Other Sports

Discus plays a key part in Finley's life

Mason Finley stands 6-foot-8 and weighs 375 pounds, and it's not much of an exaggeration to say his arms look thicker than the average man's legs.

Last year, as a high-school senior, he threw the discus 236 feet, 6 inches — further than any American-born child ever has. That's pretty cool and all; but in this part of the country, it's hard not to wonder: Shouldn't he be playing left tackle?

Finley, a freshman at Kansas, tried football in high school. Reports out of Salida, Colo., have him mauling all those in front of him and opening holes with the brunt of a bazooka mainly out of an obligation to friends who got to follow those holes.

Yes, there was more money to be made as a left tackle. But the explanation for why Finley instead will be competing for NCAA championships this week in the discus and the shot put comes straight from the heart.

Throwing the discus is more than just a part of Finley. In many ways, that black two-kilogram rubber sphere helped to shape his entire existence.

"My dad started me when I was really young," Finley says. "He taped two Frisbees together and filled it with sand. That was my first disc."

Finley's father, Jared, had gotten the Frisbees from McDonald's. Mason was a sixth-grader, and that's when Jared had learned as a boy. Jared showed him a few things — tricks that hadn't crossed his mind in decades — and told the kid to let her rip.

"He threw it way up the street," Jared says. "It jolted those old-time memories."

Jared's first throw came sometime around 1970, outside his childhood home on 33rd Street in Kansas City, Kan. His older brother brought a discus home, and it was Jared's job to shag his throws. After a while, as he remembers it, he started throwing it back to them further than they could throw it to him.

"I became a little obsessed with it," Jared says.

There wasn't much else to do in the inner city, other than work or get into trouble. Jared's father would have preferred the boy worked. Jared's father had been employed at the same Faultless Starch plant in the West Bottoms since he was 18. He had a second job, too.

By the time Jared was in high school, he had established himself as a star thrower in the region despite having little coaching —"It just started flying further and further," he says. He heard he could possibly get a college scholarship out of it.

"My dad thought, 'No way, nobody is going to pay you to go to college for throwing that discus,' " Jared says.

Discus opened up a new world to Jared. No one from his family had ever gone to college, so when the coach from the University of Wyoming came by to offer him a full scholarship, the Finleys weren't going to risk waiting around for other suitors.

"My dad said, 'Sign these papers right now!' " Jared says.

Jared's discus career didn't go as he planned at Wyoming, but it did take him away from home. He'd eventually get his degree and move his family to Colorado. Still, Jared would make sure Mason had more options once his career got going.

That would not be a problem. Mason became the American high-school record holder and had just about every big-time track and field program in the country after him. He had taken advantage of his genetics — Jared was 6-7 and 300-plus pounds — but he also put in a ton of work with his father. Jared, who says his father never watched him throw, told Mason early on that he could be an Olympian.

"It was part of the motivation to keep him doing it," Jared says, "to be the best."

And if Mason kept striving, that meant more quality time with Dad.

"When Mason first started doing it, it was a bond that I hoped we would enjoy," Jared says. "I thought, 'Well, I never had a coach. Let me show him some moves.' "

Eventually, it would be someone else's job to take Mason to the next level, to help him realize the dreams hatched on a couple of taped-together Frisbees.

Kansas assistant coach for throws, Andy Kokhanovsky, who threw for his native Ukraine in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, tried to put the enormity of Mason's stature as a recruit into perspective.

"Like a Michael Jordan or Shaquille O'Neal for basketball," Kokhanovsky says.

Kokhanovsky sold the Finleys with his knowledge. He coached a European-style finish to the throw that Jared felt could make a difference for Mason. Still, Jared wanted Mason to feel like it was his decision. Sure enough, Jared's fears were realized when Mason committed to UCLA after falling in love with the weather, beaches and, well, other potential benefits.

"The girl throwers look like they belong in Playboy," Jared says, laughing. "I was shocked. I said, 'Did you bring some actors out here for throwers?' "

It turned out Mason was not destined for a starring role in Hollywood. The throws coach at UCLA was fired, opening the door for Finley to sign with Kansas.

"I told him, 'Andy's the guy that can get you to the Olympics,' " Jared says.

The Olympics may be the ultimate goal, but these four years at KU are about finding a balance between working to achieve future aspirations and winning big right now. Everybody in the KU program knows Mason could be the next Al Oerter — the KU alum who took four straight Olympic Gold medals in the discus from 1956-68. They also want him to bring home NCAA individual titles, and he'll have his first crack at one of those on Wednesday in Eugene, Ore.

"I plan on winning this one this year," Mason says.

He learned that confidence at a young age. Mason is currently seeded second in the discus (191-2) and the shot put (63-2 1/4 , and his father will be there to see if his son can follow through under the immense pressure of a national event.

Surely, left tackle wouldn't have worked out this well.

"A lot of people like watching football," Jared says. "But I told him, 'If your heart is not in it, don't do it. If you don't actually love it, don't do it.' "