LANSING, Mich. — A former Division II college football star who disappeared in the Michigan wilderness during a fishing trip died of pneumonia caused by inhaling his vomit, after he became disoriented possibly because of painkillers combined with having a degenerative brain disease, according to an updated autopsy released Thursday.
The report said Cullen Finnerty’s anxiety and paranoia in the woods the night of May 26 might have been exacerbated by an “elevated” level of oxycodone and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the brain disease that has been found in a number of ex-football players.
Finnerty’s brain was studied at Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, according to the report.
Kent County Chief Medical Examiner Stephen Cohle said Finnerty, 30, became incapacitated before inhaling his vomit 65 miles north of Grand Rapids.
Though relatives reported the former Grand Valley State University quarterback had a number of alcoholic drinks the day he died, Cohle said his blood-alcohol level was “negligible” and didn’t contribute to incapacitation.
The report said it’s likely Finnerty had anxiety, disorientation and paranoia from being alone in the woods while waiting for in-laws to pick him up. Cohle said the pain medication was prescribed to Finnerty for back injuries likely sustained during his football career.
An initial autopsy conducted the morning after Finnerty’s body was found determined that he had a “slightly enlarged heart and slightly cloudy lungs” but “no trauma to the body at all.” The final report includes toxicology results and the determination that he had CTE.
Boston University’s center for study of the disease reported in December that 34 former pro football players and nine who played only college football suffered from CTE.
The NFL faces lawsuits by thousands of former players who say the league withheld information on the harmful effects of concussions. The NCAA also is being sued over its handling of head injuries.
Finnerty’s wife told investigators that he had a past addiction to painkillers but had not taken any drugs since spending time in a rehabilitation center more than a year earlier. Jennifer Finnerty said it wasn’t the first time he had a “paranoid” episode.
Instead of driving home from Detroit a 11/2 earlier, he took off for Grand Rapids in western Michigan due to fears the FBI would follow him, she said. She said her husband remained in a state of panic for four to five days.
Cullen Finnerty, his brother-in-law Matt Brinks and father-in-law Dan Brinks went fishing the night of May 26. The Brinks dropped off Finnerty around 8:30 p.m. and watched as he boarded a small personal inflatable pontoon boat and floated down stream.
The plan was for the Brinks to pick up Finnerty in about 30 minutes, but as it turned out, it was the last time they would see him alive. His body was found May 28 within a mile of where he had disappeared.
In two brief phone conversations with family members, Finnerty sounded disoriented and complained of being tailed.
Finnerty led Grand Valley to more than 50 victories and three Division II national titles, the last in 2006. He briefly was a member of the Baltimore Ravens and later the Denver Broncos but never took a snap in a regular season game.