“I think so.”
That’s what Chris Finke said. To Brian Kelly, of all people. It’s not what he meant to say, of course, but sometimes the brain’s message to the mouth gets intercepted. Sometimes you mean to say, “Yes sir, absolutely,” but inexplicably settle on something else instead.
Chris Finke is here despite his unfortunate answer.
On that fateful day in his senior year at Archbishop Alter High School in Kettering, Ohio, Finke returned late in the afternoon after making a recruiting visit to nearby Dayton. He was maybe 5-foot-10, maybe 170 pounds, certainly not on the radar of any major Division I programs. He had received interest from some Division III and I-AA schools and could potentially walk on at a few others, but that was it.
Then he saw Kelly, the head coach at Notre Dame.
Kelly was chatting with longtime Alter head coach Ed Domsitz, set to watch cornerback Nick Coleman — a Notre Dame verbal commit — at basketball practice after school. Domsitz spotted Finke from across the hall and waved him over. He told Kelly that he wanted to introduce him to a senior named Chris Finke, a kid that returned six punts for touchdowns and broke the school’s record for return yards in his senior season.
The two shook hands, and Kelly asked, “Well, son, do you think you’re interested in playing big-time football?”
Finke knew just what to say.
He said, “I think so,” instead.
“I was just flustered, talking to him,” Finke said at a charity event this summer. “I saw him at school and coach introduced me to him and I wasn’t expecting it. I was thinking, ‘Wow, I could be playing for Notre Dame,’ and that’s what came out.”
“We all start laughing,” Domsitz recalled. “It’s like, ‘Come on! You’ve got to be a little more enthusiastic.’ I told his mom that and she about dropped over.”
Finke probably didn’t look like much, and he didn’t sound like much, either. But his tape revealed instincts that could translate to Notre Dame.
“I said, ‘Coach, just watch the video. If you don’t like what you see, call and say thanks but he doesn’t fit. I won’t have any problem with that,’” Domsitz said. “He promised he would.”
Kelly did, and less than two years later, Finke — whose nickname in high school was "The Slippery Fox" — is entering his sophomore season as a preferred walk-on at Notre Dame. Moreover, the 5-10, 180-pound wide receiver has proved his worth, clawing into the two-deeps at slot receiver while also pushing for playing time as a punt returner.
That likely comes as a surprise to most, but not those who know how hard he worked to get here.
“The kids that are small, when they’re looking in the mirror as an eighth grader or ninth grader, they don’t see the possibilities,” Domsitz said. “Chris worked extremely hard in the weight room. He also played basketball, so he got stronger. He got quick.
“You sort of got a sense early that he was willing to do whatever it would take to improve.”
Malik Zaire can attest to that. Before he arrived at Notre Dame and became an annual participant in fall quarterback competitions, Zaire was the brash dual-threat starter at Archbishop Alter. During fall two-a-days, while his teammates melted under the muggy sun, Zaire threw extra passes before practice.
Usually, to a scrawny sophomore named Finke.
“He was always really good growing up. He was a couple years older, so I always looked up to him,” Finke said of Zaire. “Sophomore year (when Zaire was a senior), he would always want someone to go out there with early and I was looking for a chance to get better. I kind of built a bond with him.
“He was the one who got me some playing time initially. He stuck his neck out for me to the coaches.”
Now, Zaire doesn’t need to stick his neck out. The sophomore’s play speaks for itself.
“He’s been pretty good,” Kelly said last week. “He’s probably the most disrespected player on the team. I looked at his numbers yesterday, and he didn’t get enough reps. I told the staff he needs to get more reps. Then he got more reps today and he made more plays.
“So, yeah, (he’s) just a kid that, the more times he touches the ball, he continues to make more plays. I love saying this, and I hope this gets out on all airwaves, he’s (former Notre Dame wide receiver) Robby Toma with more speed.”
More speed, and one fewer scholarship. But that will come in time. First, Finke needs to continue to prove himself. He needs to continually exceed those microscopic expectations. If he does that, and he stays healthy, can Notre Dame’s resident slippery fox hold his own against the country’s best?
He thinks so. Actually, scratch that.
Yes, sir. Absolutely.