Will Finch might some day be the Canadian quarterback many have waited for. But there were moments this past winter, while sitting in a dark room and dealing with dizzying concussion symptoms, that he considered quitting football.
Western University's star quarterback suffered two concussions last season. The first was thanks to a hellacious lick from a blitzing McMaster linebacker. The second was absorbed three weeks later as Finch scrambled and dove, and his helmet crunched into the knee of a Windsor defender, sending him off on a body board and ending his promising season in mid-October.
A homegrown quarterback hasn't started a regular-season game in the CFL in nearly two decades, but many have long predicted Finch is on course to some day be that impact player. The aggressive 6-foot-3, 215-pound pivot says if he suffers one more head injury, he'll retire, but his passion for football still burns. He's all in for his senior season, which starts this weekend, and will keep chasing the CFL dream that blossomed as a boy watching Hamilton Tiger-Cats games at Ivor Wynne Stadium.
"Going through a concussion, it was a terrible experience, and a place I never want to be again," Finch said. "It has really changed me, and changed our play-calling – there are hardly any quarterback run plays, and if I do run, I'll slide within five yards of anyone. But I still love this, it's still my favourite thing to do, and I want to keep going."
The native of Burlington, Ont., has been on the gridiron since he was 6 and made efforts to earn similar experiences enjoyed by football-hungry young Americans – playing spring football and taking regular trips to Florida for elite quarterback coaching. He was highly scouted as a teen and could have played in the United States, but chose Western, where he could play right away rather than red-shirting down south.
Finch turned some heads in relief action as a freshman, but he really broke out in 2013 as a sophomore starter when he set a single-season OUA record for passing yards (3,047) and led the top-ranked Mustangs to 458 points – a league best for a season, all the while going 8-0. Western scorched opponents for an average of 57.2 points a game that year.
Western won the Yates Bowl that season, but got blistered by Calgary in the Mitchell Bowl. Last year the Mustangs went without the concussed Finch in the playoffs, and lost in the OUA semi-finals to Guelph.
Finch says he spent more than a month mostly sitting in a darkened, quiet room, away from screens and books, merely listening to movies or to his girlfriend's voice as she read to him. Standing up made him dizzy; light induced headaches. His sister, a nurse, reminded him of the dangers of concussions.
Once he recovered, he and had coach Greg Marshall had long discussions about how they could change not only the playbook, but also the fiery quarterback's mindset, in order to protect himself when he takes the field again for Western, which tops the preseason polls as the OUA favourite. Before long, he was texting Marshall every day asking to watch film together, often the same games for the fifth and sixth times.
Finch went to Los Angeles for off-season work at USC with Tom House, a former Major League Baseball pitcher who is now a renowned arm specialist, working with elite pitchers and NFL quarterbacks like Tom Brady and Drew Brees. Finch dedicated there to a more holistic approach to the athlete, from biomechanics to psychology to nutrition.
As part of the CFL's Canadian quarterback internship program, he was also invited to Ticats training camp, where coach Kent Austin set aside time to school him on coverages and tendencies, while Finch also bonded with quarterback Zach Collaros, who has also recovered from concussions.
Finch is constantly asked about the need for Canadian quarterbacks in the CFL. He's watched with interest as some have come close – from Mississauga-born Brandon Bridge playing some spot duty for the Montreal Alouettes recently, CIS pivots like Kyle Quinlan and Danny Brannagan getting brief opportunities, or Canadian pivots signing CFL contracts but being moved to other positions.
"With the right team and the right coaching, Will can certainly develop into an outstanding CFL quarterback," Marshall said. "In the Canadian game, the running game is similar to the American game, but the passing game is so different because of the width of the field, the motion, and the extra player. I think it's going to take a former CFL quarterback in coaching like Anthony Calvillo or Jason Maas or Khari Jones to see the potential in Will Finch and develop him."
While Finch could be drafted in the CFL Draft, he would still be eligible to play a fifth CIS season next year.
"There is just one goal right now – to win a Vanier Cup," Finch said. "The guys and I, we've all said 'let's have fun this year, who needs stress?' When you're having fun, it all falls into place."