Notre Dame WR Chris Finke doesn't want to peak with his highlight catch

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

Moments after making the biggest catch of his football career, Chris Finke celebrated in a way only some people would understand.

The senior Notre Dame wide receiver took short steps, put his arms at his sides and bobbed his head back and forth. The man known to some as the Slippery Fox was doing his best impression of a pigeon.

Apparently, the bird mimick was an ode to his younger brother, Jimmy. The two were entertained by the way pigeons walked while visiting their sister in New York a couple summers ago.

Chris Finke brought the inside joke back to Notre Dame. He would start recording teammates randomly on his phone and ask them to walk like a pigeon.

“It’s just kind of a running joke,” Finke said. “I told some guys that I might hit it if I got in the end zone.”

Finke found the end zone in spectacular fashion. The 5-foot-10, 180-pound receiver reached over the head of Michigan safety Brad Hawkins to catch a slightly underthrown Brandon Wimbush pass for a 43-yard touchdown in the first quarter of Notre Dame’s 24-17 victory last week.

Finke shared the footage of his catch and celebration Sunday on Twitter with the #WalkLikeAPigeon hashtag. On Thursday, he shared the original clip of his younger brother’s pigeon imitation in celebration of his brother’s 20th birthday.

If the older Finke keeps making catches like his touchdown against Michigan, the movement just might go viral. Notre Dame legend Jerome Bettis has already tweeted about his catch.

Finke has been an inside joke of sorts for Notre Dame reporters over the last few years. In practices open to the media, Finke has repeatedly made plays and appeared to be one of the toughest one-on-one covers on Notre Dame’s offense.

But that practice success hadn’t translated much to Saturdays. In his sophomore and junior seasons, Finked combined for only 16 catches for 224 yards and two touchdowns.

Then Finke came up big against Michigan in the unlikeliest of fashions. The catch he made wouldn’t have been as surprising if it came from Miles Boykin, Chase Claypool or any of Notre Dame’s bigger receivers.

“I won’t say that’s something that happens often,” Finke said, “but it’s something I try to do whenever I can, I guess.”

The play on which Finke scored had been in the works all week. When Michigan lined up in Cover 2, the Irish wanted to find Finke deep in the middle of the field between the two safeties. Wimbush pulled the trigger on the 14th play of the game.

“We just have a lot of trust in each other,” Finke said. “He’s my roommate. We have a really good relationship.

“We’re always saying before the game, ‘Just put it up to me. I’ll make the play for you.’ He tells me, ‘I’m going to put it up to you. Make the play for me.’”

Walk-on journey

By now, most Notre Dame football fans know Chris Finke’s story.

As a high school teammate of Irish defensive back Nick Coleman at Kettering (Ohio) Archbishop Alter, Finke was given the opportunity to join Notre Dame’s team as a walk-on. After just one year, Finke earned a scholarship as a shifty receiver and special teams contributor.

But what most fans don’t know about are the few weeks of doubt Finke had early as a freshman. Cornerback Shaun Crawford’s first torn ACL in August 2015 left the Irish short on numbers at defensive back. The coaching staff moved Finke to cornerback just as he was starting to settle in at wide receiver.

“I’m not a comfortable defensive player at all,” Finke said. “I didn’t think I had the skill set to play defense at the college level, especially as a freshman. I got really inside my own head thinking about, ‘Will I ever go back to receiver?’ You start projecting the future. Maybe I’ll get buried on defense.”

The move didn’t last long, even though Finke didn’t speak up about his preference to play offense. He was placed on the scout team offense during the season unsure if he would be able to stay at wide receiver the next season.

“They probably moved me back because I wasn’t any good at defense,” he said.

Finke hasn’t always been good at making his feelings known. When head coach Brian Kelly first asked Finke about the possibility of walking on at Notre Dame, his response as a high school senior was less than enthusiastic. Finke still calls it one of the biggest regrets of his life.

“I was just so shocked when my head coach pulled me over to meet coach Kelly,” Finke said. “I thought it was just going to be a hello type thing. and all of a sudden he said, ‘How do you feel about walking on?’ I was just kind of shocked and a little speechless.”

Kelly and defensive line coach Mike Elston, who recruits in Ohio for the Irish, were in town for an in-home visit with Coleman.

“You could tell he was a little underwhelmed with my answer,” Finke said. “He didn’t ask for more, but afterwards I was like, ‘Oh man.’”

Finke made sure to have Coleman relay his true reaction later that night.

“At basketball practice, I was like, ‘Nick, I blew it. You have to tell Coach that I’m excited about it,’” Finke said. “’That’s not what I meant to say.’”

Still climbing

Chris Finke isn’t so shy with his words anymore.

When asked about Finke’s touchdown catch against Michigan, Kelly expressed doubt that his senior wide receiver would have made that catch in previous seasons. Kelly had praised Finke’s increased strength in the preseason as an important improvement.

“I don’t think he makes that play last year,” Kelly said. “I think his physical ability is one thing, but his strength now to go up and take that away from a defender, I think is the difference and probably for our entire football team.”

Finke, respectfully, disagreed.

“I’ve definitely improved and it probably helped me,” Finke said of his strength gains, “but I’m never one to say that I don’t think I would make a play.”

The confidence isn’t new. Finke wouldn’t have come to Notre Dame as a walk-on if he didn’t believe he would eventually make an impact.

“I always thought that I’d be able to play,” Finke said. “I would have been disappointed if I came here and never ended up playing.”

He doesn’t see his height as something that prevents him from succeeding. Finke watches film of shorter NFL wide receivers Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Tavon Austin and Tyreek Hill for inspiration and lessons in technique.

“I’ve always been an undersized guy,” Finke said. “I’ve grown up having to work through that. I would say my speed and quickness helps me a lot. I’ve always had to work a little harder to be able to insert myself into roles being the size that I am. I don’t see it as too much of a hindrance.”

Finke wears his size, and his past, as a badge of honor. Immediately following his pigeon dance, he formed a “W” with his hands in homage to his fellow walk-ons. He wore a “WOPU” shirt (Walk-On Players Union) shirt to the postgame press conference.

Finke’s status a former walk-on will always follow him. But he’s hoping his latest performance against Michigan, in which he led the Irish with three catches for 55 yards, is just another step in his progression and not a short pigeon walk of fame.

“I never want to plateau,” Finke said. “I always want to keep climbing. I’m never satisfied with where I’m at.”

ABOVE: Notre Dame wide receiver Chris Finke (10) catches a touchdown over Michigan’s Brad Hawkins in Notre Dame’s 24-17 victory.
LEFT: Notre Dame wide receiver Chris Finke (10) catches a touchdown pass over Michigan’s Brad Hawkins.
Notre Dame wide receiver Chris Finke (10) celebrates a touchdown catch in Notre Dame’s 24-17 win over Michigan