Four years ago, Cullen Finnerty was a fuzzy-faced freshman who walked on to the University of Toledo football team.
He was the Rockets' No. 3 quarterback, and Bruce Gradkowski, a freshman on scholarship, was working with the scout team.
Finnerty's only fling with success during coach Tom Amstutz's first year was a 45-yard touchdown pass to walk-on wide receiver Brandon Langston in a preseason scrimmage. The toss turned some heads and created a brief buzz, but Finnerty and Langston ended up redshirting, and weren't heard from again.
The following summer, with little or no playing time in sight, they traded in Toledo's blue and gold colors for the black, blue and white uniform of Grand Valley State.
Finnerty hasn't looked back, not even for a second.
"They talked about giving me a scholarship [at Toledo] and kept talking about it, but it never worked out," he said. "I really wasn't enjoying myself. I had a sour taste in my mouth. It was time to move on."
Finnerty left first, and later convinced Langston to join him.
Last January, another former Rocket, tailback Astin Martin, joined them at Grand Valley, a Division II national power in Allendale, Mich.
The "Toledo trio" has been nothing short of terrific.
Finnerty, Langston and Martin are the three offensive stars for a powerful Grand Valley program that is off to a 7-0 start and ranked No. 1 in the nation in Division II.
"We'll take any castoff Toledo wants to send us," Grand Valley coach Chuck Martin joked.
Langston, a senior from Northville, Mich., has two Division II national championship rings, alongside the one he and Finnerty each earned for being a part of the 2001 Toledo team that won the Mid-American Conference championship and the Motor City Bowl.
Finnerty, a junior from Brighton, Mich., was the quarterback on the Lakers' 2003 national title team and is 31-4 as their starter.
Astin Martin, a junior from Grand Rapids, Mich., who sat out last season after transferring from Toledo, has rushed for 100 yards or more six times this season. He leads the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference in rushing with 825 yards.
"We really don't miss Toledo too much, but we all have our favorite stories from there," Langston said. "We still laugh a lot about coach Amstutz, and how much fun he was to be around. And we talk about how special it is to be part of two great programs."
Langston's best memories, though, are of his success at Grand Valley State.
Five months after leaving Toledo, he played on Grand Valley's 2002 national championship team. The Lakers repeated a year later.
A four-year starter who is a combination receiver/slot back, Langston (5-foot-9, 185) ranks third in school history with 133 receptions, has more than 1,000 yards in kickoff returns and another 863 rushing.
"He's small, but very fast and very skilled," coach Martin said. "He's a dynamic return man and a great receiver."
Finnerty (6-3, 220) sat out the 2002 season with a foot injury, but he has blossomed into a three-year starter who ranks third in school history in total offense with more than 7,000 yards. He has thrown for 55 touchdowns and run for 19.
Finnerty isn't your prototype quarterback. He is a bruiser.
He is Dick Butkus disguised as quarterback.
"He's definitely a throwback player," coach Martin said. "He'd probably rather be a pulling guard or middle linebacker, or a wedge-breaker on kickoffs than a quarterback.
"He loves contact more than any player I've ever coached. When he stays within himself, his numbers are phenomenal. Sometimes he drives us nuts, but he's usually pretty good."
Unlike Finnerty and Langston, Astin Martin (5-8, 190) actually made an impact at the Division I level in Toledo.
He came in as one of the highly touted "Baby Backs" in the Class of 2002, along with Trinity Dawson and Quinton Broussard.
As a freshman, the diminutive Martin led the pass-happy Rockets with 785 yards rushing. And in two seasons as a backup, he gained 1,221 yards and scored 16 touchdowns.
Martin, though, knew he would never be UT's feature back, so he left after the 2003 season and went back home to Grand Rapids, which is a short jaunt from Grand Valley's campus.
He has quickly become the Lakers' go-to guy in the backfield.
"I still talk to Trinity and some of the guys that I went to Toledo with, but I'm loving it here," Martin said. "They have put a little bit more responsibility on my shoulders and forced me to grow more. I have a lot more to do now than just run the ball."
There is another Toledo twist at Grand Valley.
Athletic director Tim Selgo is a UT grad and a member of the Rockets' athletic hall of fame. He played basketball for UT from 1977-80, was an assistant men's basketball coach from 1982-85, was the head women's coach for three seasons, and served as the Rockets' associate athletic director for eight years.
Without question, the Toledo talent pipeline has helped pave the way for Grand Valley State's soaring success on the football field.
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