It seems like yesterday.
On Jan. 24, 2004, I attended the inaugural Paul J. Finn Jr. Memorial Wrestling Tournament at Millburn High School.
For me, it was kind of a surreal day. Two days earlier, my father had died after a long illness and on the following day, my family and I attended his funeral. It’s safe to say I was a little numb on the morning of the 24th.
My editor at the time, Bruce Moran, had assigned me to cover the Finn Tourney for the Star-Ledger earlier that week. Bruce had offered to take me off the assignment in deference to my family’s loss, but I said I wanted to go, mainly because I didn’t want to sit around, and I enjoy wrestling matches.
I had known the legacy of Paul Finn Jr., a 1978 Millburn High School graduate and that school’s last NJSIAA wrestling champion, to date. Finn Jr. won all his heavyweight matches in ’78 by fall, including the state final. He’s the last wrestler to accomplish that feat.
Paul was enjoying a good life following high school. He and his wife were raising a young family when in 1999, Paul died suddenly at the age of 39.
His passing left a huge void to those who knew the ‘Gentle Giant’, or were just familiar with his athletic prowess.
So, anyway, in 2004, the Finn Family, led by Paul Sr. and his wife Laurie, began a wrestling tournament to honor their son’s memory, as well as promote the sport that Paul Jr. had loved and committed his life to. Olympic champion Bruce Baumgartner, who competed in the ’78 NJSIAA heavyweight championships as well, was there to sign autographs and offer his support.
Four teams, Millburn, Passaic Valley, Caldwell and Westfield High were a part of that first tourney.
When I went into the gym that afternoon, I met Paul Sr. and he was quick to embrace me, even though we had never laid eyes on each other before. Paul talked about his son, became emotional at times, but was firm in his love of wrestling and what he hoped would be accomplished by having this tournament.
As the years went on, I always made it a point of covering the event, which now has eight schools competing. This Saturday marks the 10th annual event, with a 10 a.m. starting time at Millburn High. Defending champion Haddon Heights will be back, as well as Caldwell High, Edison, Roselle Park, Seton Hall Prep, Summit, Whippany Park and of course the host school, Millburn.
Over the years, the Finn Family has practically taken me in as a member of their family. We’ve shared ribs from the greatest spot in the country, the Montgomery Inn. (I’m sure my friend Jim Hague will appreciate that). They’ve had me to their home for dinner and good company.
They are incredibly sincere and generous with their time and space.
At this year’s tournament, the foundation which runs the scholarship in Paul Jr.’s name will present the following awards.
A ($2000) college scholarship to a Millburn Wrestler.