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August 16, 2012
Klein and Finney stage their own incredible journey
After the game's final play, he collapsed to the turf. Time had expired. There was nothing left that the wide receiver-turned-quarterback could do. A former walk-on offensive lineman, fresh off his eighth-career start at center, hunkered over his fallen Kansas State teammate. B.J. Finney had some words for Collin Klein.
"Let's pick ourselves up and hold ourselves high," Finney said. "We came in and rocked this place tonight."
Third-ranked Oklahoma State entered as the charmed team and No. 14 Kansas State arrived at Boone Pickens Stadium as one of football's biggest surprise success stories. The 21-point underdog Wildcats came five yards short of potentially beating their highest-ranked opponent ever on the road.
In the days leading to that fateful Nov. 5 nighttime meeting in Stillwater, almost everybody outside of the visitor's locker room counted K-State out. By the time Finney reached Klein, kneeling near the 10-yard line as deafening pandemonium ensued inside the stadium, the quarterback had stolen the hearts of ESPN's Brent Musburger and Kirk Herbstreit behind his trademark toughness and determination.
Later it was indicated that Klein attempted to audible into a running play prior to that final snap. There simply wasn't enough time to get set in formation with the play clock winding down. The Wildcats remained in a passing play and Klein's final attempt sailed through the end zone.
"He was mad at himself for overthrowing it, and he just couldn't believe that we'd gotten all this work done, and had gotten into position to win, and he overthrew Tramaine Thompson," Finney recalled. "He felt bad. He felt like he let the team down. He was in a lot of pain physically and mentally, too. Heck, he was in a lot of pain throughout the season.
"He was just in disbelief of himself. When I knelt down, I spoke to him, 'Collin, it's one pass.' I helped him up and we went to the locker room together."
The end result remains a painful memory for Klein and Finney, their teammates, the few thousand K-State supporters that crammed into the edges of the stadium, and those loyalists that watched the 52-45 defeat unfold on national TV. That night, the Wildcats fell just short of drastically altering the dynamics of the Big 12 Conference race.
Of course, the Wildcats, picked to finish eighth out of 10 teams in the Big 12 Conference, finished at No. 8 in the final Bowl Championship Series standings, went on to a 10-3 campaign, capturing the program's most wins in eight years and delving deeper into January than any team in school history with a Jan. 7 berth in the Cotton Bowl. A 29-16 loss to sixth-ranked Arkansas provided a bittersweet ending to a surprise campaign that finished with the Wildcats at No. 16 in The Associated Press poll.
But that night in Stillwater, under the lights, in front of a television audience, yeah, it served as something greater.
Finney, the former walk-on offensive linemen, a redshirt freshman prior to the 2011 season, was fast emerging a bonafide leader at the center position. Klein, who spent the 2009 season at wide receiver, and prior to facing the Cowboys was noted more for his rushing exploits (five 100-yard efforts) than his success through the air (six 100-yard passing games) in 15 appearances (including 10 starts) at quarterback, staged a gemlike performance.
It was later revealed that the 6-foot-5, 226-pound Klein didn't practice the week leading up to the shootout. He finished with 375 total yards and four touchdowns, and amassed career-highs by completing 22 of 38 passes for 231 yards. He rushed for 144 yards on 29 carries and three touchdowns. He left Stillwater with 19 rushing touchdowns through nine games, which tied for the second-most in single-season history by a K-State player.
"Collin being close to me, I wasn't going to see him eat himself alive over that one throw, because Collin is the kind of guy where it would eat at him, because he had that opportunity and missed," Finney said. "And Collin isn't the kind of guy that likes to miss.
"Collin, no matter what, is going to be my commander and general, and he's always going to be my quarterback. At that point, the game was over, and it was man-to-man, and he needed to be picked up."
"I mean," he said, "I physically put him to bed that night."
Through turmoil arrived growth.
"That moment at the end, that moment will always stand in my mind because that was the moment that Collin and I bonded together stronger than we already had," Finney said. "It's always going to be a fond memory of mine."
Now during the 2011 season, roommates Collin, younger brother Kyle Klein, and Finney, established somewhat of a post-game routine that proved to be at times comical, and became chronicled as the season wore on. The routine began with a trip to the freezer to break out the ice packs.
"Standard game day procedure," Finney said. "We just ice down what's hurting. We wrap the ice packs in a towel, or if it won't stay on, we keep some plastic wrap from the trainers and re-wrap that around it."
That a starting quarterback and his starting center shared a home? That could be somewhat rare. Some signal-callers might form a defined kinship with the skill-position players that tend to enact the spectacular and make the quarterback look good on the field. Offensive linemen tend to migrate to one another, pride themselves on being the big guys in the trenches -- one cohesive unit, a select club.
Finney, an Andale native, moved in with the Klein brothers, natives of Loveland, Colo., prior to 2011 summer workouts.
The teammates called each other "brother." And they meant it.
And given their limited time together, it would probably have proven hard last fall to find a quarterback and center with better chemistry -- on and off the field -- in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
Then something interesting happened.
In late April, Finney and Klein were elected as team co-captains. And that took the tale to another level.
Klein became the first offensive player to be selected as a team co-captain three times in the 117-year history of the K-State football program. Finney became the youngest offensive player to serve as a co-captain in the Bill Snyder era. The 20-year-old became the first non-senior offensive lineman to become a co-captain since center Nick Leckey as a junior in 2002.
"That's big time, because as the center, he's inherently the leader up front with making some calls and making sure they're organized and set in the huddle," Klein said. "Little things like that are big. Just the familiarity and trust we have in each other to make sure we're on the same page is big. I know he's doing his thing, and if I check something, he adjusts. Just the confidence and familiarity is very important. It makes for quicker and more efficient communication and ultimately more productivity. It's awesome."
The duo, not even a blip on the college football map entering 2011, now enters the Sept. 1 season opener against Missouri State recognized among the best at their respective positions. K-State has players on a school-record 17 watch lists. Klein enters on four preseason watch lists (the Maxwell, O'Brien, Manning and Unitas) and Finney became the youngest K-State player ever selected to the Rimington Trophy watch list, an honor given to the nation's most outstanding center.
However, the days under the same roof became numbered for the pair of captains. Aside from his summer school courses and workouts and various trips during the summer, Klein prepared for the biggest step of his life. On July 21, Klein married former K-State women's basketball player Shalin Spani, the daughter of College Football Hall of Famer Gary Spani, a K-State legend.
Kyle served as the best man, while Finney and close friend Victor Ojeleye were among the groomsmen.
"People will tell you having their wife is like their solid rock, and if it wasn't for them, they don't know how they'd make it through," Finney said. "Shalin is every bit of that. She's going to be there for Collin to lean on when he needs her. They're a great couple. There's no way around it.
"I think it'll help him a lot because they're both fierce competitors, and both understand more things than some people ever will, and they're still young. I see this marriage being a great thing and it'll help Collin in every aspect of his life."
Collin and Shalin Klein moved into an apartment.
"But I'll still be around the house a lot," Klein insisted.
In the months prior to leaving the house, Klein introduced Finney to a gift that would bond them for life.
The 6-foot-4, 303-pound Finney, standing in a dark sports jacket tight against his frame, said that he made strides in the weight room during the offseason. He talked about an enhanced sense of focus and discipline as the Wildcats begin their climb to prove to a nation of doubters that 2011 was no fluke.
He recounted one scenario, in particular, that best demonstrated his passion and confidence entering his sophomore season.
"Some people might call me crazy out on the field because I'll be flying all over the place, making noises," Finney chuckled. "I was pulling out one time and I was just having fun. We were running a zone to the left and I ended up having to go get a linebacker, and the whole time I'm running with him making this high-pitched noise, and I could just tell he was like, 'What is going on?' It was kind of mixture between a whistle and a scream. I was just going after it."
Finney smiled. He paused. He had another story to tell.
Watery eyes dissolved all barriers.
"And Collin," he announced softly, "Collin helped me to find my spiritual self. I accepted Christ and have been walking the path to God for the last three or four months, and it's been an extreme blessing to have Collin and Kyle around to help me.
"Life is so much sweeter now. I come to work every day with stuff to improve upon and football is 10-times more fun than it was during last fall."
For as much as Finney admired the dogged determination of his quarterback throughout the 2011 season in their first season together on the field, he witnessed another side as well. He saw Collin, Kyle, and visiting parents Doug and Kelly, head to church the morning after home football games.
On Sunday evenings, after reviewing film and upon completing study hall, cars lined the street outside their home. In the family room, Collin would be on the mandolin, Kyle and a friend would be strumming guitars, and another friend would seated behind the piano. The worship group included Ojeleye and nine or 10 other friends. They read scripture. They sang hymns. Then they prayed for each other.
Finney sensed the magic in the air. He yearned to join the group.
"It was watching Collin and Kyle and seeing how faithful they were and how the word of God can be applied in everyday life to different situations," Finney said. "I started to go to church with them. Collin would give me scriptures to read, and ask me to apply them, and then talk to him about it.
"It just kind of started to spark after the Cotton Bowl. That's when I was ready. That's when I wanted Him. I wanted to accept Him into my life. Collin said, 'Well, this is awesome.' Collin, Kyle and I are just such a tight-knit group."
Asked to describe the high that he felt upon starting down his newfound path, Finney quickly countered, "I'm still on that high. It never changes. There's always something there."
The fellowship gatherings usually didn't last more than an hour once a week. But they became popular.
"It varies week by week," Finney said. "It might be as many as 20 people at some point."
For as grueling as balancing school and football might be, Sunday was a time to rejoice.
Even before the start of fall camp on Aug. 2, Finney sensed something special ready to erupt -- the chemistry between him and his quarterback.
"Collin and I have unbelievable chemistry in seeing eye-to-eye on what we want to accomplish this season and how we're going to get there, and as far as being the kind of men we want to be off the field," Finney said. "Collin and I take it to the next level and we really enjoy every minute of it."
To the casual observer, the center snaps the ball to the quarterback and then blocks defenders. The question becomes this: How can that center-quarterback chemistry take another step forward?
"The first step in any kind of relationship is trust," Finney said. "The offensive line has to trust Collin and Collin has to trust us to protect and give him time to run or throw. The first stepping-stone is trust. It's a huge thing you have to get down for chemistry.
"When Collin makes a check, none of us ever question it. He checks it and we roll with it. If he checks to a different pass play, I switch the protection and that's the end of it. There's no debate. There's nothing. He checks a play, I check the protection or the schemes, and we go with it. That's the way it has to be to have a functional offense.
"We know Collin is going to do everything that he can to get us into the end zone. And it's contagious. We trust him, he trusts us to pave the way for him, and that just comes with a lot of hard work, sweat and blood that we give for each other."
Teammates noticed the chemistry even during unsupervised summer afternoon mini-practices inside Bill Snyder Family Stadium.
"B.J. is similar to Collin," sophomore wide receiver Curry Sexton said. "In the middle of your offensive line, he's a guy you want there because you know B.J. is going to do his job every single play. B.J. is so talented and works hard and wants it so bad that it makes it easy to root for a guy like that."
Senior tight end Travis Tannahill simply describes Finney as the rock.
"Everything starts from the center out, then guards make their calls, then the tackles and tight ends," Tannahill said. "B.J. is a good rock down there. It'll definitely help us in the fall."
Finney also knows relative inexperience plagues a portion of the offensive line. Informed that the offensive line is likely the biggest question mark for the offense entering the fall, Finney nodded his head.
"It's that mentality that you've got to have in coming to work on something every day," he said. "You've got to improve every day. In the spring game, I felt pretty confident but that was a limited offense we were running. The guys are making a lot of headway in learning the entire offense and executing it pretty well. We have two redshirt freshmen that are potential starters. Cornelius Lucas is a redshirt junior at left tackle. Tavon Rooks is coming from juco and is vying for a tackle spot. A lot of guys are just pushing each other right now and picking up the offense, and fine-tuning everything.
"I read an article that Coach Charlie Dickey earned his paycheck last year. That's very true. We call ourselves the 'misfits' for a reason. We were just a bunch of random guys that he carved into a diamond and made us look good. That was Coach Dickey all the way. I don't see us being much of a question mark this year because he's going to do the exact same thing. He's going to find out who wants to be in there, who wants it the most, who does what it takes, and he's going to make them better and they're going to see the field."
While the offensive line strives to obtain the cohesiveness necessary to allow Klein time to pass the ball and find holes in the running attack, Klein, with his increased knowledge of the system, has seemingly stepped-up his chemistry with Snyder and quarterbacks coach Del Miller.
Snyder repeatedly has declined to project Klein's improvement in numerical terms -- "If I could project that, I'd be in Las Vegas right now," Snyder said -- but Miller has no doubts about Klein's potential in his senior season.
"Well, actually, over the last couple years Collin has worked very hard on his throwing motion, and has developed it, and has done a very good job," Miller said. "He's throwing the ball very well right now, good mechanics, no question about that. I couldn't say that necessarily three years ago.
"For Collin, the offseason was more the small things technically. There weren't major things. Collin understands that this is his football team. He also understands that his success is going to depend upon the guys around him. If everybody around him does well, we're going to be successful as a team.
"And he's pushing the rest of the guys."
Finney believes a prevalent misconception exists regarding Klein's abilities. Everybody knows Klein rushed for a K-State quarterback-record 1,141 yards and led the FBS with 317 carries and scored 27 rushing touchdowns, which tied Navy's Ricky Dobbs for the most by a quarterback during a season in FBS history. But behind his trademark bloodied elbows, Klein also completed 57.3 percent of his passes for 1,918 yards and 13 touchdowns and six interceptions.
Although Klein was picked as the No. 3 player in college football by The Sporting News and enters his senior year garnering Heisman consideration, his passing game remains an object of intrigue among fans and critics alike.
"One thing everybody doubts is his throwing game," Finney said. "He tied the FBS quarterback record for rushing touchdowns, so most people believe if you have a great rushing quarterback, then you can't have a great thrower. Collin is an excellent thrower. He's on target. He had some blessed opportunities this summer to work with some coaches who specialize in quarterbacks, so he's developed a lot, and he's always going to push himself to continue to develop."
Klein has remained largely mum on his offseason travels, only offering, "I've taken advantage of some opportunities. We'll see if it pays off."
K-State will face many tests with a non-conference game against Miami and road games at Oklahoma, TCU and West Virginia. While the outcomes of those contests remain unknown, one certainty remains predetermined.
At some point, Finney will snap the ball to Klein one final time in the last game of his career.
Finney paused in brief contemplation.
"Collin means a lot, personally and on the field, as does every other senior," he said. "One thing I've always held myself accountable to is if I was a senior, how would I want these underclassmen to play? One thing I want the other guys to realize is that if we're very successful this season, we're always going to remember it, but the seniors are going to remember it that much more. It'll be their last go-around in that uniform.
"Collin, I'd do anything for. I'd love to send them out with a ring that says 'Champions' on it. I'd absolutely love to do that and I want that so bad for them. It would mean a lot to go out with a win at the end of the season."
That opportunity will assuredly arise. But there will be many chapters along the way, many tests that might challenge the moxie of a veteran-laden squad that saw a nation-leading eight games decided within a touchdown a year ago.
Along the way, though, Klein knows he can count upon his quarterback of the offensive line.
"B.J. is amazing," he said. "His confidence level trickles throughout the whole thing."
It isn't only a story about football, though. It's about a former walk-on offensive lineman and a one-time wide receiver that, by virtue of hard work and a kind twist of fate, crossed paths, then shared a home, and finally landed in the starting lineup.
Things change. The last calendar year can attest to as much.
But once connected, bonds can often become unbreakable.
Even if the old roomie moves across town.
"Collin and I aren't only quarterback and center, but we're the best of friends," Finney said. "We call each other brother. I lived with the guy and we do everything together, in football and out of football. He's helped me through some stuff and I've helped him through some stuff.
"We're always there throughout each other's lives."
Such was the case during that final difficult moment in Stillwater when Finney helped his devastated quarterback to his feet. He told Klein that he had done so much, even in defeat, and wouldn't allow him to stay down.
"This isn't going to change anything," Finney told him, "in anybody's hearts."
Months later, Klein returned the favor. He opened Finney's heart to a new life.
Sometimes in life, and in football, there are no words.