Although Notre Dame players don’t wear their names on the backs of their jerseys, devoted fans memorize the numbers of their favorites. Key players are discussed on ESPN. Big stars rack up thousands of social media followers and sign autographs for young, adoring fans.
But what about the players standing on the sidelines?
Non-scholarship players, better known as “walk-ons,” have to apply to Notre Dame and pay tuition to attend the school. Although their names appear on the official football roster, they don’t often have the game stats or biographies that scholarship players do. Considering the lack of recognition, game time and tuition payments, why do players walk on to the Notre Dame football team year after year?
Notre Dame walk-ons were often the most talented members of their high school football teams, and they were recruited by many other universities to play in starting positions. Arion Shinaver, a freshman wide receiver, explains, “I had some options to go to some of the Ivy League schools, like Brown, Yale and Harvard.”
Why did he choose Notre Dame instead? He says, “Notre Dame has been my dream since I was a little kid. It has the best combination of academics and athletics that you could ask for in the entire nation. I wanted to test myself and see if I could compete at the highest level of football with the academic rigor of Notre Dame. You just can’t find that other places.”
Chris Finke, a sophomore wide receiver, agrees. “I felt like I was good enough to earn some playing time here eventually,” he says. “In my opinion, it would feel better to eventually play here than go somewhere else and wonder what could have been if I didn’t come to Notre Dame.”
Finke was right. His dedication to the program paid off at the start of the 2016 season, when he received a scholarship. He recalls, “I was surprised when Coach [Kelly] announced it during the first practice after camp. All my teammates were really supportive of me and it was a nice phone call to make to my parents too.”
Finke already has a strong season behind him, playing in 10 games in 2016. He scored two impressive touchdowns and totaled 122 receiving yards on the season.
Another walk-on player, Austin Webster, made history when Brian Kelly named him the first walk-on captain of the Notre Dame football team for the 2017 season.
“It’s an adrenaline rush to have the opportunity to prove that you are here for a reason and that you can contribute to the team in more ways that people initially thought,” Webster says. “Having that challenge and goal every time I step on the field gets me back everyday, knowing that I can improve myself and others around me.”
Walking on the football team is not a light commitment. Though walk-ons don’t usually play in the games, they still attend drills and workout sessions. Shinaver, an economics and pre-med major, explained that as a freshman, he took 19 credit hours. He typically woke up at 7 a.m., went to class from 8 a.m. to around 2:30, then had football practice and activities for about five hours after that. He says, “I don’t have a lot of free time, but I enjoy what I’m doing. I just get it done by staying focused all week.”
After playing his last season on the Notre Dame football team, Ben Suttman, a senior tight end, reminisced about his most rewarding moment: finally playing in a real game, during the Shamrock Series matchup against Army. “It was a pretty crazy experience. It was the fourth quarter with three minutes left. I was in there for like two or three plays.” He says, “That’s kind of the redemption at the end of a long road. There were a lot of times when I didn’t think I’d get in, but being able to actually say that I did play for Notre Dame definitely makes it all worth it.”
Suttman had to wait until senior year to get on the field, but he doesn’t mind. “The opportunity to wear the gold helmet and run out of the tunnel and be part of the program was something I valued more than playing at another university,” he says. “I’d rather go to a school that I love and try to do my best for the team in whatever way I could.”
After Notre Dame’s 2015 victory against Navy, Robby Regan, currently a sophomore safety, earned the game ball without ever stepping foot on the field. He says he helped the defense prepare, “I knew how to attack a triple-option offense, because of my high school experience. Navy ran this type of offense, which a lot of players aren’t used to dealing with. It felt great to be recognized after the game by my coaches and teammates.”
Shinaver says, “Notre Dame is different than a lot of other schools, because their culture has a stark difference between the starting players and the walkons. But at Notre Dame you don’t see that at all. It’s just a group of guys and we’re all in this very unique journey together.”