Chris Finke’s touchdown catch against Michigan was the play of the game in the Irish’s season-opening win.
David Woods, [email protected]
SOUTH BEND – Chris Finke is a Lance Stephenson fan, uses @SlipperyFox10 for a Twitter handle, has a sister who performs on Broadway and owns a 15-year-old cockatiel named “Chirpie.”
None of that makes him an unusual college football receiver. This does:
He is 5-9 ½, 180 pounds, caught 12 passes (that’s total) in high school and received zero Division I scholarship offers. Yet he has gone from walk-on to starter — indeed, can we say star? — at Notre Dame.
One of his roommates happens to be quarterback Brandon Wimbush. That has nothing to do with Finke’s rise. Ball don’t lie.
“I always tell him, ‘When I have the opportunity to get you the ball, I know you’re going to do something special with it,’ “ Wimbush said.
Next opportunity will be Ball State’s visit to No. 8 Notre Dame on Saturday (3:30 p.m. WTHR-13). It will be hard for Finke to be more special than he was in an opening 24-17 victory over Michigan.
On third-and-6 from the Michigan 43 in the first quarter, Wimbush lofted an arching ball toward Finke. Even Finke’s father, Jim, said to himself, “Ah, that thing is intercepted.”
Michigan safety Brad Hawkins was in position to intercept it, but Finke snatched it away off the top of Hawkins’ helmet and fell into the end zone. Touchdown. The Fighting Irish led 14-0.
The stadium erupted, as did Archbishop Alter fans watching on a giant screen in Kettering, Ohio. That is Finke’s Dayton-area high school, which was holding a fund-raising festival.
“It’s like the lid was blown off that tent,” Alter coach Ed Domsitz said. “The whole crowd was going crazy, jumping up and down and screaming. It was just an amazing scene.”
On one cellphone, Domsitz received two calls and five texts within the next two minutes. Did you see that catch?
On another cellphone, Finke’s younger brother, Jimmy, captured the scene inside the stadium and posted the video on Twitter. Jimmy happened to film that series because his power was down to 4 percent. So Finke beat the defender and the draining battery.
Finke has been beating odds all his life. He was once “a scrawny little kid,” Domsitz said. In basketball, Finke was a point guard who defended 6-5 Luke Kennard, the Detroit Pistons wing who was an All-American at Duke.
“I’ve always been an undersized guy. I mean, I’ve just grown up having to work through that,” Finke said. “So I would say my speed and quickness are something that helps me a lot. I’ve always had to work, I think, a little harder to insert myself in a role, being the size that I am. I don’t see it as too much of a hindrance.”
What Finke had, his high school coach said, was passion for football. And he was smart.
Domsitz taught a world cultures class in which Finke missed no questions — that’s zero — in spelling or history over an entire semester.
In Finke’s sophomore year, he ended up being the one that Malik Zaire, a former Alter and Notre Dame quarterback, threw to for extra practice. Zaire stuck up for Finke to the coaches, who wondered what they were going to do with someone 5-8, 140. Alter featured a wishbone offense with few passes.
Eventually, Finke found a role returning punts and running jet sweeps. There wasn’t much to see on video, though, through his junior year.
“There wasn’t anybody, even including Chris, who thought he would play football beyond high school,” his father said.
Among summer camps he attended was one at Indiana University, whose business school was attractive and where he intended to enroll. He actually beat a cornerback being recruited by IU during camp, but the Hoosiers were not interested in Finke. No one was, really.
He was invaluable to the Alter Knights. As a senior, he scored 10 touchdowns — six on punts, three receiving, one rushing — for a 14-1 team that reached Ohio’s Division IV state championship game.
In a semifinal in which Alter trailed Kenton 14-10, Finke turned around the game by returning a punt 40 yards for a touchdown and taking his second interception back to the 1-yard line. Finke played defensive back after having done so on just one series all season, and Alter won 25-22.
Months later, Notre Dame coach Chip Kelly was visiting Alter to reaffirm the commitment of Nick Coleman, who has been Finke’s best friend since seventh grade. After the last school bell, as Finke was walking down the hall, Domsitz called him over to meet Kelly. So the Irish coach asked him:
You interested in playing major college football?
Finke: “I think so.”
That was not an emphatic reply, but for a shy teenager in the moment, that’s all Finke could say. Domsitz promised to send Notre Dame tape of Finke. Kelly promised to look at it.
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Notre Dame offered Finke a spot as a preferred walk-on, something Wisconsin, Pittsburgh and Miami (Ohio) had also done. But not only would he have a chance to play at Notre Dame, he could join his sister, Sarah, a student there.
“Rudy” is an iconic movie and all that, but Finke wanted more than two plays at the end of his career.
“It’s such a hard football program to pass up,” Finke said. “I had a lot of talks with my parents, and my dad in particular, instilling that confidence in me and not just be a ‘Rudy’ story and play a significant role eventually.”
Kelly told the family that walk-ons are treated no differently than scholarship players, and Finke was not. He did not lack for confidence, either. After those first practices, before he had even attended a college class, he went against first-team players and decided he belonged.
He was rewarded with a scholarship before his sophomore year. Kelly compared him to former Irish wide receiver Robby Toma, but with more speed.
In 2016, Finke took a fourth-quarter punt 23 yards to set up the winning score in a 30-27 victory over Miami (Fla.). He caught 10 passes that season for 122 yards and scored TDs in each of the final two games. In 2017, he caught three passes for 36 yards in a 20-19 loss to Georgia, and returned punts 41 and 20 yards in a 38-20 loss at Stanford.
Against Michigan, his three catches for 55 yards came in victory. Last year, Kelly said, Finke would not have had the strength to go up and take the ball away from a defender as he did.
“I don’t know if it’s a short-person complex. But he’s got an edge, and it’s a great edge,” receivers coach Del Alexander said. “And he uses it. He will not be denied.”
Maybe it’s the Lance Edge embraced by Finke, who has tweeted support for the former Pacer.
Finke earned a team award for weightlifting in the offseason. During three summer weeks, he worked out at the Xceleration Sports Performance Lab in Austin, Texas. Not only did he increase speed, the training was supposed to ease the occasional hamstring soreness he endures.
“He’s able to break tackles, be more explosive, last longer,” offensive coordinator Chip Long said.
Finke contrasts to Notre Dame’s 6-4 targets — Chase Claypool, Miles Boykin, Alize Mack — but is widely praised for precision in running routes. He has studied film of small NFL receivers such as Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola.
“I think they’re all really high-motor guys, and they all seem to be very smart and know the defense and now to exploit it,” Finke said. “They’re all really physical as well, when they need to be.”
He is close to his three siblings, including Alex, 28, who is also cast on a big stage. She starred as Cosette in the Broadway revival of “Les Miserables” and now can be seen in New York in the Tony Award-winning musical “Come From Away.”
“The thing is, they have to overcome whatever fears they may have,” Jim Finke said of his two children. “They don’t seem to have a lot of them.”
If you can make it in Dayton, you can make it anywhere. Somehow, Chris Finke knew that.
Contact IndyStar reporter David Woods at 317-444-6195 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter: @DavidWoods007.
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NO. 8 NOTRE DAME VS. BALL STATE
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m., Saturday, Notre Dame Stadium, South Bend.