SOUTH BEND — Cameron Ekanayake was minutes away from a session in the Notre Dame football weight room a little over a week ago when destiny pinged in his email box.
The Notre Dame senior walk-on just wasn’t sure what kind of destiny it was. So he ignored the message about his Rhodes Scholarship application and pumped iron instead.
“I have a tendency to not want to look at these things or to push off looking at these things,” the former Edwardsburg High football/academic standout said.
Leave it to Ian Book to push the process along.
Notre Dame’s starting quarterback, hanging out with Ekanayake after the lift and before practice for the Nov. 7 upset of No. 1 Clemson, “made” Ekanayake look at the email. That is, after Book began to read through it himself.
“The email wasn’t very clear at first,” Ekanayake said in a Zoom conference call with the media Thursday. “He was like, ‘I think you got it. I’m pretty sure you got it.’ And then I read it and I realized I had got it. And I was ecstatic.”
“It” is finalist status to be a Rhodes Scholar, an prestigious experience at Oxford University in England that would unfold starting in September of 2021 if Ekanayake can make it through the final step of the selection process.
If he does, he’d be the 21st Rhodes Scholar from Notre Dame and the first since Prathm Juneja in 2019-20. The last Notre Dame football player to be selected as a finalist for the Rhodes Scholarship was Corey Robinson in 2016-17.
The Rhodes postgraduate scholarship is highly selective, choosing candidates based on academic excellence, a commitment to changing the world, a concern for the welfare of others, an awareness of the state of the world and the promise of leadership.
Ekanayake not only has been dreaming about how he’d put those concepts into action, he’s been doing them the past three-plus years at Notre Dame all the while toiling through football practices without the guarantee of any playing time.
He was watching from a distance Saturday as the No. 2 Irish took down Boston College, 45-31, in Chestnut Hill, Mass.
“Being part of something greater than myself, like I was in high school, pays dividends as well as makes you stick with the process,” said Ekanayake, whose only game action of his ND career to date came in a blowout of Bowling Green last season.
“With coach (Brian) Kelly and (running backs) coach (Lance) Taylor and the strength staff, they develop a culture of family and a culture of having goals bigger than oneself.
“And I think that’s helped me throughout this whole process, despite the setbacks and the tribulations of becoming a walk-on.”
The science-business major, with an eye on med school, has a 3.71 GPA and is a two-time Dean’s List student.
Among his other off-the-field accomplishments and experiences:
• Ekanayake has served as a research assistant in multiple labs at Notre Dame, most recently in the White Lab at Harper Cancer Research Institute.
• In 2018, he traveled to Sri Lanka to serve as a public health intern and clinical shadowing participant, assisting with patient intake and care and observing surgeries.
• He is a founding board member and co-president of Life Worth Living ND, a student club dedicated to supporting people with developmental disabilities and challenges.
Even the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is something very much in his academic and aspirational lane.
“It’s kind of what I want to focus on before going to med school,” Ekanayake said. “And what I want potentially to focus on if I’m lucky enough to be granted the Rhodes Scholarship is public policy and also developmental economics and kind of how those two are rolled out together.
“Especially public policy in that sense that how people in countries deal with pandemics like this. … How we handle healthcare burdens and how we handle healthcare accessibility in developed countries and underdeveloped countries.
“So COVID right now is very pertinent to what I want to study. It’s definitely something I’m interested in and something I want to maybe have an effect on in the future.”