Before he ever touched an Atlas Stone or chalked his hands for a Farmer’s Walk, Jacob Fincher said he has always just wanted to fill his competitive void.
For some in Waxahachie, the name might sound familiar but could seem hard to place, as the last time Jake Fincher was in the local sports spotlight was a 4A football playoff game in 2005 against archrival Ennis. After his stellar high school career, he then went on to play defensive end at Trinity Valley Community College before transferring to NCAA Division I Stephen F. Austin University.
Needless to say, chasing around ball carriers while he pursued a contract to play on the national stage filled that competitive emptiness — at least up until seven years ago. Despite tearing both ACLs and a rotator cuff while playing for the Lumberjacks, Fincher did not have his football career cut short by tragedy or an injury that left him incapable of playing the game. Rather simply, the National Football League never called, and his football career ended in the same fashion as 99 percent of those do — by just ending, unceremoniously.
For the next half-decade or so, Fincher and his family were left to follow the words of a pastor at The Avenue Church — they began to pray for “big things.”
“He told us that if we didn’t know what to pray for to just say, ‘Big things,’” Fincher recalled as he stood inside IRok Nutrition, a store he and Italy native Josh Howard recently opened in Waxahachie. “And we have been doing that for a long time now, and with the store and the strongman, it is just kind of cool. Since [that sermon], it has been crazy.”
Approximately 11 months ago the 2006 Waxahachie graduate began to lift his way into the national, and, now, the world spotlight he once coveted, as Fincher is prepared to take on some of the world’s strongest men in the 7th annual Arnold Amateur Strongman World Championships.
Having not yet obtained his pro card, Fincher begins the two-day quest for strongman glory Saturday, March 4 at the Arnold Sports Festival in Columbus, Ohio. The competition, governed by the Strongman Corporation, begins with four events Saturday morning before the top qualifiers compete in two events Sunday afternoon.
Little did he realize at the time, but the sacks, tackles and fumble recoveries he accounted for while chasing a football career were not as important as the relationships he made along the way.
While a Lumberjack in Nacogdoches, Fincher met the brother of professional strongman Bryan Barrett. Fast forward roughly six years and that bond — combined with one made 15 years prior to a cheerleader from Waxahachie — helped Fincher began to once again scratch that pesky competitive itch.
“I always wanted to do something. You want a reason to lift or you can kind of get burned out just working out and lifting weights,” Fincher explained. “Being an athlete you have that hole where you need to do something.”
Sitting in the shadows and unbeknownst to him, his wife had already identified that “something” and had taken it upon herself to reach out to Barrett for any advice he was willing to offer on how to become a professional strongman.
“I did it without him knowing and when I told him I was scared to death,” admitted Millie Fincher with a glance and sly grin back to her husband. The high school sweethearts celebrated 11 years of marriage Saturday, Feb. 26. “I knew it was a good thing, but I didn’t want to step on anyone’s toes. He wanted to do it, obviously, but…”
“I’m big on not putting people out or asking anyone to go out of their way,” Fincher humbly interjected. “It’s not that I don’t ever want help, but it bothers me because I would rather help them.”
Following a “loving” roll of the eyes, Millie explained that “if he could just see himself the way that I see him, then I think he would understand because I knew that they were going to jump at the chance to have him on Team Texas. Bryan was in Hawaii on vacation and texted Jake the next day asking him to come work out. It was an interesting and sneaky, sneaky kind of thing but it all worked out.”
Fincher said he showed up to workout with the three-time Texas Strongest Man and it “really started from there.”
“This is all just basically filling that hole of being an ex-athlete because we all just want to do something or have a reason,” Fincher explained. “You play football and do all of this crap and have all of these reasons but then it’s over and you kind of lose that fire burning constantly. You can get frustrated and are always looking for something to fill it. You are always looking for something to compete in to burn off that extra fuel that you always have.”
That surplus of fuel was needed during the early going, as Fincher explained training with Barrett is not even in the same hemisphere as working out with a trainer at a local gym or performance center. He said Barrett and company aim to break down an athlete, assesses strengths, identify weaknesses and then push to the breaking point.
“[Bryan] is so stone cold,” Millie said. “You cannot tell if he is happy, mad, sad, anything. If he ever reaches out to Jacob to tell him ‘good job’ that is, like, breathtaking.”
“It’s also rare,” Fincher added. “But that is the sign of a good coach. He keeps you hungry and going, but he wants you to do it for yourself.”
Since starting a program developed by Barrett, Fincher has been sent on his own for the most part. Although he still receives workout plans and advice regularly, Fincher explained that with Barrett being fully involved in several business ventures and having a wife, Charla Corn, who is a touring Texas Country music artist, the Waxahachie strongman has been left to continue his journey on his own accord.
Fincher now trains four times a week with each session ranging between three and a half to four hours — which takes into account the hour or more of just unloading and loading all of the weights required for the 6-foot-3, 280-plus-pound athlete to train.
“In strongman, loading the weights, loading the stone, it might take me 45 minutes to do a workout when it should only take about 20 minutes to do the actual exercise,” he said. “The biggest problem, in the beginning, was over-training but when you are lifting that heavy, if you aren’t taking days off you are trashing yourself.
“[…] When I first started training, I had something wrong with my knees and was having to get them drained once a month. But the muscles finally conditioned. I do a lot of constant work to make sure that I recover properly — from ice baths to stretching. You just have to take care of your body. If I am super busy with the shop or taking care of the deer or whatever else I am doing, I know that I am not helping myself.”
All of the training post-Millie’s secret correspondence has already paid its dividends — and then some. Although still chasing a pro card, Fincher is already a two-time strongest man, has already competed at a national event, qualified for another and flew out for a world championship Thursday.
“The whole deal is so new. Every event that I go to is new. It is my first time at everything,” said Fincher when asked what makes him the most nervous before a competition. “[…] Honestly, going into this when I started 11 months ago, all I wanted to do was not zero out on any of the events or lifts.”
Fincher achieved that first goal April 30 at the Ronnie Coleman Strongman Classic when he finished third in the 231—265-pound class, just missing an automatic qualifying position for the national strongman championships.
“Going into that comp, I just did not want to zero any events and do all of them. I just wanted to be able to say that I did a strongman competition. So, I go there, and I was bad on the static events. I was so far behind on the deadlift and single events, but in the moving events, I thought I was as good or better than most anyone there. I thought, ‘Man if I can get my deadlift up then maybe I can win these things.’ Then having Bryan Barrett as my coach and people like that steering me in the right direction, they started tweaking me on deadlift and started getting my static movements up, and since those have come up, it has been no holds bar since then. I still feel like I have an extremely long road to travel but we, with the help of Millie and the coaches, have gone a long way in a short, short amount of time.”
Just as any competitor would do, Fincher said following his third-place finish that he then just wanted to win a show — a feat that was checked off at the Battle of the Red River on July 9. Winning the title of “Oklahoma’s Strongest Man” also punched his ticket to the national championships.
Once qualified, Fincher finished second in Texas’ Strongest Man, because why not? He then turned his sights on qualifying for a trip to Columbus, Ohio to compete in the Arnold Classic, which serves as the world championships for strongmen and women.
Just as he had already done three times previously, Fincher set a goal and met it.
“Honestly, I wouldn’t expect anything less of him. I don’t want to say that he doesn’t impress me but that is just who he is — he sets his goal and he gets it,” Millie said. “He doesn’t give up. Yeah, he does impress me but I have to have the mentality that he isn’t going to give me or anyone else anything less.”
Fincher placed fourth in the heavyweight division of the national championships with 69.5 points. The total, which was 6.5 points clear of fifth place and just 3.5 points short of Gary Loyd (Arkansas) and Alex Kopp (Idaho) who were tied atop the class, officially punched his ticket to “The Arnold.”
“Now at the Arnold, I really don’t know [what the next goal is]. What I am most nervous about…I actually have to go back to that old mindset — don’t zero an event, a-to-b on all moving events, stay smooth and crisp with no mistakes. That is all I want to do, because, at the end of the day, I don’t want to come home in last place because I made a mistake. If I come home in last place, I want it to be because I was the weakest guy there. Then I can build strength off of that. Maybe I’ll be the weakest because I am a lighter guy, but I am probably just most nervous because it is my first time being there. Other than that, you just have to go in and do your thing. At the end of the day, whatever happens, happens.”
*Editor's note: Since this article was originally published, Fincher has not only earned his pro card but has represented the United States strongman team. He is still competing in national strongman events.
Travis M. Smith, @Travis5mith