NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Cortland Finnegan is polite, rarely forgetting to say "Thank you" and "Yes, ma'am." He works hard for charity, having pushed a high school cancer patient's wheelchair five miles during a Thanksgiving road race before heading to practice.
On the field, the Tennessee Titans cornerback now has a slightly different reputation, thanks to his battle royale with Houston receiver Andre Johnson.
Finnegan said Wednesday he's appalled at how he's been perceived since Sunday's brawl that brought each $25,000 fines apiece.
"For me not to take any swings but still play feisty and physical, I'm almost at a loss. I'm still playing football. If he never retaliates, then we're never having this conversation. It takes someone to retaliate, and it's the golden boy so now I'm the bad guy," Finnegan said.
Earlier this year, Finnegan said he wanted to be known as the dirtiest player in the NFL. Following a fight that made all the highlight reels, he claims he was only joking.
Deion Sanders used his incredible speed to shut down NFL receivers. Ronnie Lott did it with hard hits. The undersized Finnegan is a talker who never stops, trying to emulate the play of Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis.
"Man, he plays so passionately and so much love for the game, I've always wanted to be Ray Lewis," Finnegan said.
Teammates love him. Receivers who play against him regularly agree he's feisty, not dirty.
One thing's for sure: The never-quit, physical style that badgered Johnson into yanking Finnegan's helmet off and wailing away at him with his fist has served him well.
From a 150-pound kid coming out of high school in Milton, Fla., to Samford to finally becoming an NFL starter despite a late-round draft pick, Finnegan's attitude has been the same.
That chip on his shoulder comes from being the self-described, "Little fella just trying to fight my whole life."
So Finnegan constantly runs at receivers, chasing down the ball to compensate for his size. He tends to get a little too revved up at times.
Back in 2008, linebacker Keith Bulluck tried to calm down his teammate after two personal foul penalties on the same drive in Baltimore. Finnegan wasn't in the mood to listen to anybody, so Bulluck wound up shoving the cornerback.
This season alone, Finnegan had been fined three times before Sunday's brawl. He said Wednesday one had been dropped with another reduced, and he plans to appeal this latest fine.
Titans coach Jeff Fisher, who played defensive back himself in the NFL, said Finnegan has pushed the limits a little a couple of times. He doesn't see his top cornerback as an instigator.
"His responsibility is to play within our scheme and execute coverages and run support and techniques within our scheme. What he does in the one-on-one situations, as long as it's not outside the rules, is not an issue with me," Fisher said.
The Titans found Finnegan in the seventh round in the 2006 draft, and he was a full-time starter by his second season. Since the start of 2007, he has started all but three games. He has 13 career interceptions with just two this year, and he was an All- Pro in 2008.
Last week, Johnson said Finnegan was a feisty player who bothers opponents by what he does after the whistle. Other AFC South receivers who battle Finnegan twice a year don't seem to have a problem with him.
Jaguars receiver Kassim Osgood said he likes physical guys like Finnegan because they make him play harder, too. The Jaguars (6-5) visit the Titans (5-6) on Sunday for their own rematch this season.
"It's good to have guys like that in the league. I wouldn't say he's dirty. He's very physical, and I'm probably just as physical," Osgood said. "But I don't get the attention. It's just part of the game."
Jaguars receiver Mike Sims-Walker said the personal competition between Finnegan and Johnson had been going on for a lot longer than people realize. Sims-Walker agrees Finnegan is spirited but hasn't seen the cornerback be dirty with him.
"We talk a little bit, a little trash back and forth. But it's nothing personal, it's nothing that would escalate to what you saw Sunday," Sims-Walker said.
Jack Del Rio was an NFL linebacker himself, and the Jacksonville coach likes the way Finnegan plays. He does warn his Jaguars to be ready to react with poise once the whistle's blown.
"That is not the time to show me that you're a tough guy," Del Rio said. "We talk about that, but I like his tenacity. I like the way that he goes after people. He knows that, and I've told him that before.
Finnegan's teammates are impressed he walked away without taking a swing at Johnson. Defensive end Dave Ball, who calls Finnegan a great teammate, said he believes the NFL set a bad precedent by fining both $25,000 in a move Ball believes shows the league protects "big name players."
"If Andre Johnson had him on his team, they'd be boys," Ball said.