Former walk-on Chris Finke earns new title as a Notre Dame captain

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Chris Finke hasn’t always responded to Brian Kelly with the appropriate amount of enthusiasm.

When Finke met the Notre Dame head coach for the first time as a high school senior at Kettering (Ohio) Alter, Kelly asked Finke if he wanted to play big-time college football and be a walk-on at Notre Dame.

Finke’s response: “I think so.”

To this day, Finke’s not proud of how he handled their first encounter.

“Luckily he still gave me a chance after that,” Finke said. “They let me apply over the weekend and let me come in and walk-on.”

The 5-foot-10, 184-pound wide receiver has taken advantage of most of his chances with the Irish since then. He earned a scholarship before his sophomore season, worked his way into a punt return role later that year and became the starting slot receiver last season with 49 catches for 571 yards and two touchdowns.

On Saturday, the former walk-on was named as one of seven captains for the 2019 season.

Finke knew how to respond this time.

“It’s a tremendous responsibility to lead this team,” Finke said. “We have a great group of guys. I’m really excited about it.”

Finke will be joined as a captain this season by quarterback Ian Book, safeties Alohi Gilman and Jalen Elliott, defensive ends Khalid Kareem and Julian Okwara and offensive tackle Robert Hainsey.

They learned the news before Saturday’s practice when Notre Dame’s staff shared a video of former Irish captains congratulating the newest captains. The video included messages from Brady Quinn, Manti Te’o, Drue Tranquill, Sheldon Day, Isaac Rochell, Tyler Newsome and Austin Webster.

The Irish football team will have seven captains for a season for the first time in program history. In December 2016, the program named seven captains for the 2017 season, but that list included quarterback DeShone Kizer, who soon left to enter the NFL Draft.

In the vast majority of his seasons at Notre Dame, Kelly has utilized three, four or five captains each season.

Despite using smaller groups of captains in the past, Kelly said the consensus was to have more this season. All seven players served as one of eight SWAT team captains during offseason workouts. Offensive tackle Liam Eichenberg was the lone offseason captain to not be appointed for the 2019 season.

“Guys really like to, as a leadership group, have the ability to work together as a group,” Kelly said. “And so I think it has much more to do with their ability to act as a unified group more than it does anything else. And they operate so much easier together as that group.”

Five of the seven captains are seniors with Robert Hainsey becoming the first junior captain since linebacker Jaylon Smith in 2015. Finke, the elder statesman of the group as a graduate student, received close to 70 percent of the votes from his teammates.

“In any election, that’s a landslide,” Kelly said. “That tells you a lot about what his teammates thought of him.”

Finke didn’t know he received that many votes until a reporter asked him about it.

“That means a lot to me knowing that so many of my teammates think that I’m cut out for the job. It’s a big job,” Fink said. “To know that I have their faith and their trust means a lot to me. It’s a lot to live up to, so I’m looking forward to it.”

One of the first texts of congratulations came from former high school and college teammate Nick Coleman. The former Irish defensive back was part of the reason Kelly and defensive line coach Mike Elston, who recruits in Ohio for Notre Dame, visited Alter when Finke was offered a chance to join the program.

“I know Nick’s proud of me,” Finke said. “He helped me a lot in my time here, so I’m grateful to him.”

Finke continued a recent tradition of captains coming from initial walk-ons. Webster, who delivered the news of Finke’s captaincy in the team’s video, originally joined the program as a walk-on receiver and served as a captain in 2017. Former walk-on linebacker Joe Schmidt became a captain in 2015.

Finke named both Webster and Schmidt as part of a long list of players he looked up to as a walk-on freshman.

“It’s been a long journey with some ups and downs,” Finke said. “I’ve had a lot of great people supporting me through and getting me through.”

Finke also used doubters to motivate him earlier in his career. He keeps a list of names of naysayers on his phone. It’s something he started doing when a distant relative told him he was too small and would get his butt kicked playing football at Notre Dame.

“That kind of stings,” Finke said. “You make a mental note of it. Then more and more people saying things I would notice, so I would put it in my phone. It kind of kept me playing angry for a little bit.

“Nowadays, I play more to prove people right, the people who have supported me along the way: mom, dad, coaches and friends and all that. It used to fuel me a little more thinking about all the people who think I can’t do it.”

Finke hasn’t seen that distant relative since that family reunion. The list of supporters has started to dwarf the doubters.

His teammates voted for him to be a captain. Now he can prove them right.

Former walk-on wide receiver Chris Finke was named one of Notre Dame’s seven captains for the 2019 football season.