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Small Wonder

After saving an infant, Dan Finfrock goes on to coach him

November 27, 2003|Ben Bolch | Times Staff Writer

It was not the feeble infant swathed in dirty rags that caught Dan Finfrock's attention as much as the troubled expression on the face of the woman who cradled the child in her arms.

She stood alone on the side of a country road in the Philippines in April 1985 when Finfrock, a Christian missionary, pulled over in his car to offer her a ride into town.

As he drew nearer, he could see tears streaming down her cheeks.

"This baby is dying," she said.

One look confirmed it. The 5-week-old boy had sunken cheeks and could fit in one hand. A finger pressed against his skin left a lasting indentation.

"You could tell he wasn't going to live long," Finfrock recalled.

But the former college football player and coach was willing to tempt fate. And so began a relationship that, years later, would bring Redlands Arrowhead Christian Academy a coach who readily concedes undue influence when it comes to Aaron Finfrock, his adopted son and star running back.

"We often get accused of recruiting because our kids can come from anywhere," said Dan Finfrock, 58, the Eagles' coach since 1991. "In this case, I guess I'm guilty."


Aaron Finfrock is a 5-foot-6, 140-pound speck of a running back who combines NFL speed with Pop Warner size. The senior also plays free safety and rarely comes off the field, darting around like a mouse on a caffeine bender.

"Sometimes [opponents] say, 'Look how small he is. We can take him out,' " Aaron said. "Then I show them what short people can do."

Aaron was selected offensive player of the year in the Christian League this season after rushing for 1,585 yards and 16 touchdowns. He also finished third in the Southern Section in the long jump and triple jump as a sophomore.

"Obviously," Dan Finfrock said, "God had a purpose for this little guy's life."

Survival is undoubtedly the small wonder's most astonishing feat.

When Dan Finfrock plucked the sickly child from the woman's arms on Negros Island more than 18 years ago, he figured the baby didn't have more than a few hours to live.

The woman explained that she was carrying out the wishes of the child's elderly grandmother, who'd begged her to abandon the baby in the countryside, a common practice in the Philippines.

The infant's mother had died during childbirth and his father was a blind beggar. The grandmother couldn't care for the malnourished infant and wanted him out of her hut before he died there and prompted his spirit to return and haunt the inhabitants.

The woman at the side of the road told Finfrock there was a pastor in town who might help, so he drove to see him. But the pastor wanted nothing to do with the baby.

"When he wouldn't help," Finfrock said, "I just thought, 'This is terrible.' That's what did it."

Finfrock headed for the hospital, stopping at home to pick up his wife, Debbie. Doctors told them the four-pound infant probably wouldn't survive but offered their assistance if the Finfrocks were willing to buy medicine from a nearby pharmacy, which they did.

The Finfrocks kept vigil in the hospital for 10 days, their emotions ebbing and flowing with every update on the critically ill boy.

"When you spend 10 days in four-hour shifts over a little baby and you pray for him and you ask God to touch his life ... a mother's heart just reaches out," Debbie Finfrock said.

When it became clear that the child would survive, the Finfrocks inquired about orphanages but didn't like their options: The only two orphanages in the area were for healthy babies.

So the Finfrocks gathered their three children on their bed, as they often did when making big family decisions, and asked their son and two daughters if they would like to adopt a baby brother. The decision was unanimous.

"I was kind of pumped about it," recalled Nathan Finfrock, who was 9 at the time, "because I was going to have a younger brother to pick on."


Though Aaron was out of imminent danger, doctors cautioned that he faced a long and arduous recovery. Most of his baby teeth came in hollow, and one doctor feared he might be developmentally disabled.

But the Finfrocks nourished Aaron with vitamins and showered him with affection.

Shortly after Aaron's first birthday, government officials arranged for the Finfrocks to meet the boy's father so he could sign adoption papers. The man asked for money, but the Finfrocks said no.

"We told him we were offended," Dan Finfrock said. "He just made an X on a piece of paper and signed him off to us."

Aaron was hyperactive but well coordinated, traits that would serve him well in his athletic endeavors.

"Once he started walking, he was a terror," Nathan said. "He was all over you. He would climb up coconut trees and swing from the balcony in our house."

Nathan and his sisters conversed with their friends in Cebuano, the local dialect, but Aaron spoke English as a child.

"We had three blond-haired kids who spoke [Cebuano] almost fluently and Aaron, the Filipino, never learned it," Dan said.

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