It was on October 25, 2014 that Western Mustangs football fans took a collective gasp.
For the second time in 21 days, quarterback Will Finch had been knocked so hard he didn’t know what was what.
The first hit came against the McMaster Marauders and Finch remembers almost nothing after the hit, other than how woozy he was. But he can describe exactly what happened that led up to it.
“It was on a free play: [we] snapped the ball and a [Canadian Football League] player now – Nick Shortill, he’s a hard-hitting linebacker – comes straight off the edge, full-rush, untouched and just dinged me,” Finch recalls, nearly a year after the incident. “And so that’s all I really remember.”
Then there was the second hit, the one that shut down his season for good, which – again – he remembers only before, not after. He’s seen the video proof – the tape showing his head collide with the knee of a Windsor Lancer, but he doesn’t remember anything from the game after he went down.
“I was KO’d I think on that one. I was lights out. I remember running the ball actually but I just don’t really remember after the hit,” he says.
Those who have seen Finch play know he has always loved to run the ball. It’s part of what makes him unique as a quarterback. You would watch him scramble and scramble and then somehow find daylight to gain another first down or run it in for a touchdown when you didn’t think it was possible.
After his consecutive concussions, things have changed. The Mustang playbook now has less quarterback running, less quarterback draws and less counters. And when Finch does run, he’s now more cautious.
“Before I’d actually look to truck a guy – I’d look to put my shoulder down and find someone,” he says. “But now you get the most yards you can, until you’re within a couple yards of someone and you slide – you get down.”
It’s a necessary change after spending more than a month in a dark room. A month with no visual stimulation – no movies, no video games, no television. And a month without any exercise.
“Going on the bike, you get a headache,” Finch says. “I tried doing a light workout – I tried squatting the bar, just by itself, which is really not that much weight, but I was getting headaches and I was sore. I just felt not good at all. Something just didn’t feel right.”
He helped pass the time by listening to movies he had seen millions of times before.
“I knew them off by heart so I could picture it in my head and so I would just lay there and sleep and listen to those and talk to my sister or my girlfriend – all that and I just kind of try to pass time,” he recalls.
“It wasn’t really a place I want to be again.”
When you talk to Finch, you get the feeling he’d much rather not talk about what happened. He’ll oblige – he’s too polite to say no – but what’s clear is he just wants to focus on now, on playing football.
It’s something he reiterates when asked about the Globe and Mail article this past summer, which mentioned Finch said he would quit football if he were to be seriously concussed again.
“I think if I were to be in a state when I would be knocked out or anything like that, I probably wouldn’t play again but I’m not thinking about that too much,” he says. “I’m just having fun playing football, which is the sport I love.”
In fact, he says having fun is one reason the Mustangs are doing so well this year.
“We’re having a lot more fun [this year] I think,” Finch states. “We’re just playing football – we’re not thinking too much. We’re not putting too much stress on ourselves either.”
Plus the team – once again – is loaded with firepower.
“The only thing that can stop us from winning it all is ourselves,” he says. “Our talent, I think, is greater than it’s ever been and I’m excited to see what we can do.”
Finch is right about the talent level: on paper, Western is absolutely a force to be reckoned with. Once again, they have multiple threats at multiple positions. If the Yates Cup – or the Vanier for that matter – were won on paper, they would win this year. But the same can be said of last year. And the year before.
So what’s different this season?
“We all know you can’t take any team lightly,” he says. “[Last year] we were overconfident I think and [we kind of] beat ourselves. We had the talent, we just didn’t really look at the process. We looked at the outcome – winning the Vanier Cup – not looking one game at a time.”
If Western truly is looking one game at a time, then Carleton this week for Homecoming cannot be overlooked.
Finch remembers playing them two years ago when they were a much younger team and the Mustangs easily won 71–4. But last year the Ravens went 4–4 and this year they’re even better at 3–1.
“They’ve gotten a lot better,” Finch says. “I’m excited against a team that wants to come in and see what they can do.”
He shouldn’t be the only one excited to see what Carleton can do. The Homecoming game should be the best game of the season so far. And it will absolutely beat last year’s Homecoming, when Western easily crushed the Varsity Blues 63–15.
And after all, Homecoming is still Homecoming.
“I think Western is, to me, it’s the Division I school of the States,” Finch says. “There’s a lot of just love for the sports and for the clubs and everything, and everyone is just really into the school. And if someone goes to Western they don’t not like Western, you love Western.”