THE WINNINGEST quarterback in college football history had a slight limp, and blood was oozing from his right elbow as he walked through the late-afternoon shadows outside Braley Municipal Stadium in Florence, Ala., last Saturday. Cullen Finnerty smiled brightly as he stopped and posed for a picture an hour after leading Grand Valley State to a 17--14 win over Northwest Missouri State for the NCAA Division II national championship—the Lakers' second straight title and fourth in the last five years. Then, suddenly, he was blindsided by the most unexpected shot of the day.
"You're a real pain in the ass, do you know that?" Northwest Missouri State coach Mel Tjeerdsma said with a laugh as he grabbed Finnerty by the shoulder. "The thing is, you're even better than everyone says."
How lethal was Finnerty, a 6'2", 210 pound run-pass threat, in the rematch of last year's D-II title game? He passed for 225 yards and one touchdown, ran for 115 yards and another score, and repeatedly moved the chains with improvisations on third down. The senior quarterback cemented his place in the record book by winning his 51st game as a starter—the most victories by a starting QB in any division in the 138 years that college football has been played. ( Chad Pennington, who played at Marshall in the mid to late 1990s, is second, with 45 wins.)
"Cullen is like Rambo when he gets on the field: He loves to hit people," says Lakers wide receiver Erik Fowler. "It's been that way the entire time he's been at Grand Valley."
Growing up in Brighton, Mich., Finnerty was like everyone else on the high school team: He wanted to play in Division I-A. And after he threw for 1,954 yards as a senior at Brighton High, several schools from the Mid American Conference asked him to walk on. He chose Toledo, and in his freshman year he was higher on the depth chart than Bruce Gradkowski, now the rookie starter for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But Finnerty never took a snap, and after the season he drove to the Allendale, Mich., campus of Grand Valley. There, he was offered the one thing that Toledo couldn't promise him: playing time. Finnerty transferred, sat out a year and then was handed the reins to the offense. Three national championships later, he has led the Lakers on a 28-game winning streak—the longest active run in the country—and he finished his career as only the second player in any division to pass for more than 10,000 yards and rush for more than 2,000. (The other was Steve McNair at Division I-AA Alcorn State from 1991 through '94.)
"Coming to Grand Valley obviously worked out really, really well for me," says Finnerty. "This is a special place."
Indeed, with a roster full of players who were raised within five hours of the school, Grand Valley has emerged as the greatest dynasty in the 34-year history of Division II football. In their last 90 games the Lakers are a ridiculous 85--5. They have 16 starters returning next season, so another championship run seems likely, provided that coach Chuck Martin can find a capable replacement for Finnerty. "I'm not sure who'll be playing quarterback for us next year, but there will never be another one like Cullen," Martin said after last Saturday's game. "Man, what a quarterback."
A moment later Martin took a seat on a golf cart next to college football's winningest QB. The Alabama sun was setting in front of them, and the pair zoomed off into the evening. So it ended—a career that won't soon be forgotten by anyone who follows Division II football.