Oct. 12, 2012
By Craig Chval Jr.
The story of a scholarship football player's journey to the University of Notre Dame rarely diverts from the script. The nationally recognized recruit turns down the courtship of other major programs and ultimately chooses the history, academics and uniqueness of a certain school in Northern Indiana. After four or five years on the team, he either goes to the National Football League or puts his distinguished degree to use.
Chris Salvi's journey was a bit different.
"I always wanted a scholarship at Notre Dame," the fifth-year senior says. "When I was younger, I thought I'd get it coming out of high school, but maybe I didn't grow as much as I needed to."
The 5-10 defensive back played at Carmel Catholic High School in suburban Chicago before enrolling at Butler University, where he played in all 11 games as a freshman in 2008. But he never forgot his dream to play in Rockne's House.
Transferring to Notre Dame after his first year, Salvi walked on to the team as a sophomore. Although the NCAA requires transfers to sit out a year, he was able to learn from another successful walk-on while waiting for his chance to play.
"Mike Anello was in his fifth year when I got here, so it was great to see him contribute to the team as a former walk-on and learn from his footsteps," Salvi says. "He was an inspiration to me and he helped me out as well, giving me encouragement."
Seeing action on special teams, Salvi played nine games as a junior and recorded two tackles. But perhaps his biggest single contribution came the following year against 15th-ranked Michigan State.
Trying to avoid an 0-3 start to the 2011 season, the Irish were up 7-3 late in the first quarter when George Atkinson III scored Notre Dame's first kick return touchdown by a freshman since Raghib Ismail in 1988.
When Atkinson caught the ball at the 11 yard-line, Salvi was streaking across the field, taking out two Michigan State players with one block and giving room for Atkinson to score. NBC television analyst Mike Mayock singled out Salvi for his game-changing block, and the Irish went on to win 31-13.
"It's nice to get some recognition," the Lake Forest, Ill. native says. "I've got a small role on the team in special teams but an important one, and I take it seriously. And to be able to make a big play like that - contribute in a big win - it's a great feeling."
Mayock wasn't the only one to notice his impact. In the offseason, Irish head coach Brian Kelly rewarded Salvi's dedication and contribution with a scholarship for his final season on the team.
"He really prides himself on working hard," says Chris' brother Will Salvi, who walked on the team this year. "And that scholarship not only shows it paid off, but it shows that Notre Dame really appreciates everything he's done for them the past few years, so it was a dream come true for him to get the scholarship.
"He called me when he got the scholarship really early in the morning - I think like seven a.m. after a five a.m. workout," Will says. "It was amazing. I started crying about him getting a scholarship - it was pretty surreal."
Despite everything the scholarship meant to Salvi, the most meaningful accomplishment actually came earlier that season. With different captains announced for each game in 2011, Salvi was named a captain for the Navy game, the only walk-on with that distinction under Kelly's tenure.
"That was even more of an honor than getting the scholarship. Eighty-five guys have scholarships, but even fewer of them get to be a captain, so it was a milestone in my football career," Salvi says. "I was surprised. There are so many great players and people on this team that could be named a captain, so it's an honor."
In addition to the coaches, Salvi has earned the respect of his teammates, especially fellow walk-ons who look up to him. Just as Anello was a mentor to him, he tries to encourage younger players.
"He's not the most vocal guy out there, but if you just watch him in practice, he never takes a play off. And you see some guys will take it easy because it's special teams, but Chris will go one hundred and ten percent every play," says junior cornerback Joe Romano. "And it's been working for him and he's gotten places, so when you see that, it's motivation to keep working hard, and some day you might get noticed. And so he's always been one of my role models on the team.
"There are guys that are getting success based on just following Chris' footsteps. They see Chris, and he gives them tips on how to get noticed by the coaches and how to just be a better football player, so he's always trying to help out everyone else."
Salvi's leadership and compassion are just as prominent as his dedication and intensity. Even while he is striving to be the best, he is also pushing and encouraging those around him to be better.
"People always think that Chris is scary with his long hair, and he runs down on kickoffs like a crazy man," Will says. "He has his intense moments during football, but I know him where he's the nicest guy and you can talk to him about anything or come to him with anything and he'll help you out.
"He's caring, he's loving, and he works hard off the field, as well. He's an inspiration to me, he makes me try to get better, he challenges me. Off the field he's my biggest role model."
The passion and dedication that drive salvi to succeed in football are also present off the field, most notably in his other athletic endeavor - boxing. Last year he competed in Notre Dame's annual amateur boxing tournament, the Bengal Bouts, which has raised money for Holy Cross missions in Bangladesh since 1931.
"It's a great tradition that we have. Obviously there are many that Notre Dame is recognized for - football obviously the biggest one in terms of athletics," Salvi says. "But Bengal Bouts is something that's such an important role that the students get to be a part of. And being able to raise money for a great cause and display athleticism and courageous fighting, it's something that hopefully is around for another 80 years."
Having occasionally sparred with his brother Brian in high school, Salvi decided to compete in Bengal Bouts for the first time last year. Even though it was his first experience, he beat out 10 other boxers to win the 188-pound division.
"It was great to be able to fight in front of all those people. To be able to win was great - it was no easy task," he says. "There are such great athletes in Bengal Bouts and great competitors. So to be able to go toe to toe with some great people and some great fighters was a lot of fun."
While many Notre Dame students struggle simply being Notre Dame students, Salvi has managed to excel in the demanding tasks of football, boxing and academics. The physical rigor of his sports make time management that much more important.
"We had morning workouts, and after classes I'd go to boxing," Salvi says. "So I had to make sure my nutrition was right, I had to make sure I got my sleep.
"But you'd be surprised how much time you have in the day if you use it right. You just have to focus on each thing by itself because you can't waste any time when you have to go from football to class to boxing."
Will, who is also Chris' teammate and roommate, was able to join in the Bengal Bouts experience by standing in Chris' corner for a couple of those matches.
"It was fun. I don't really know much about boxing as much as he does - I was more just the motivation guy," Will says with a laugh. " But it's cool to be in the corner when he's boxing. I get nervous every time he fights. I get nervous before kickoffs, too, whenever he's up there. I have no reason to be nervous, but I just always do."
Will's concern for his brother is only natural, since it's the same compassion he received from him growing up. As children, the brothers developed the same passion and work ethic - and love for Notre Dame.
"We always watched Notre Dame football games when we were younger," Will says. "At halftime of the Notre Dame games, we'd have our jerseys on and we'd always go outside and play. We'd have imaginary defenses obviously, and we'd have plays that we would signal in, and we would act like we were Notre Dame football players. We'd always play the No. 1 team in the country, and we'd always win in a heartbreaker, you know, because that was the best thing to do.
"He would always give me the winning touchdown."
On the field, Salvi combines his competitive nature and compassion for others as an exceptional team player. He does whatever it takes to win, whether he is giving his brother the winning touchdown outside his childhood home or getting the block that springs George Atkinson III free in Notre Dame Stadium.