Inside Athletics

Ryan Finck perseveres through childhood illness

Ryan Finck perseveres through childhood illness

From April 6-12, the NCAA celebrates Division III Week -- seven days devoted to the accomplishments of the student-athletes in D3. The goal of the celebration is to raise awareness of Heidelberg and other D3 schools across the nation.

This story is third in a five-part series highlighting the student-athletes at Heidelberg University. It was written by Jeff Garvin, '04, Director of Athletic Marketing & Information

For more information on Heidelberg's D3 Week activities, visit the D3 Week homepage.

_________

Can you tell my dad I can play football now?

In northern Kentucky, a hotbed of high school football, adolescent boys dream of playing football. But unlike most, Heidelberg University junior Ryan Finck remembers the exact day he was told he could suit up.

October 14, 2004.

-----

In northern Kentucky, like any place in America, some parents are reluctant to let their son try out for the football team. But unlike most, Michele and David Finck could pinpoint the cause of their reluctance, down to the exact day.

January 21, 1999.

-----

Covered in grass stains and dirt, Ryan Finck was a delightfully ordinary 4-year-old. Growing up in the greater Cincinnati area, Ryan idolized the players on the Bengals and the Reds.

Early in 2004, Michele noticed that Ryan's chest was covered in petechiae, a rash-like cluster of small spots of blood under his skin. While it seemed like just an ordinary childhood illness, Michele's maternal instinct urged her to seek the advice of their family doctor.

The Fincks' doctor quickly realized that Ryan was in grave danger and he was rushed to the emergency room. Further testing revealed that nearly all of his blood was full of cancer cells. The diagnosis: acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL).

Ryan, Michele and David learned of the diagnosis on January 21. The doctors said that ALL, which affects around 6,000 children every year, has an 80 percent cure rate. While the odds were good, given the rough circumstances, Michele and David were devastated. Rightfully so.

January 21, 1999 would have been Tyler's eighth birthday.

-----

Tyler Finck, the first child in the Finck family, was born with hypoplastic left heart syndrome. He passed away after fighting for five days.

-----

Ryan's situation was grim. The nurses told his family that his platelet count was so low that if he had fallen off of his bike, he might have died because his blood would not clot to stop the bleeding.

He began treatment immediately. Two weeks into harsh chemotherapy, Ryan went into remission. While many of his peers were struggling to take Flintstones chewable vitamins, Ryan was busy swallowing up to 27 pills a day as he waged war with the cancer flowing through his veins.

For 13 months, Ryan's medicine was administered through a surgically implanted central line. While the line was helpful with treatment and the testing, it affected his ability to be a kid. If the line got dirty or wet, it could possibly lead to a fatal infection. Thus, swimming and most sports were out of the question.

Riding on his bike a few days before his fifth birthday, Ryan lost traction on loose gravel and fell. The impact left him with a broken leg, which took four times longer than normal to heal because of his ALL treatment.

Throughout his treatment, Ryan volunteered with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Separately and together, Michele and Ryan would tell his story in front of audiences of up to 1,000 people. By age 8, Ryan was named Boy of the Year by the LLS.

-----

Three months after turning 10, Ryan was sitting on the examination table as he had hundreds of times over the past six years. His doctor entered the room, followed by two others. She asked David and Michele to have a seat, then delivered a bit of unexpected news.

Mr. and Mrs. Finck, do you realize your son is now considered cured of his leukemia?

It was October 14, 2004. And the first thing on Ryan's mind was whether he would be allowed to play football.

-----

At the onset of his treatment, his doctors warned that stunted physical and mental development were potential side effects of the chemotherapy. Though it took him a few years to muster up the courage to sign up for football, Finck excelled at Conner High School, both academically and athletically.

As a 6'1" offensive lineman, several schools recruited Ryan. Former Heidelberg offensive coordinator and Kentucky native Bryan Moore called him and encouraged the family to come north for a visit.

"When I came on my visit, I got out of the car and knew this was the school for me, as cliche as that sounds" said Finck. "Coach Moore really made Tiffin feel like home."

Having already honed his public speaking skills while talking with groups about his battle, majoring in communication was an easy choice.

With teammate Tim Rigler, Finck was part of a weekly sports talk show on Heidelberg's WHEI 88.9FM. Rigler, currently doing an internship with The Mike Trivisonno Show on Cleveland's WTAM 1100, and Finck hosted "Two Dudes Talking Balls" for two years.

This year, Finck increased his role with Heidelberg's Student Athletic Advisory Committee. Having served as treasurer for more than a year, he was elected president. He has played an instrumental role in helping the group put on the first-ever Siggy Awards. Modeled after ESPN's ESPY Awards, the Siggys will highlight academic and athletic achievement at Heidelberg.

It's as if the speaking and service Ryan accomplished while battling ALL was a precursor the things he would do in college.

"The experience he is getting at Heidelberg is phenomenal," said Michele. "So far, Ryan has done everything he has put his mind to. I can't wait to see where life takes him."

-----

When the Heidelberg football team hosts John Carroll University on September 19, 2015, Michele will see something she hasn't seen before. Ryan, who will enter his senior season, and his younger brother, Bret, will suit up for the same football team. Bret, currently a senior at Beechwood High School, has committed to Heidelberg.

There in Hoernemann Stadium, nearly 11 years after Ryan was given a clean bill of health, the Fincks will gather on the turf after the game -- David, Michele, older sister Miranda, Ryan, Bret, and Tyler's spirit.