Small Wonder

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."

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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."

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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.

The Finfrocks returned to Redlands, where Dan had attended high school and college, in 1991. His work, training pastors in Bible study techniques, was expanding into other countries and he needed a more feasible base of operations.

Dan volunteered as an assistant football coach at Arrowhead Christian, where Nathan was a ninth-grader, but quickly assumed control of the first-year program after the Eagles' coach learned of Dan's credentials as a former assistant at the University of Redlands.

Dan built Arrowhead Christian into an immediate winner and guided its transition from eight-man to 11-man in 1994. The Eagles won Southern Section Division XII titles in 1996 and 1997. Dan, who'd thought he would quit coaching after Nathan graduated in 1994, was hooked.

And besides, Aaron, who had displayed blazing speed in youth football, was quickly approaching high school age.

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As he grew, Aaron asked more and more questions about his past, prompting the Finfrocks to arrange a return trip to the Philippines when he was 10.

Dan showed his son the spot on the road, near the rice fields, where he had picked him up and the hut nearby where his grandmother had lived.

Aaron didn't understand the significance of the visit at the time -- "I thought, 'What's going on? Why are they showing me this?' " he said later -- but as he matured, he developed an appreciation for what his parents had done to save him.

He penned a poem that explained his feelings:

When I was younger, I wondered why I was dark and the rest of my family was white.

They told me the story how they got me and I wondered if this was right.

So, my parents took me back to the Philippines and I began to understand

That God gave me a new family

And they love me just as I am.

Aaron says he tries not to imagine his life as an infant because, "This is a better place for me, instead of being in the streets in the Philippines and not playing football." He would like to meet his grandmother and father but fears they are dead.

"The only parents he knows are us," Dan said.

Ben Mulder, Arrowhead Christian's athletic director, said Dan's willingness to devote so much energy to the boy's life was not surprising. After all, the coach had taken in Eagle players who had been thrown out of their families' homes and had mentored formerly incarcerated boys at Banning Twin Pines High.

Dan did not scare easily. That's why he continued to travel abroad, even though he'd been the target of a botched kidnapping in Bangladesh and had been caught in cross-fire between government troops and communist rebels in the Philippines.

Once, he was with missionaries who received an envelope containing a bullet and a note, which read: "The next one will be through you."

"We kind of came to the conclusion that our lives were in God's hands and we were doing what we were supposed to be doing," Dan said.

Dan and Aaron shared a special moment in 2001, when Arrowhead Christian won another section title during Aaron's sophomore season. But even as Aaron developed on the field, Dan realized that his son's limitations off the field probably would prevent him from playing college ball.

Aaron suffers from attention-deficit disorder and attends special education classes. He is forgetful and often has to be told more than once to do things.

Doctors have told the Finfrocks that the neglect Aaron suffered as an infant probably hindered the development of his brain.

Nonetheless, Aaron's teammates, who learned about his background through a story in the school yearbook, consider him nothing less than a marvel. He is undoubtedly the quickest and, pound for pound, the strongest player on the team. He bench-presses 285 pounds, more than twice his body weight.

"I don't know how he does it," senior wingback Kyle Mitchell said. "He's amazing."

The Eagles lost last week to Los Angeles Baptist, 35-20, in the first round of the Southern Section Division XII playoffs in a game that ended more than a season. Dan had announced before the season that this would be his last. Aaron was graduating, and with three titles under his belt, there was little else to accomplish.

After the game, father and son sat and talked quietly for a long time.

"I just told him how proud I was of him and how well he played all year," Dan said. "I told him I wish we had six more kids like him. We would have won a CIF championship if we did."

Debbie Finfrock realizes her family already has been blessed with a bigger prize.

"We just feel he was a gift to us," she said, "and we have been thankful for what he's given to our lives."

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