It is fourth down, one of the 58 times the formidable Notre Dame defense has forced opponents to punt this season. As the kick spirals through the air, senior return man Chris Finke stands back, ready to receive the ball.
“There’s not a lot of time to really think,” Finke said. “You focus on the punter and where the ball is going to go. You see the flight of it and you can kind of judge whether you have time or not based on the hang time and the distance, but there’s really not a lot of time to think. If you think too much you won’t do well.”
With the opposing gunners bearing down on Finke, the margin for error is slim. In that short period of time, he must determine a path forward to slip around would-be tacklers, or settle for a fair catch. One mistake can wipe out the efforts of the Irish defense to get off the field or pin the offense in dangerous field position.
“I would describe my game as quick and smart. These are things I really need to rely on being out there at the size that I am,” says the 5-10, 180-lb. Finke. “I’m usually a lot smaller than the defenders I’m going up against so I have to use my quickness and my strength. I have to know everything that I need to do and recognize what the defense is doing and how to beat it.”
The sole punt returner for the Irish this season, Finke has used his abilities to weaponize the Irish special teams, gaining an average of 10.4 yards per return for a 188-yard season total. In addition to his reliability catching punts in high traffic areas, Finke has carved out a place for himself in the Irish receiving corps. Logging significant time on offense, he got off to a fast start in his senior season after a touchdown catch against Michigan earned Finke an interesting comparison.
“The Michigan catch was a really fun play. Coach (Chip) Long had dialed it up and told me we’re going to run it all week,” Finke said. “We got the look from the defense that we needed and Brandon (Wimbush) threw a beautiful ball. The rest just happened. It’s kind of a blur almost, but hearing (sportscaster) Mike Tirico say that I ‘Mossed’ the defender is pretty funny to me, honestly. I know Randy Moss is a big 6-4 receiver. ‘Mossing’ guys is something you hear about from guys like Chase Claypool and Miles Boykin, and not something that is usually my forte. That was a blessing to have a play in that game and get a really good win on the first week.”
His highlight-worthy grab to snatch the ball away from the defensive back has been Finke’s only touchdown of the season, but his offensive production has not slowed down. Always a threat to break a big run, the elusive receiver has twice gained over 50 yards in a single play.
Statistically, Finke is third on the team in receptions with 40 catches for 461 yards. The longest of those receptions came when he hauled in an Ian Book pass for 56 yards against Virginia Tech. Yet Finke’s journey to top of the offensive pecking order is one that was slow to develop.
“I wanted to play football for a long time until I was actually allowed to,” he said. “My parents didn’t let me. I begged them to let me play probably three or four years before they finally did. It was fifth grade when I started playing for one of the local teams, my high school feeder team. The first year was so much fun. Once I got out there I was playing with all my best friends. I fell in love with it. I started out playing running back and a little wide receiver, but running back was my initial position. I moved to wide receiver around the eighth grade.”
In his hometown of Dayton, Ohio, Finke and current Irish safety Nick Coleman led Archbishop Alter High School to a state-runner up finish their senior year. Coleman’s performance earned him a scholarship to Notre Dame. While coaches Brian Kelly and Mike Elston were on a recruiting trip, they also met Finke and decided to offer him preferred walk-on spot with the team.
“It was just the opportunity of a lifetime I couldn’t pass up,” Finke said. “I had a couple other preferred walk-on offers that I was considering at the time. I had a lot of talks with my parents and they instilled that confidence in me that I could come here and achieve my goals and play a role on the field. The school is just so great, such a great football program. My older sister was going here at the time and once I finally took a visit as a prospective student there was no turning back.”
Having already made visits South Bend to visit his sister, the senior finance major knew there is more to the University than its Division I football program. His family connection to Notre Dame eased Finke’s choice to attend the school.
“My parents were the biggest impact on my life. They are always there for me to support me and they are always so confident in me and believe in me at all times. They keep me grounded and they’re just someone I can talk to whenever I need to. My biggest role model is my dad. He’s someone that has instilled the work ethic in me that I have today, and he still has it. He’s always grinding for my family and always doing everything possible to support us. My dad is someone I look up to an immense amount and I’m really thankful for him in my life.”
Notre Dame’s campus is a special place to Finke. He can recount fond memories of playing catch with his family on South Quad while visiting his sister. These days, most of Finke’s catches occur inside Notre Dame Stadium, the location on campus he likes most.
“My favorite spot on campus is the tunnel in the stadium, but facing outwards so you can see Touchdown Jesus. The way that the gate frames the the Word of Life mural makes it look so much bigger than it actually is. It’s just one of the best views on campus.”
As a Notre Dame freshman, Finke gave the Irish defense important looks as he imitated opponents on the scout team but he did not see any in-game action. During fall camp of his sophomore year, Finke traded his preferred walk-on status for a football scholarship.
“When I received the scholarship from Coach Kelly, it was such an amazing surprise and an incredible blessing,” Finke recalls. “That was something I had been working towards and it felt really good for it to finally pay off. The first thing I did was call my parents and thank them for all their support and let them know that I had achieved one of my goals. It was such a wonderful moment for me and my family.”
Earning a scholarship was not the end of Finke’s list of goals. Now in the position of scholarship athlete, Finke battled to get on the field in 10 games in his second year with the team.
“What motivates me is proving all the people who believed in me right. I’ve mentioned my family and how much they believe in me and the confidence they have in me. Knowing that there are people that are counting on me out there that expect me to do great things, that’s really a motivating factor.”
Now in his fourth season with the Irish, Finke finds himself in a leadership role on the team. A model of grit and using one’s intelligence to maximize physical abilities, Finke has taken developing players under his wing to help them reach their potential.
“To the younger receivers, there’s always things that I notice having been a younger receiver before and knowing what they’re going through in terms of learning the playbook, or if they’re getting yelled at by a coach and they’re not used to it,” Finke said. “I always try to be someone that they can turn to with any of their problems and help them out figure out the playbook or just an ear that will listen to them when they need someone to talk to. I love my team. I’ll do anything for them and knowing that I have a responsibility on my shoulders to do the right thing that helps our team, and is the best thing for our team, is something that keeps me going every day.”
Finke is able to offer a unique perspective to his teammates having risen through the ranks from a walk-on to an integral member of the receiving corps. Sharing this experience of the payoff from hard work can be inspirational to the younger players.
“Something I’ve learned at Notre Dame and I’ll take with me for the rest of my life is to treat others with respect always,” Finke says. “Anytime you see somebody it’s always the best option to be caring towards them and to show them respect. I want people to say that I was a good guy and a great teammate and someone they could look up to, for the younger walk-ons especially. There were a lot of guys that I looked up to in terms of their work ethic and how far they’d come. Joe Schmidt, for example, a walk-on that became a captain and team MVP. I’m trying to pay that forward to the younger guys. Hopefully they can draw some inspiration from me and know that they have a friend in me always.”
Finke has played in 18 home games during his time at Notre Dame. Before each one, he follows a particular set of steps to prepare himself to compete.
“There are several pregame rituals I have. Starting all the way from the morning, I wake up and I usually play some country music leading into the game, which my roommate Chase Claypool is growing fonder of, I believe. I try to get on the bus a little early; I have a prayer routine. I say the rosary the day of the game in our little break beforehand. As I get to the game I don’t listen to any music. I try to soak in all the atmosphere and see all the fans tailgating on our way over and just really appreciate the gameday atmosphere that we have. Once we hit the field, it’s go time.”
Walking through campus to the stadium reminds Finke of the lively atmosphere he first experienced visiting Notre Dame as a child. He enjoys sharing the passion of gameday in South Bend with the crowds of Irish faithful gathered around the stadium.
“Gameday is unlike anything else. You wake up and you’re ready to go. You know you have all your teammates with you and all your coaches with you. Everybody’s on the same mission. It’s just a great feeling all day, from morning all the way up to the night. My favorite part about gameday has to be singing the alma mater after a win. Just looking out into the student section and seeing all the great fans and knowing that we got the job done.”
In their regular season finale, the Irish will travel to the west coast to take on rival USC. The 5-6 Trojans are allowing 27 points and 300 yards per game, averages Finke and company hope to surpass to cap off an undefeated regular season. Notre Dame is currently ranked third in the College Football Playoff standings, but there is no doubt in the receiver’s mind the identity of the best school in the country.
“Notre Dame is the greatest university on earth.”