Three years ago, in a high school volleyball match near Dallas, Autumn Finney made a diving, all-out defensive play that to this day is the best I’ve ever seen on any level.
And it changed her life.
For some reason that popped into my brain last week and I wondered what and how Autumn was doing now. As a senior at Decatur High School, she told me then that she wanted to be a United States Marine.
She remains goal-oriented. She benefited from an NROTC scholarship for $180,000 and now Autumn is a junior at Texas A&M and is on the path to become a Marine. Next summer she’ll go to Officer Candidate School with an eye on joining the Corps for basic training after she graduates in 2022.
We caught up last week. After some chit-chat, I asked how athletics prepared her, if it did, for becoming a Marine.
“It definitely did. Pros and cons,” she said.
“Pro, it gave me the opportunity to know myself physically and to have an understanding of what my capabilities were. And to know I always had a little more, right? Like running track, running the 400, in that final sprint you can’t feel your legs but you know you have a little more. You always have that last percentage to give.
“Cons, I would say that I had a mindset of training like an athlete in preparing my body, but at the end of the day you’re a soldier and you’re not always going to be comfortable. You’re not going to be super-warm before you work out. I would hate to say like primping, kind of, but as an athlete you get all these things and they kind of coddle you. So it was changing the mindset of still performing but performing in an uncomfortable state of mind, and the physical state.”
She had plenty more to say, but first let’s revisit the play.
Read this description from the story three years ago and then watch the video.
The 5-foot-6 senior at Decatur High School went flying past the end line, and, while airborne and fully stretched out, took a swing that not only saved the ball, but sent it back over the net.
“I knew my libero was on the floor so she kind of had to jump over her,” first-year Decatur coach Clark Oberle said. “So she kind of had to jump over her. And then I started watching the ball to see if it was going to make it over and I heard her hit the floor and I remember thinking, ‘That had to have hurt.’
“That sounded like it hurt. But the next thing I know she was right back in there playing defense and ready to do it again.”
Indeed, because Finney made another dig and her team eventually won the point.
The crowd, of course, went wild and the play became an internet sensation.
That might be an understatement. This video, posted by teammate Satasha Kostelecky, who is now a sophomore volleyball player at Rice, has had more than 883,400 views.
“It was three years ago and I’m still getting notifications from that video,” Kostelecky said.
Still don't understand how this was possible… pic.twitter.com/6S4X9JmV5V
— Satasha (@satasha_k) October 21, 2017
“At one point I had to turn my notifications off from Twitter,” said Kostelecky, a 6-4 middle.
Kostelecky had come off the floor for the libero and was on the bench when the play occurred.
“I was like, this girl is really flying through the air and she really just got this ball up. And then went it went over the net I was like there was no way. And then we went on to win the point and all of us just went crazy.”
The video in the Tweet was shot by Kostelecky’s dad, Scott.
“You can hear him screaming ‘Holy cow!’ That was my dad.”
Finney became an international sensation. She appeared on ESPN’s SportsCenter. Celebrities took notice, including a Tweet from Kerri Walsh Jennings that Finney still has pinned on her Twitter account.
How did things change?
“It made me view my life differently because sometimes I think we get tunnel vision on what we’re going to do the next day, what responsibilities we’re going to have, what we’re going to eat for breakfast, and it opened my eyes to how influential a single individual could actually be given a platform even when they’re not trying,” Finney said.
“I mean, I always took everything super seriously when it came to training times and what-not, but that was because I loved to compete. In that moment, nothing else mattered other than this play or this race. It was just kind of like an escape from everything else that was going on.
“My life changed because it showed me that people really do care about hard work.”
That volleyball season, Decatur finished on a down note, she recalled.
“It was really hard to have that great of a start and that momentum from the play and that exposure and popularity and we just tanked (in a season-ending loss). That hurt,” she said with a laugh.
Finney ran track that spring of her senior year and had a great finish to her athletic career, although she missed her prom for the regional meet. She’s never played organized volleyball again. While Kostelcky was a year behind and went to Rice, a sophomore middle on that Decatur team, Madison Lowery, is a freshman at Coastal Carolina.
Finney, who never played club volleyball and transferred to Decatur when her family moved before her senior year, said she had some interest from colleges, “but I had made my decision.”
She is getting her degree in international studies with a focus on politics and diplomacy and is minoring in Arabic and naval science.
“It keeps me busy,” she said with a laugh.
I asked where she saw herself in five years.
“I think five years from now I’ll be graduated, I’ll be done with OCS (Officer Candidate School) and TBS (The Basic School), and I would want to work as a public-affairs officer, which is another 12-week school I’d have to go to, or I would want to do something in COMMSTRAT (Communication Strategy and Operations).”
In the meantime, the play still looms large.
Three years ago, “my Twitter blew up. I had people asking for pictures, signatures.”
We finished with this. I asked if she ever thinks about the play.
“I see it all the time. And what’s funny is a lot of my buddies ask me, ‘Finney, what are you doing here? You could have gone DI. They always give me crap. We wake up in the morning and we have really hard training and they’re like, ‘Dude, you don’t have to be here. You could be playing volleyball.’
“And I’m like, ‘I could have, but I’m here.’ ”
Yes she is. And here’s one more look from a different angle. After the play, the NBC affiliate in Dallas/Fort Worth did this report and interview with Finney and it includes the other video of the play, which was on the side: