NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Thanksgiving gatherings were some of the best times Sharif Finch remembers from his childhood. The Tennessee Titans linebacker is the youngest of 21 siblings. His family played a Turkey Bowl football game in the backyard. There was lots of laughing and plenty of food.
"My mom would come out with her baked ziti. That's what we were always waiting for -- it was the main dish on Thanksgiving," Finch said. "Pops would be playing the piano in the background. We'd have like 40 people in the house. It was a humongous, family-like atmosphere."
"Just a lot of love and camaraderie,” said Gus Tyson, Finch’s oldest brother. “It was a beautiful thing."
It was brotherly love that put Finch on the path to getting a football scholarship at Temple and eventually making it to the NFL.
"On my 13th birthday, my mother told me she wasn't giving me any gifts, she got me a brother," said Tyson, a former Arena Football League linebacker. "I took that to heart and put everything into him like he was mine. We share the same birthday ... my mother's alpha and omega."
"This is a bond that could never be broken, man," Finch said. "We share a birthday, we shared a position. It is just so similar. We are one and the same, me and my brother."
The 'core six'
Finch and his siblings grew close growing up in Queens, New York. At times, they lived in a cramped three-bedroom house with as many as 30 family members. Tyson, the oldest of six children their mother had, refers to his mother's children as the "core six," which includes Sharif as well as his sisters Sharice, Sherrille and Sharonne and his brother DeVone.
Finch's father, Gregory, was in the picture -- "He was there to be supportive and push my brother to stay focused," Sherrille said -- but it was the oldest sibling, Tyson, who took it upon himself to treat the youngest sibling, Sharif, more like a son than a baby brother.
"[Sharif] definitely looked up to Gus," Sherrille said. "He saw how hard Gus worked to play college football and even professionally in the AFL."
Tyson wanted to help shield Finch from the negative influences in the neighborhood.
"I didn't want Sharif to fall into that trap," Tyson said.
Some of the other brothers and sisters would stay with them for short periods. Tyson described their house as a "rotating door," but it was always packed with family. There were even times they had to live in a car. Through all of it, the core six remained together. There wasn't much structure, but they had each other.
They grew even closer after the core six moved to Virginia when Finch was 8. Tyson was a standout linebacker at August Martin High School in Queens, and he earned a scholarship to play at Virginia Union, a Division II college in Richmond. The rest of the family visited to check out one of Tyson's games, and they decided to move -- choosing to stay in what they believed to be a better environment and buoyed by the fact they already had family living in the area.
Lawrence Taylor, Madden and Mom
Tyson envisioned football as a way out. It was also a way for him to be a role model for his siblings. Because Tyson grew up in New York and played outside linebacker, he modeled his game after New York Giants legend Lawrence Taylor. It's also who he wanted Finch to pattern his game after.
"Growing up in New York City, you look towards the superstars of the pro teams. Lawrence Taylor was there for the Giants," Tyson said. "His tenacity and ferociousness are what I tried to put into my game. In turn, I tried to tell Sharif to model himself after him.”
When Finch was around 10 years old, Tyson started showing clips and highlights of Taylor, telling Finch, “You should go out there and play like some crazed dogs and give 110% with that high motor to get to the quarterback.”
The lessons soaked in.
"I wear No. 56 because of [Taylor],” Finch said. “That was my favorite player growing up. I think he's, like, the best ever, so I'd love to meet him. The relentlessness, the passion that he played with. It's admirable. He's the one that started it. In my eyes, he's the GOAT.”
If Taylor was the player model, the Madden video games were Finch’s football simulator.
"I put him on one side at linebacker, and I'd be at the other side, then we'd do reads and recognition teaching him off the Madden console," Tyson said.
But the first football coach the boys ever had? That was their mother, Wendy.
"You would think she was a linebacker herself," Tyson joked.
According to Sherrille, Wendy always made sure Finch was prepared for football and engaged with it. She was at all of the practices and made sure everybody came to his games.
"She was my first coach when I was 6 years old for my little league team," Finch said. "She was out there and was the loudest person on the field screaming at the top of her lungs, 'Hit somebody.' It was always something. She'd always be on my ass.
"The love of my parents and of my family drives me every day. I have plenty of reminders of why I do what I do."
Wendy Finch died while Sharif was in college at Temple in 2015. She was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer in 2011. She underwent a double mastectomy, but the cancer spread to her bones.
Sharif Finch traveled to Virginia to be with her during her final days. Tyson was in training camp in Las Vegas but made his way back as well. They made sure one of the core six was by her side during the last days of her life.
After his college career was over, Finch signed with the Titans as an undrafted free agent. But he had difficult news to cope with: His father Gregory died from a heart attack before Finch’s first preseason game. Gus Tyson was the one who had to call the Titans with the bad news. Finch made the difficult decision to play, getting a sack in the game.
Realizing a dream
Finch stood out at training camp from the moment he arrived, but he still faced an uphill climb to make the team. He reflected on the final ride over to the facility with the other fringe roster players before cut-down day. It was a stressful experience, because none of them knew if they were going to be released. Finch was relieved when he sat down with general manager Jon Robinson and got the news he made the team.
Naturally, his older brother was the first person he called when he got the news.
"I remember it like it was yesterday,” Tyson said. “I could see his smile on the phone. It was all wrapped up in one, a sense of euphoria, but sorrow, too, because they weren't here in a physical form to see it. He said, 'Mommy and Pops are proud of me. I know they're looking down right now.' They were on this journey with us."
"It was like, 'Damn, this was what Mommy had been waiting for our whole life,'” Finch said. “Finally having the opportunity and getting to share it with my family, I know she was looking down on me happy as hell. This was not only my dream and Gus' dream, it was her dream as well."
Now the dream is being passed on to a new generation. Tyson’s son, Gus Tyson III, is 4 years old, but the plan is already in place.
"Like I was the example for [Sharif], he's the example for the ones underneath him. With the help of Sharif, we are going to make the next superstar," Tyson said.