It all looks and sounds so wonderfully familiar.
Beneath the picture-perfect sunny blue skies over the Ray Nitschke practice field, the stands are filled with eager fans just itching for the 2016 Packers season to begin. Coaches barking their instructions to a fresh crop young players hoping to make their mark. The familiar POP! of shoulder pads striking shoulder pads. The ear-splitting bullhorn signaling the end of one practice period leading to another. The loud intermission music blaring through the sound system.
All was as it should be. But looks and sounds were deceiving on this day for the strapping 6-foot-5, 247-pound man wearing the baseball cap while standing on the sideline at the south end of the practice field. Dressed in a blue dress shirt and blue jeans while sporting stylish sunglasses, former Packers tight end Jermichael Finley was right at home.
And, at the same time, so very far away.
“I’m here to support the guys,” Finley says softly. “It’s crazy. I got chills when I came back. There’s a lot of new faces.”
Wasn’t it just last season when we watched No. 88 streaking down the seam, hauling in a laser strike from Aaron Rodgers and rumbling downfield?
No, the last time we saw that was on Oct. 20, 2013. Finley was helping the Packers whip the Cleveland Browns, 31-13, on a rainy, muddy afternoon at Lambeau Field. As he hauled in a fourth-quarter pass from Rodgers, the end of the 10-yard play ended very badly. As Finley lowered his head to absorb a tackle from Browns safety Tashaun Gipson, he took a vicious hit and suddenly he lay motionless.
Fellow tight end Andrew Quarless knew something was wrong immediately and, after a six-minute delay, Finley was taken off the field on a gurney. Finley finished the day with five catches for 72 yards and a touchdown.
Unfortunately, he had also finished his NFL career, suffering a bruised spinal cord in his neck. Though he was determined to return to the gridiron wars, he ultimately had to accept reality and early retirement. The memories still keep him up at night.
“I have a dream like I’m still in the game and I wake up and I’m like, ‘Gol-dog it!’ Like I said, it brings tears to my eyes,” said Finley.
Fast forward to this beautiful Saturday morning practice session, his first since his departure. Finley was back in Green Bay for a promotional “Chalk Talk” appearance with former teammates Mark Tauscher and Antonio Freeman. He also wanted to prowl the sidelines a little bit to get some of the feel of this great game back again.
During quick breaks in the action, many of Finley’s former teammates and Packers front office personnel stopped by to exchange hugs, handshakes and laughs. Ted Thompson. Jordy Nelson. Randall Cobb. Aaron Rodgers. And on and on.
“It was awesome, man,” said Finley. “When I first walked out here, the guys that I came out with came here to see me and it gave me chills from head to toe to see these guys. Coming back was refreshing, for sure. I also wanted to say hi to my media guys, all the guys that interviewed me. I think about it all the time. It brings tears to my eyes sometimes the way it all ended but, at the end of the day, I’m very content living life. It’s a bittersweet time for me right now. One day, I may come back and do some coaching, maybe even next year.”
As he scans the action on the practice field, Finley can’t help but think back to his first training camp when he was a third-round draft choice out of the University of Texas in 2008.
“It was something that every young guy wants,” Finley recalled. “You just don’t want to come in here and just be given a spot (on the roster). Coming in here and not knowing what’s going on, it’s mind-boggling, it’s mental and I respect the guys that can gut through it and perform under pressure.
“I do pay particular attention to the tight ends and I’m trying to see something,” he laughs. “There’s some new faces, new guys and we’ve got a quarterback that can throw the ball to you. But you’ve got to make the plays. I’m waiting to see what Jared Cook has and I’m going to be on him really tough this year. He’s a great guy, too. Awesome guy.”
Finley admitted that while reconnecting with his guys “felt really good,” he feels sadness at the thought that he might be a forgotten man. To have such a promising pro career cut down in an instant is hard to take. Yet, he is excited about what the future may hold, including a return to the NFL.
“Sitting back, I feel like I’m forgotten, to be honest,” said Finley. “But then when I get around the NFL guys, it's like, ‘What’s up, man?! What’s goin’ on?’ It’s refreshing to me that these guys still love me. I have the same feeling for those guys. One day I’m going to come back here and get back into the game. I hope it’s with the Packers or maybe with Ben McAdoo, my first coach who’s a head coach now (with the Giants). I’ll be getting into the game pretty soon.”
The big man still has big dreams. Packer Nation certainly wishes him the very best.