MANHATTAN, Kan. – BJ Finney made his first splash on a football field when he moved into his high school's starting lineup as a sophomore in the midst of a state title season.
He didn't have experience, but he did have size and leadership qualities. And that was enough to trump any misgivings that Andale (Kan.) High School coach Gary O'Hair had about him.
"He really showed how tough he was then, because we had a few injuries and we were playing some of the best teams in the state of Kansas," O'Hair said. "He was able to get out there and do more than hold his own. He was a dominant factor even as a sophomore."
Six years later Finney is still providing a stabilizing force in the middle of an offensive line. Only this time, he's doing it for Kansas State.
"What I was given was a very rare opportunity," said Finney, who redshirted his first year on campus and started the next year. "It was a chance to prove myself and earn that scholarship."
Finney was a good enough that he led Andale to three state playoffs and made various all-state teams as a junior and senior. But the interest he earned from colleges was far from overwhelming — he committed to Ohio, but found out there wasn't a scholarship for him.
So, when no other Division I offers came down the pike, Finney decided to take up Kansas State coach Bill Snyder's offer to walk on with the Wildcats. There was no guarantee that he'd ever end up on scholarship, much less play, but it was a chance to continue with his career.
Finney found the opportunity too good to pass up.
He dedicated himself to becoming the best player he could, and was making quick impressions in practice. He was given the Red Raider Award as the top contributor to the scout team while he was redshirting, and then earned a starting job as a sophomore.
"There's no way to measure the size of somebody's heart and their attitude and work ethic," O'Hair said. "Those are the things that are going to make BJ great and separate him from other kids."
Finney actually started his freshman season at right guard, but eventually moved over to center. It was a decision that paid off for the Wildcats, who averaged nearly 200 yards rushing per game and helped lead Kansas State to a berth in the Cotton Bowl.
He was a stabilizing force last year, too, for the team that made the Fiesta Bowl.
"There is a huge passion in leading this team," Finney said. "I don't always get to convey it or portray it because there are a lot of things we're trying to fix in the offensive line. I've got to give my attention to the unit and then the rest of the team."
Finney's presence has become even more important this year as the Wildcats (2-4, 0-3 Big 12) try to get on track after a disastrous start to league play.
"I'd probably say he is our top leader," fullback Glenn Gronkowski said. "He's the most vocal out of everybody and probably on the whole entire offense. Sometimes it's even more than the quarterbacks. He's the one out there making sure we're doing the little things right."
The progress has been slow but steady this year — the Wildcats ran for 327 yards against No. 6 Baylor before having last week off. But as they prepare for West Virginia on Saturday, Finney is still pushing the offensive line — really, the entire offense — to keep getting better.
"We work harder than everybody else. That's what our identity is," quarterback Daniel Sams said. "When I heard him say that, I knew he was right. That's really what K-State has been since I've been here, it's all about hard work. We probably don't have the most talented guys, but we just want to out work everybody that's in front of us."
Indeed, Finney seems to value hard work even more than he does wins and losses.
"Winning doesn't define me," he said. "It's something that comes from the hard work that I put in. I just want people to be able to look up to me and have a good role model that carries themselves the right way. I want them to know even when going through hardships, you can still come out of it no matter what circumstances get thrown your way."