SOUTH BEND – Notre Dame wide receiver Chris Finke has been facing doubters his whole college career, sometimes even from within his own family.
At a family reunion after he'd accepted a walk-on invite to play for Notre Dame, a distant relative told him he was “too small and I'd get my butt kicked,” the 5-foot-10, 180-pound Finke remembered. He had so many doubters he kept a list of them in his phone to keep himself motivated and “playing angry.”
All of those naysayers are quiet now. Finke has gone from a walk-on to a scholarship player to a productive receiver in the slot in his five years with the Irish. On Saturday, he took the next logical step: He was named one of Notre Dame's seven captains heading into the 2019 season.
“Nowadays, I play more to prove people right,” said Finke, who had 47 catches for 547 yards and two touchdowns in 2018. “The people who have supported me along the way: mom, dad, coaches and friends.”
Finke, a native of Dayton joined a half-dozen other Irish players in one of the larger Notre Dame captain groups in recent memory. The team had four captains in 2018 and expected to have smaller group this year after losing so much leadership from the squad that made the College Football Playoff.
Instead, coach Brian Kelly issued a mea culpa on the first day of fall camp, admitting that a summer of workouts had led new leaders to step up and necessitated a bigger captain group. Along with Finke, quarterback Ian Book, offensive lineman Robert Hainsey, defensive linemen Khalid Kareem and Julian Okwara and safeties Alohi Gilman and Jalen Elliott were voted captains by their teammates.
Kelly has planted the seeds for a large leadership group by appointing eight “SWAT Team” leaders that function as quasi-coaches for offseason workouts, when coaches aren't allowed in practices by NCAA rules. The captains are nearly all drawn from the SWAT Team and Kelly said that a larger group has its advantages.
“Consensus,” said Kelly, who is entering his 10th season as Notre Dame head coach. “The ability to get together. (The captains) will have the ability to work together as a group and so I think it has much more to do with their ability to act as a unified group. They operate so much easier together (that way).”
The safeties and defensive line having two captains apiece is fitting because those are projected to be perhaps the strongest position groups on the roster. The Irish have recently had a run of excellent defensive lines, but safety was considered a weakness as recently as 2017 and was a question mark heading into 2018.
That's no longer the case as Gilman and Elliott are locked in as the starters and believe they can be one of the best safety tandems in the country. Elliott joked that if he was selected as a captain but Gilman wasn't, he would turn the honor down in solidarity.
“We were tired of the days where it was like, 'We've gotta get to the quarterback up front because we know our back end isn't gonna do it,'” Elliott said. “We took that personal and we competed. Having two captains in the room is an unbelievable honor, but our work is just beginning, we have to continue to push.”
Finke, who got votes from close to 70% of his teammates, was the most surprising choice for captain. That's not because he isn't a leader, but because of where he started his career with the Irish: buried on the scout team.
The Irish announced their captains in a team meeting, with former players on a video announcing each selection. Austin Webster, the last player to go from walk-on to captain in 2017, announced Finke's name.
“If you told me when I came here as a walk-on freshman that I'd be a captain eventually, I don't know if I would've believed you,” Finke said. “It was surreal moment.”