Tim Short knows all too well what it's like for Cortland Finnegan to drive someone so over the edge that he wants to break Finnegan's skinny little body in half.
Even someone on his own team.
Long before the Tennessee Titans' rising star cornerback got yelled at and shoved by teammate and linebacker Keith Bulluck during Sunday's win over Baltimore, Finnegan was just about nose to nose with Short during the middle of a junior varsity basketball game at Milton (Fla.) High.
And Short was the coach.
Short is the man Finnegan credits most for bringing out his "feisty" desire to play, that overwhelming competitiveness that has turned a 5-foot-8, 140-pound prep sophomore into a 5-10, 188-pound right cornerback on the top-ranked defense in football. In the process, Finnegan, who has four interceptions during Tennessee's 5-0 start, has helped erase the issues left behind by the fall of Adam Jones nearly two years ago.
"I wouldn't trade Cortland for anyone right now," said Titans defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz.
Nearly a decade ago, Short was just about ready to trade Finnegan for a bag of used athletic tape.
The Milton High JV hoops team was off to a 14-0 start during Finnegan's sophomore season – and his first at Milton after moving there from North Carolina – when it ran into a first-quarter problem. Milton was down 14-2 early in a game when Short had seen enough of the lax play and called a player over to him during the action, allowing a basket to be scored as he made his point.
Short then called timeout. As the players huddled around Short, he could see that Finnegan was unhappy, staring to the side as Short tried to give instruction.
"I looked at him and said, 'Do you have a problem?' " said Short, who two weeks ago went to see Tennessee play Minnesota, staying at Finnegan's house for the weekend. "I kept going, 'If you do, we better get it out right now and you better get that look off your face like you think I'm stupid.' He just kept looking off to the side and didn't say anything. About the third time I said it, I was about four inches from him when Marcus Parker, Cortland's best friend stepped between us and kind of settled it down.
"But yeah, I kind of know what Keith Bulluck was thinking. Cortland is just so feisty, so competitive and so confident, sometimes it's hard even for his teammates to handle."
On Sunday in the midst of the tight game, Bulluck and Finnegan got ugly with each other. Baltimore was driving for a touchdown with the help of some Titans' miscues. Tennessee committed three personal fouls, including two by Finnegan.
After Finnegan's second penalty, Bulluck yelled at him in an attempt to calm him down. Instead, the two got salty and the 6-3, 235-pound Bulluck shoved Finnegan in the chest, sending him back several steps. After the series, the two continued to jaw with each other before head coach Jeff Fisher had to order them to settle down.
"That's Cortland," Short said. "He's a great kid. I mean, a really great kid. He has such an impact on kids back here in Milton from 400 miles away. He really gives of himself and helps people. But he only knows one way to play."
After the game, Bulluck explained the intensity of the moment.
"That is what we do. He is an intense guy – I call him Fido because he is feisty – and I am an intense guy," Bulluck told the Nashville media after the game. "Two intense people going back and forth and talking loud, and things like that happen. But at the end of the day we are a team. We're fine."
Finnegan was similarly contrite about the flare-up, but he readily admitted in an interview last week that his goal is to get under the skin of his opponents. Drafted in the seventh round in 2006 out of Samford and blessed with tremendous footwork, Finnegan realized he had to bring every bit of intensity he could muster to make it in the league.
"I have to bring something different," Finnegan said. "I had to be feisty … never back down, no matter what the situation. You're like a little gnat, nagging, always sticking around your opponent, bothering him, annoying him."
And being proud of it.
Tennessee secondary coach Chuck Cecil laughs appreciatively when he starts to talk about Finnegan.
"The thing with Cortland is it's not predetermined, he's not acting a certain way some of the time," Cecil said. "This is exactly who he is all the time. You watch him go against the receiver and you can just tell from their body language, Cortland is an annoying, pain-in-the-ass guy to play against."
After Finnegan grabbed a starting job last season, he faced off with Carolina wide receiver Steve Smith. Using a well-known strategy by experienced receivers, Smith tried to mock Finnegan as a low-paid schlep who couldn't hold Smith's bags. Instead of backing down, Finnegan kept at Smith, time and again until Smith lost his cool.
Smith locked up Finnegan on a running play and drove him out of bounds, beyond the line of standing players and threw him under the Gatorade table.
"That was friggin' awesome because I knew I had gotten to him at that point, and we just kept going at it all game," Finnegan says of the 20-7 Tennessee victory in which Smith was held to 3 catches for 15 yards. "He wouldn't even shake my hand after the game, but I know he respected me because he asked another guy I know how I was doing later in the season.
"Look, you definitely want to piss those elite guys off – bump them, distract, anything you can."
Finnegan applied that approach well before entering the NFL.
While in high school, Finnegan would go play pickup basketball at the nearby naval station with Sue Simpson, one of his guardians. At one point, one of the fellow competitors told Simpson that they had enough of Finnegan.
"He said if Cortland didn't calm down, they were going to wring his neck," Simpson said with a laugh. "Here's this 17-year-old driving all these 30-year-olds crazy in a pickup game. I told him he couldn't go back there for six months, and he was OK after that."
Finnegan was small but dominant in football. The high school created an award called the Playmaker of the Year just because Finnegan would have won everything else, Simpson said. The local television station dubbed him "Mr. Everything" after a particularly dominant game against archrival Pace High.
Still, it was in basketball where he developed the tenacity he displays as a cornerback.
Finnegan shut down top scorers from other teams on numerous occasions, leading Milton's undersized teams (the tallest player in either of his two seasons on the varsity was 6-2) to several upsets of higher-ranked teams. Short said Finnegan was the catalyst for a team that had to do every little thing to compete, including "knocking down the cutter" when necessary.
"Cortland embodied what we were trying to do and, even though he wasn't a big scorer, he was the reason we were able to compete because, defensively, he would simply take away the other team's best scorer, deny him the ball completely, be a complete pest," Short said.
Such as the time Milton played Belleview High, which featured all-state guard Steve Berg, in a tournament. The 6-foot-1 Berg scored more than 30 points in each of the first two tournament games.
As the Milton players got to the gym that night for the semifinal game against Belleview, Finnegan looked at Short and said, "Coach, you look worried."
"I said, 'Yeah, I'm worried, they have the best player in the state and I don't know how we're going to stop him,' " Short recalled. "Cortland just holds up five fingers and doesn't say anything. I said, 'What does that mean?' He said, 'Coach, (Berg) isn't getting more than five.'"
Belleview and Milton went to double overtime before Milton finally won. Berg scored one. The next night, Berg topped 30 again in the consolation final. But during the Milton game, Finnegan harassed Berg so much that Berg couldn't get the ball.
At one point in the game, Short and the Belleview coach exchanged a few words about how the game was going.
"It was like a one- or two-point game almost the whole way," Short said. "I looked at their coach and said, 'Great game.' He said, 'Yeah, great game. I've got the best player in the state and I can't even get him a shot.' That was all Cortland."