Wilhelm Young, the current director of the Cobras, said program founder Howard Finney, seen above at center, never said the word “can’t.” Finney “set his tasks, and to work he went. If you couldn’t get it done, he would do it himself,” Young said. (COURTESY SUE LEFAVE)

By EDWARD KENSICK
For Montclair Local

There are several people you can mention when you talk about Montclair football, but one who might be considered the king of the township’s gridiron is Howard Finney III.

Finney died on Dec. 30 at the age of 91, leaving a legacy as one of the most influential people in the history of Montclair football.

Finney started up the Montclair Cobras youth football program in 1969, with just 16 players. Over the years, he coached thousands of players. And he reached even more lives through the program overall.

Finney had a deep passion for the game, and was intensely detail-oriented. Those traits helped him compile more than 400 wins during his coaching career, which lasted 41 years. He’d often have Cobras notes, photos and game film scattered around his den during the season.

Wilhelm Young, the current director of the Cobras and a Montclair Police deputy chief, said Finney’s best traits came from his background in the Marines. 

“Marines’ mantra is ‘adapt and overcome,’” Young said. “That’s how coach was. ‘Just get it done.’  Or find a way. He had a drive for perfection. He pushed both his kids and his staff to ‘just get it done.’ Nothing was too complicated. He set his tasks, and to work he went. If you couldn’t get it done, he would do it himself. You never heard the word ‘can’t’ from him and there was nothing off the table.”

His last year as coach of the program, which saw dozens of its players eventually reach the pinnacle of the NFL, was 2010.

One of the thousands of individuals who played for Finney was current Montclair Fourth Ward Councilman David Cummings, who played for the Cobras from 1975 to 1980.

“The goal was to make it to the Cobra varsity team in eighth grade,” said Cummings, who recalls playing against a team in Florida and then going to Walt Disney World. “And when you made Cobras varsity, you got a white Cobras jacket. We all loved wearing that jacket.”

But Finney’s effect was felt even outside the gridiron and the Xs and Os.

“That program touched thousands of lives, and by extension Mr. Finney touched you,” Cummings said. “There is no way to count how many friendships and relationships Mr. Finney created.”

The councilman said Finney’s best trait was that he was a straight shooter who did not take sides.

“He didn’t play favorites. He didn’t see color. He didn’t care who your parents were or anything,” Cummings said. “You earned your spot based on your ability. But his greater attribute to me was his memory and the fact he truly cared about every kid who played [for the] Cobras.”

He compared Finney to the real-life music teacher that was depicted in the movie “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” starring Richard Dreyfus.

“The main character was a music teacher, and at the end of the movie, all of the students he touched come back to honor him on his retirement,” Cummings said. “That’s when he realizes the lives he touched. That’s the kind of impact Mr. Finney had on a lot of kids in Montclair.”

Cummings said Finney was, in large part, the reason he played football as a senior at Montclair High School.

Cummings was working at Nishuane Park when he met the new football coach, Jack Davies.

“Mr. Davies told me Howard Finney told him he should try and get me to play, because he never understood why I stopped, and that I would be a good defensive back,” Cummings said. “It’s a simple story, but it showed that Mr. Finney didn’t stop caring about you when you were no longer a part of this program.”

One of the benchmarks of Finney’s success was that several players went on to collegiate football and even professional football careers over the years. That included New York Giants Super Bowl XLII hero David Tyree. There was Dwight Sean Jones, and his brother, Max Jones, along with Quintus McDonald, Alvin Bowen, David Caldwell and Kyle Queiro. Dale Berra, one of the sons of Yankee great Yogi Berra, played for the Cobras and would go on to a decade-long stint in Major League Baseball.

Young surprised Finney at an awards banquet with the appearance of Giants Michael Strahan, who was at one time a Montclair resident and a big supporter of the Cobras.

Finney and Cobras were also instrumental in the three-peat for the Montclair High School football team that won state titles in 2012, 2013 and 2014.

“All of those guys had played youth football,” Montclair High School head football coach John Fiore, who took a sabbatical this past season, said. “Howard had a lot to do with the success of those teams. … He was a class guy,”

Fiore first met Finney when he was being interviewed in 2010 for the Montclair head coaching job. Finney was a member of the committee interviewing the candidates.

One of Fiore’s favorite tidbits about Finney was his play calling.

“One of his favorite plays was the halfback option,” said Fiore. “When I got them, the running backs could throw as much as the quarterbacks.”

Finney leaves behind his children, daughter Linda Finney Williams of Nantucket, Massachusetts, Howard “Jay” Finney of Cambridge, Massachusetts and Nantucket, Paul Finney of Palm Springs, California and Nantucket, Susan Finney Lefave (Steve) of Herndon, Virginia and Douglas Finney of Montclair; his his brother, John R. Finney of Montclair and Nantucket; his grandchildren, Aryn Perryman (Alani Na’a) of Adelaide, Australia, Colin Williams (Meggan) of Nantucket, Evan Finney Gerardi of Nantucket, and Tyler Lefave and Lily Lefave of Herndon, Virginia; great-grandchildren Adaline Perryman-Na’a, AJ Na’a, and Gavyn, Isla, Eloise and Henry Williams; and his extended family.

He was predeceased by his wife Edith “Edie” Baum Finney and his parents Susan (Leach) and Howard Finney Jr. of Montclair, also longtime summer residents of Nantucket.

He is also survived by his first wife, Sheila MacDonald Finney. 

He coached many of his own children not only in football, but other sports including baseball, basketball and ice hockey.

After being born in Utica, New York, Finney spent his formative years in Montclair and played football for Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. 

He moved on to Harvard University, where he played football, baseball and club rugby. In 1952, he became the first junior varsity player to win the university’s William Paine LaCroix Memorial Award “that best exemplifies the qualities of enthusiasm, sportsmanship, loyalty, and team spirit.”

During his time at Harvard, he volunteered for the Marine Corps and spent three summers at the base in Quantico, Virginia.

After the Marines, he came back to Montclair and became a stockbroker.

He retired as a commodities and futures broker shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. 

His office had been at 200 Liberty St., attached to the South Tower of the World Trade Center. But his birthday was Sept. 11, and he slept so late he never commuted on the ferry to New York City that day.

His family expects to hold a memorial in May.

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