By David Fong
Regional Sports Content Manager
COLUMBUS — Matt Finkes frequently talks about blue chip high school football recruits on his sports-talk radio show in Columbus.
He knows, had college football recruiting been the big business in the early 1990s that it is today, he likely would not have been one of them.
“Three stars? Maybe if I was lucky,” the Piqua High School graduate said of recruiting’s five-star system, which ranks high school football players based on perceived college potential. “I probably would have been a two-star guy.”
Despite winning nearly every imaginable award on the football field at Piqua — coupled with a standout wrestling and track career — Finkes, a 1993 Piqua graduate, was relatively lightly recruited coming out of a high school. Viewed as an undersized defensive lineman, former Ohio State coach John Cooper took a chance on Finkes.
Finkes may not have been a “workout warrior” or possessed prototypical size for a college defensive lineman, but Cooper saw two things in Finkes that a number of major colleges may have overlooked — incredible technique and a motor that didn’t quit, a pair of traits that were honed at Piqua under coach Bill Nees.
“Playing at Piqua, especially under Bill Nees, helped my career greatly,” Finkes said. “From a technique aspect, I learned to play with my hands and not my shoulder pads. Honestly, Bill Nees was at the forefront of teaching that. When I first started in high school, the forearm shiver was still being taught and used as a block-shedding technique in high school.
“Bill Nees taught his defensive linemen that they couldn’t just rely on going out and using your physical tools to go out and overpower somebody. The higher you go up the food chain in football, the more equal everybody becomes and the less that works. You have to be able to play with your hands and you have to have good technique. I got thrust into that situation right away at Ohio State. When you are eating every day and trying to stay at 250 pounds, you aren’t going to be able to go out and overpower Korey Stringer or Orlando Pace in practice. You have to have good technique.”
What Finkes learned in his playing days at Piqua made him an All-American at Ohio State and an NFL Draft selection. At the Piqua High School football team’s Aug. 29 season opener against Toledo St. John’s, Finkes will be honored at halftime along with the Indians’ four other former NFL players, Craig Clemons, Dave Gallagher, Quinn Pitcock and Brandon Saine.
“It’s a tremendous honor,” Finkes said. “For a school our size to put five guys in the NFL is pretty special. We aren’t a school the size of Massillon or St. Xavier or St. Ignatius that can just reload every year and always seems to have Division I college players and NFL draft picks. It’s pretty cool. It’s a great thing for the school, the program and the city.”
At Piqua, Finkes was a dominant defensive end and fullback. He helped lead the Indians to Greater Miami Valley Conference titles as a sophomore and junior, three playoff appearances and trips to the Division I state semifinals as a sophomore and senior. During his time at Piqua, the Indians went 42-6.
He also racked up plenty of individual accolades. He was named first-team All-GMVC and All-Ohio as a junior and senior. He also was named Most Valuable Player at the Ohio North-South All-Star game in 1993 and was the team’s MVP as a senior. In addition, he placed third at heavyweight in the Division I state wrestling tournament both as a junior and senior and was a state qualifier in the shot put while competing for the Piqua track team as a senior.
It wasn’t just football technique Finkes learned during his playing days at Piqua, however.
“Playing at Piqua helped keep me grounded, especially playing for Bill Nees,” Finkes said. “Even when he has stars such as myself or Quinn or Brandon, he has the ability to ground guys, to humble you. Even when he has great talent, he gets the most out of guys. When you play at Piqua and you play for Bill Nees, you realize you are a part of something bigger. You learn to put the team ahead of yourself.
“Why do so many superstars and five-star guys wash out in college? Because they are not used to being a part of a team concept. When you get to a place like OSU, you are just another five-star guy. It doesn’t matter if you were the king of your high school. I never felt like that. I learned at Piqua to always put the team first.”
That attitude carried Finkes a long way during his playing days at Ohio State. Despite his relatively unheralded status as a recruit, Finkes earned immediate playing time as a true freshman on a 1993 team that captured a share of the Big Ten title. During his playing days at Ohio State, the Buckeyes won Big Ten titles in 1993 and 1996 and captured the 1997 Rose Bowl title with a win over Arizona State. Finkes helped the Buckeyes clinch that Rose Bowl berth with a fumble return for a touchdown in a win over Indiana. Ohio State went 42-7-1 during Finkes’ four years there.
Much like he did in high school, Finkes also captured numerous individual awards.
He was a two-time All-American, a Freshman All-American, a three-time, first-team All-Big Ten selection, the team’s Bill Willis Most Valuable Defensive Lineman as a sophomore and senior, the team’s Defensive MVP as a senior and a two-time Citrus Bowl Defensive MVP. Followng graduation, Finkes played in the East-West Shrine Game, where he was named the game’s Defensive MVP.
Finkes was taken in the fifth round of the 1997 NFL Draft before being traded to the New York Jets. Finkes played for the Jets, Washington Redskins and Jacksoville Jaguards.
He currently is a TV and radio host in Columbus, in addition to serving as Associate Director of Development for The Ohio State University Medical Center.
“Piqua had a huge influence not just on my football career, but my life,” he said. “I’m looking forward to getting back there.”
Contact David Fong at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow him on Twitter @thefong