up to their thighs. They looked in old abandoned cabins and trailers and behind trees and under logs, trying to solve the mystery.

Where was Cullen Finnerty?

About 100 current and former football players and coaches from Grand Valley State searched through the thick, swampy woods northeast of Baldwin.

“Where you at, quarterback?” screamed Tom Reuter, 41, who lives in Woodland and played football at GVSU in the 1990s.

The football players broke up and worked in small teams, stretching out, working slowly through the dense forest, focusing on 2 square miles of private and public land.

Of course, these players split into teams.

Tight, cohesive units.

That’s what this program is known for.

GVSU has won four Division II national titles, including three when Finnerty 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.

“Cullen!” somebody screamed.

Finnerty, who played high school football in Brighton and followed Drew Henson at quarterback, 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.

Finnerty played quarterback with a linebacker’s mentality. Tough. A fierce competitor. But always a lot of fun. He was a magnet in the locker room, the guy who pulled everybody together.

And he pulled in several generations of GVSU football players Tuesday morning, who came together to look for him.

“It’s family,” said Jeff Chaney, who played at GVSU in the 1980s. “Laker down, you have to go find him.”

Chaney said he was in a search party with several of Finnerty’s family members.

“I went out with his dad, his brother and his sister,” Chaney said after the search, his pants covered with mud.
Afraid, then gone

Finnerty had spent the holiday weekend with family near Baldwin, according to his father-in-law, Dan Brink of Muskegon.

“We had brats and hamburgers on Saturday and grilled chicken on Sunday,” Brink said. “Everything was cool. It was a great weekend. We had a lot of smiles, a lot of laughs. There were no indications. There were no problems.”

Brink said Finnerty decided to go fishing Sunday night.

“It was a nice night on Sunday and we thought, ‘There is a nice stretch of the river,’ and he got himself one of those boats, and he had been practicing on it. It’s a riverboat, a raft.

“We were only a quarter mile from each other,” Brink continued. “He ended up exactly where we told him to end up.”

Finnerty called his wife Sunday night and said he was in danger, according to Hilts. And then he disappeared.

Police found his small boat but no fishing equipment.

Hilts told reporters that family members told investigators that Finnerty “was nervous about something, and it was suspected that he might be having some kind of a mental episode.”

Finnerty had two small children.

Police say the family had no explanation for Finnerty’s disappearance.

“He phoned his wife and explained he was afraid,” Hilts told reporters. “He left his equipment and ran off into the woods.”