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Rising to the top

Water-polo-playing priest wins Wendy's High School Heisman

ALAMO, Calif. — Thrown into the deep end of life's adversities as an infant, Sam Finlayson of the Alamo 2nd Ward, Danville California Stake, chose to swim rather than sink. His determination — and a stellar high school water polo career — were rewarded when he was named national winner of the boys' Wendy's High School Heisman Award on national television in New York City on Dec. 10.

The senior at San Ramon Valley High School said during a Church News telephone interview that the award was a great honor and he was grateful for it. And after spending time with the other 11 national finalists — five boys and six girls — in the Big Apple prior to the awards ceremony, he added, "It was really humbling," because the others were "great kids, really accomplished." Kaylee Jamison from Illinois, also a swimmer, was the girls' national winner.

Earning the Wendy's Heisman award was quite a miracle for Sam. As a baby, he survived a bout with meningitis, but the devastating disease left him with health problems that lingered for years. Swimming was part of his physical therapy as a child. As a fourth-grader he was the ball boy for his brother's water polo team. In seventh grade, Sam took the plunge himself, playing on a club team. He has continued playing for clubs and on the high school team ever since.

He loves the sport because it encompasses all that is best about sports, he said. Beyond the physical challenge, he explained, it requires teamwork and knowledge of the game.

"It's really an exciting sport," he said.

But it took more than mastery in the water to win the Heisman, an award representing excellence in academics, athletics and community service. Sam met all the qualifications. He is an outstanding student in challenging classes and has claimed prizes in science fairs.

The desire to serve is a natural byproduct for him from the service rendered by others who helped him get well year by year. There were the prayers of family and ward members, the caring expertise of doctors and other health professionals, and many other acts of kindness from various people. He sees service as a way to pay back. Examples are his leadership in polo team projects to clean up their school and in a Church project to provide comfort in the form of small gifts, letters and cards sent to soldiers in Iraq.

Clearly meeting the Heisman criteria, Sam was nominated by teachers and administrators as his school's representative. From there he became a California finalist.

Then during a choir concert in his school — he enjoys singing, and playing the piano and saxophone — he got a big surprise. In the middle of a vocal solo, he was interrupted by the choir conductor who introduced Heisman representatives there to deliver the news that he was a national finalist.

That led to the all-expense-paid trip to New York where he received the ultimate award from Archie Griffin, the only two-time winner of the Heisman Trophy given to college football's top player each year. To boot, Sam was also pleased he got to meet this year's winner, Troy Smith of Ohio State.

The son of Pam and Grant Finlayson, Sam has his future mapped out. He will go to Stanford University next year to play water polo. One reason he chose Stanford is that the coach is supportive of missionaries, and Sam plans on serving a mission. Ultimately, he would like to become a doctor because he's seen firsthand the good that doctors can do. And he wants to have a family and be a good father, following the example of his own parents who, he said, have been a huge factor in shaping him into what he has become. — Greg Hill

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