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Sunday Special: Purdue’s Wayne Finchum

November 22, 1995

Wayne Finchum remembers the flames, flames dancing all around him, flames burning up his 10-year-old world. And he remembers running through them, running for his life.

Three days after Christmas in 1986, Finchum’s father woke him up in the middle of the night, shouting for him to get out, that the house was on fire. And so he ran through the trailer, through the flames that burned his back and his arms, his feet and his face.

And he left part of his life behind.

``My sister, Tammy, and I slept on bunk beds,″ the Purdue football player said softly. ``I slept on top and she slept on the bottom. The smoke stayed on the bottom. My daddy tried to get her up but she died right there in her bed, died from the smoke.″

For him, death would come later.

When he ran through the fire, Finchum suffered third degree burns over 50 per cent of his body. His mother burned her hands trying to extinguish the flames. ``My feet left footprints of blood on the front porch of the neighbor’s house, where they called the ambulances,″ he said.

He would need skin grafts from his legs for the rest of his body. There would be five operations, more agony than any child should ever have to endure.

``The first one was when I died,″ he said.

As doctors worked feverishly over him, they appeared to have lost the battle for his life. Finchum says he saw a tunnel with a light at its end, a light that seemed to grow brighter and brighter.

And then he heard a doctor’s voice urging him to cough. ``When I did, I remember seeing the hospital and the doctor,″ Finchum said. ``They had me on heart monitors. They told me I had died and they brought me back.″

He would have a second chance at life, a second chance to fulfill the dream he had shared with Tammy, as the brother and sister grew up in rural Tennessee. ``We used to play outside all the time,″ he said. ``I’d be the football player and she’d be the cheerleader. That was the way it was going to be.″

The fire had ended Tammy’s life. It would not end her brother’s dream.

For a year after the fire, Finchum wore a special garment to keep the new grafted skin tight to his body. There were repeated visits to the hospital for the followup surgeries as doctors battled to put this brave little boy back together.

As soon as he could, Finchum began pursuing sports, first Little League baseball where officials required special clearance from his doctors to allow him in, and then pee wee football.

The doctors warned that the slightest cut on his new skin would leave permanent scars. ``And they were right,″ he said.

Still, there was a dream to fulfill. ``This was something I always wanted to do,″ Finchum said. ``When Tammy died, it made it pretty important. She couldn’t have her dream but I could have mine if I worked hard.″

He did that, often running miles of country roads, lifting weights, devoting himself to the game. He started for four years at Moore County High School, playing on both the offensive and defensive lines on a team that went 43-7. He was an All-State player, chosen Tennessee’s Mr. Football Lineman.

There were times of sadness, though, times when he would come off the field, glance over at the sidelines, see the cheerleaders and think of Tammy.

In Finchum’s senior year, the recruiters came around, first from Tennessee, followed in short order by Notre Dame, Ohio State, Alabama, Vanderbilt, Arkansas _ all the major schools. He chose Purdue where he red-shirted this season, playing on scout teams.

It’s been a long season for the Boilermakers, stuck near the bottom of the Big Ten Conference. For Finchum, it’s been a chance to adjust to college football and prepare for a likely switch next spring from offensive line to defensive line.

``After the fire, losing Tammy and all, I see this as a second chance,″ Finchum said. ``God gave me a second chance at life. I’m not going to mess it up.″

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