Notre Dame WR Javon McKinley back on a roll in charity bowling — and in football

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

MISHAWAKA — If nothing else, Javon McKinley taught fellow Notre Dame wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown Sunday that the finger holes in a bowling ball weren’t for decoration.

Not that the 6-foot-6, 204-pound junior consistently heeded the unsolicited bowling lesson, alternating between doing so and just palming the ball and flinging it with minimal form.

Junior wide receiver Miles Boykin may have been the closest thing to a ringer. McKinley’s scores topped out at a modest 121.

The uber-optimistic spin on the proliferation of double-digit scores among the Irish football players taking part to raise money and awareness for rare diseases Sunday at Strikes & Spares is that their bowling prowess has suffered as a result of their focus on football.

The reality is it didn’t matter. The goal was to have fun, promote a good cause and make an impact on the local community.

Mission accomplished. Fans who made a donation to Uplifting Athletes, a national non-profit with a local ND chapter, were able to bowl with, hang out with and take pictures with the ND football players in attendance.

The group was wide receiver-heavy, though freshman rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and starting quarterback Brandon Wimbush were among those from other position groups represented. Wimbush saved his right arm, though, and limited himself to providing moral support.

Sunday was the fifth such incarnation of Uplifting Athletes’ local bowling event. It’s the second in as many years for McKinley, a sophomore from Corona, Calif.

“I wouldn’t miss it,” said the 6-foot-2, 220-pounder. “Great time. Great cause.”

McKinley’s bowling style appeared to revolve around the concept of getting the ball to the pins as fast as humanly possible, not necessarily as accurately as possible.

Perhaps it’s a reflection of his football career, in which he has been playing a game of catchup since Halloween, the day he underwent surgery for a broken left fibula. McKinley suffered the injury in practice, and it ended his freshman season of limited playing time and without a reception.

His propensity to dance — and dance well — in between frames Sunday suggested he’s 100 percent recovered now, something he couldn’t quite claim in the spring. McKinley was able to go through most drills then, but had to wear a red jersey — a la the Irish quarterbacks — to signal to his teammates he was off-limits to contact.

“It was really difficult in spring ball, when I was deep into my rehab and all my teammates were benefiting from the new strength program,” he said. “It felt like they were getting that much farther ahead of me.

“It’s been a difficult process, but I’m full-go now with the rest of the team. I’m ready to compete.”

The competition isn’t lacking. Notre Dame ended its coach-supervised OTAs (offseason training activities) Thursday with 11 receivers on the roster. Only one of them, Arizona State grad transfer Cameron Smith, has expiring eligibility after the 2017 season. (Fellow grad transfer Freddy Canteen has two years).

In trying to carve out a role amid the numbers, McKinley says he’ll line up at slot receiver in the informal player-only workouts over the next month.

“It’s because of my size and what we’re doing at that receiver position, including the blocking responsibilities,” he said. “I’m working on the rest of the playbook a little bit more, learning the outside positions. Once I do that, I can bounce around.”

As the No. 59 player nationally regardless of position in the 2016 recruiting class, McKinley is Notre Dame’s highest-rated receiver coming out of high school since Michael Floyd in 2008. And former Irish wide receivers coach Mike Denbrock hinted last fall it would be unwise to write McKinley off because of his limited opportunities and production in 2016.

“I never felt pressure from the ranking,” McKinley said. “I felt like when you get to college, everybody starts over. It doesn’t matter what you did in high school. You’ve got to prove yourself all over again. I’m eager to do that. I want to show that I can perform at a high level, and I’m happy to be healthy enough to have that chance now.”

Sunday’s event, and the causes it recognizes, was inspired by Northridge High grad Sam Grewe. He was diagnosed with osteosarcoma in 2011, was adopted by the Notre Dame football team in 2012 and has since been declared cancer-free.

He has also become a world-class Paralympian. Grewe won a silver medal in the high jump in Rio de Janeiro last September. He has since been accepted to Notre Dame and will be a freshman there in the fall.

Former Notre Dame linebacker Joe Schmidt was the organizer of the first few Uplifting Athletes bowling events. He passed the baton to walk-on Drew Recker last year, and fellow walk-on Keenan Centlivre took the initiative this year.

“Drew and I are both neuroscience and behavior majors,” Centlivre said. “We’re both planning on going to medical school, so this charity was very much in the realm of our interests.

“We found out there were other rare-disease clubs on campus, so part of our plan this year is to really expand the program that started here, really bring together student and faculty at Notre Dame and have a bigger impact on the rare-disease community.”

A “Lift for Life” to benefit the cause is in the works, with a tentative date set for July 8.

“We’d like to get the alumni involved in that one,” he said.

Centlivre, a 6-foot-6, 227-pound wide receiver, came to Notre Dame from Bishop Dwenger in Fort Wayne, the same high school that produced recent Irish players Tony Springmann, John Goodman and All-America tight end Tyler Eifert.

He topped out at 6-6 in the eighth grade he said. And the combination of the Dwenger coaches’ wishful thinking that he’d fill out and a dearth of linemen in the pipeline prompted them to try Centlivre there.

“I was a stringbean,” he said.

By the time he moved from offensive tackle/defensive end to wide receiver his junior year, many schools already had evaluated him and passed on him as a lineman. But the summer after his junior year, Centlivre attended a Notre Dame camp and impressed the coaches to the degree that head coach Brian Kelly offered him a chance to be a preferred walk-on.

“I grew up coming to games here,” he said. “My family has had season tickets. Notre Dame was always on this crazy pedestal and, in my mind, was unattainable. You either had to be a genius or a freak athlete. Somehow I made it here with hard work and a little bit of luck.”

For those wishing to contribute to the Notre Dame chapter of Uplifting Athletes, go to https://give.upliftingathletes.org/events/-/e133374.

Randall Jeffrey, 14, gets a little help bowling from Notre Dame wide receivers Javon McKinley (lef)t and Equanimeous St. Brown at Strikes & Spares in Mishawaka at an Uplifting Athletes charity event. The event allows kids and others to bowl and interact with the Irish players. (Tribune Photo/SANTIAGO FLORES)