MILLBURN, NJ — In 1999, tragedy struck the Millburn Community when high school alumni and former heavyweight wrestling champ Paul Finn Jr. passed away suddenly at age 39 from a heart condition.
Four years after Finn's death, the school district honored his memory with the creation of the Paul Finn Dual Meet, a memorial one day multi-team match in honor of a wrestler given the nickname "The Gentle Giant" by everyone who knew him. Now, 17 years on, the meet is just as strong as it has ever been.
Millburn hosted this year's annual tournament, with Newark Academy, Pingry, Wood-Ridge, Livingston and Raritan all coming to town to participate in the three-match draw. The Millers won their first match against Newark Academy, 46-24, lost their second match to Livingston 37-28 and bested Wood-Ridge in the final match of their day 48-24.
Between the second and third matches, the action stopped, as meet administrators played a film about Finn's life. Attendees and wrestlers sat and watched the story of how Finn, a larger-than-life personality, pinned his way through the entire 1978 New Jersey State Wrestling tournament to become heavyweight champion.
For Jerry Sachsel, who started the varsity wrestling program at Millburn High School and coached Finn during his state title run, the memories always come flooding back to him most acutely during the meet and when the video is played.
"I'm always fine until they show the damn tape," Sachsel said with a slight chuckle. "And when I see the tape, it's hard to believe that he's gone 20 years. This is the 17th year of the tournament. I look at that tape, and I still see a young man who I saw develop as a wrestler, but more importantly as a person. Saw him develop as a husband and as a father."
Sachsel also talked about seeing the foundation set up by Paul's parents, Laurie and Paul Sr. flourish. Over the years, the Paul J. Finn Jr. Foundation has raised tens of thousands of dollars for scholarships for Millburn and visiting wrestlers, summer camps and academic pursuits.
"They started something that is very very unique in this state," he said. "It's an honor to have Paul's name still associated with it."
One of the people in attendance was Finn's widow Mary Beth, who comes to the meet every year. With more than 20 years having lapsed, the current crop of Millburn wrestlers were not alive when Finn passed away. So for Mary Beth, the opportunity to pass on her late husband's story and do charitable work through the foundation that bears his name is incredible.
"Paul's gone two decades now," Finn said. "None of these wrestlers were even around [then], and to see that it's still continuing is such a legacy. I don't think I thought it through back when we started this, that it would continue on at this point, I just find it amazing. I find it absolutely amazing."
She also said that while the video does bring up some sadness, it is tempered by the thought that his memory does endure.
"I do like watching the video," Finn said. "It's so bittersweet, like you said. I think about him every day, but it is such a legacy for him. It does absolutely have a degree of pain from the loss. But it's just so wonderful that he's remembered."
Marc Lombardy, the team's current coach, in his second year in the position, is also an alumnus of the program. For Lombardy, the Paul Finn Duals are always special, and an enjoyable day for him and his wrestlers to be a part of.
"It's a great day of wrestling here at Millburn and really throughout the state," Lombardy said. "I get several calls, several emails a year from people who want to come into this competition. People know about it."
Lombardy continued, "Paul was a great wrestler, a great man. I knew him from when I was young. I never got to see him wrestle, but when he came back, he coached the youth program, so i got to know him a little bit there. He was a great man, a great wrestler, and we're honored to have this event every year."