SAN FRANCISCO – He was the little runt out of Samford, a seventh-round pick by the Titans who was considered as a longshot when training camp started back in 2006.
But it didn't take Cortland Finnegan long to get himself noticed.
"We had a drill early on, and Cortland jumped up in the hole and made a big hit against one of our big backs,'' recalled former Titans scout Cole Proctor, who scouted Finnegan. "We weren't supposed to be hitting, and he got chewed out for that. But that was Cortland. It's always been Cortland. Anything he's done, he's always done it at 100 percent."
Ten seasons later, Finnegan is now set to play in Super Bowl 50, with the Carolina Panthers. After six seasons with the Titans (2006-11), two with the Rams (2012-13) and after a one-year stop with the Dolphins (2014), he's a key member of the Carolina secondary.
Looking back, Finnegan said he's been fortunate. Especially considering the fact he retired back in March, thinking his NFL career was over because of a sore body and a tired mind. He was working out, living in Brentwood, when the Panthers gave him a call.
"I can't put into words what this is like,'' Finnegan said. "It's been what you dream about your whole life. When you play football from age seven and you want to play in the NFL, but not only that you want to be part of a Super Bowl. … I walked around for 10 minutes before I did this interview looking around, because I'm just so thankful for the opportunity.
"I (was) retired. I played basketball to stay in shape and if someone was to call it was one thing and if they didn't then that's another thing. I wasn't going to lose any sleep either way, but now that I'm here I'm thankful. God had a plan for me, and I can't be more blessed."
Finnegan, who turned 32 on Tuesday, recorded 14 interceptions while playing with the Titans, and went to the Pro Bowl in 2008 after his second consecutive season with five interceptions. In his career, he's totaled 18 interceptions and six defensive touchdowns, not counting his interception for the Panthers against the Seahawks in the playoffs.
Finnegan said he's thankful to the Titans for taking a chance on him, with the 215th pick of the 2006 draft. He still makes his home in Brentwood, and regularly works out at Brentwood High School during the offseason. He'd like to be more involved in the Titans organization when his playing career is officially over.
"I am forever indebted to the Titans,'' Finnegan said. "They gave me a shot, gave me a chance. I love that organization, and I love the thought of one day coaching there, being a part of the team at a higher capacity. And I've made my home in Tennessee, because they made it feel like my home.
"After we won the NFC Championship Game, I had 200-plus text messages from everybody I've known in Brentwood and Nashville, a lot of my former teammates with the Titans, from Jason McCourty to Griff (Michael Griffin) to Chris Hope to Stephen Tulloch, guys who've told me they were super-excited, but jealous at the same time and that makes me even more grateful. I have great memories of all those guys."
Finnegan has been a good fit with the Panthers, who signed him on Nov. 30 after cornerback Charles Tillman sprained his knee against Titans. At the time, the team moved nickel back Bené Benwikere to corner, creating a vacancy at nickel. When Benwikere broke his leg a few weeks later, Finnegan had a spot at nickel.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said Finnegan has fit in well on a team that plays with an edge. In Tennessee, Finnegan developed a reputation as a "dirty" player, but Rivera wondered if he's been misunderstood.
"So many things have been said about him that I think are almost unfair," Rivera said of Finnegan.
Finnegan himself expressed some regret over the reputation that's followed him throughout his career. It's one he also realizes he helped earn with past comments, and actions, most notable his memorable scrap against Texans receiver Andre Johnson in a game at Houston.
"As you get older your game evolves,'' Finnegan said. "You hate the fact that what you did for so many years is sometimes overlooked by what people perceive of you, and some of those things you just have to get away from, to just let football be football."
Just days away from playing in the Super Bowl, Finnegan instead keeps his focus on his good fortune. Prior to this year's playoffs, he'd played in just two playoff games in his first nine NFL seasons, with the Titans back in 2007 at San Diego, and a year later against the Ravens.
On Sunday, he'll have 24 family members and friends in the stands watching him in Super Bowl 50 against the Broncos.
"I am sure there's a lot of people who are happy for me, and I am sure there's a lot of people who are not too happy about it, let's be completely honest. I am super happy about both things,'' Finnegan said with a smile.
"Hey, this opportunity is a blessing, it truly is. And I can't be more thankful. I wish every guy I got drafted with in Tennessee back 2006, from V.Y. to Tully to LenDale (White), I wish all those guys could experience this, because this is at the height and the pinnacle of what you want. I am taking it all in. It's super special."