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Salvi at home in Soldier Field

Chris Salvi’s first trip to Soldier Field was a memorable one. It was 11 years ago when he saw one of his favorite Bears, safety Mike Brown, return an interception for a touchdown in overtime for the second straight week against Cleveland.

Fifth-year senior Chris Salvi poses with his parents during Senior Day last November.

Salvi, who grew up in the Chicago suburbs and attended Carmel Catholic High School, has been to Soldier Field dozens of times for Bears games and high school football games. He didn’t think he’d ever have a chance to play there himself.

“Growing up a Bear fan, this is going to be great. To be able to play in Soldier Field? That’s a great experience,” Salvi said earlier this week.

As recently as a year ago it wasn’t a sure thing that the most recent player to sign a scholarship for Notre Dame would get that chance. After playing in nine games on special teams as a junior, an offseason injury sent Salvi to the bottom of depth chart for many of his special teams units.

He slowly clawed his way back into the regular lineup and eventually made a name for himself as the latest in a line of walk-on cult heroes for the Irish. He made 10 tackles on special teams, sprung a kick return touchdown with a block that de-cleated two tacklers and earned a scholarship in the offseason.

“I kept my head up and I did well and I earned my spot back,” he said. “…You’ve gotta earn your spot. It’s not like anything is given to you. No matter if you are a walk-on or scholarship player, you have to earn your way on to the field.”

Salvi’s experience heading into his fifth year of college football — he spent his freshman season at FCS-school Butler — made him an important tutor for a slew of new safeties even before injuries cleared out most of the veteran leaders in the secondary. Salvi was listed in the two-deep behind fifth-year senior Jamoris Slaughter after the Irish lost Austin Collinsworth to a torn labrum in the summer. When Slaughter’s year ended with a ruptured Achilles’ tendon, Salvi’s role grew again.

He started spending extra hours in the film room the day after Slaughter’s injury in Notre Dame’s 20-3 win over Michigan State. He’s a safety net behind emerging players like sophomore Matthias Farley and freshman Nicky Baratti, who are both converted offensive players learning the game in their first year of college football. He adds a layer of knowledge for the talented younger athletes with him.

“You can’t improve physically any more at this point really,” Salvi said. “You keep yourself healthy week by week, but the most important thing is you have to study more film. You gotta anticipate better. That’s what went through my mind. I have to step up my workload now because the possibility of going in is higher.”

At 23 years old, Salvi said he feels ancient at times next to the 18-year-olds who flooded Notre Dame’s safety position at the start of this season. He said his first year playing at Butler feels much farther in the distance than four seasons ago. He’s come a long way since then: Transferring to Notre Dame without a spot saved for him on the football team. Chasing down the Irish personnel directors to convince them he deserved a shot. Convincing two different head coaches he can help the team, and bouncing back from an injury his senior season.

Salvi said he expected to be able to contribute “tangible stats” on the field since he left Butler. A week from now, he’ll get his chance to make that impact on a field he’s dreamed of playing on for more than a decade.

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