'I Need You': Inside Football’s Bittersweet Championship Season

Aerial view of a football team on a football field
Holy Cross practices before the 2023 season.

Go behind the scenes of big wins and tough losses as the Crusaders win their fifth consecutive Patriot League football championship.

Forty days before the first game of the season, silence filled the Holy Cross workout facility. From dumbbells to free weights and a jungle of body-building machines, the room was spotless.

About 15 minutes earlier, bass thundered from speakers throughout the space. The beats battled with the vibrations of hundreds of pounds of weights dropping to the ground suddenly after a deadlift attempt. The ground shook with each attempt, but the padded floor and cheers of encouragement muffled much of the noise from the cascading weights.

“You’re stacking up positive outcomes by doing the little things right every day,” Director of Sports Performance, Head Strength & Conditioning Coach for Football Chris Grautski said. “Just putting the weights away, that the racks are perfect, that’s a small win. When you start stacking those up in your favor, that’s going to pay off in your favor.”

These minute details keep football players up at night: a missed assignment, a bad pass or a mental error. The mind of a five-time Patriot League champion takes it even further.  
Picking up a protein bar wrapper on the ground, placing each weight back to where a player found it and reporting to class on time. Winning doesn’t begin in the locker room or on the field. Attention to detail is a way of life, perfected every day.

A portrait of a man
Holy Cross senior Eric Schon

“Make sure it’s spotless. We leave it better than we found it,” senior guard Eric Schon said before departing a road game his season.

The obsession with minutiae may confuse some, but within the walls of the Luth Athletic Complex, it’s become gospel. 

From pre-season workouts to the FCS selection show, the football program granted unfettered access to Holy Cross Magazine last year to capture every detail of the Crusaders’ quest for a record fifth-straight league championship. The following is the result of that access through a season that ended with a championship — as predicted — but one that also included unpredictable obstacles — from lightning to injuries, to the departure of the program’s head coach Bob Chesney to lead James Madison University.

Even as the latest championship trophy sits on the mantle in the football office with the 2023 season in the rearview mirror, the challenges continue. New head coach Dan Curran will begin next season without a host of Patriot League household names, like Offensive and Defensive Players of the Year quarterback Matt Sluka and linebacker Jacob Dobbs, who are just a few of the Holy Cross players entering the transfer portal to pursue graduate school opportunities. They will graduate in the spring, but because of the COVID-19 shortened 2020 season, they have an extra year of eligibility remaining to play college football elsewhere. Then there are players like offensive lineman C.J. Hanson and wide receiver Jalen Coker, who will likely hear their names called in April during the NFL Draft.

Players and staff remaining in the program believe the juggernaut those names built — five Patriot League titles in five years, an undefeated 2022 regular season, the first FBS win and national playoff berth in decades — won’t relent. The culture created by those players and the attention to detail will remain, they say.

“Expectations are a good thing,” Curran said. “We’re going to continue to work toward that standard every day. When you do those things the big things will come. They’ll fall into play.”

A family, a man, woman, son and daughter stand and smile
Dan Curran (second from right) stands with his wife, Megan, and their three children, Ty, Kaley and McKayla after being introduced as Holy Cross' new football coach.


Weight-gaining regimens stop at the start of camp. During the season, players work on maintaining their weight. The workouts move out of the weight room and into the pool as camp progresses.

“It takes the wear and tear off their bodies and does a good job of deloading their joints and giving them a different stimulus,” said Chris Grautski, director of football strength & conditioning and pro liaison. “This also fills a different bucket. This is more aerobic. We can get their heart rate going in this short amount of time.”

A man in t-shirt and shorts holds a whistle while standing on the edge of a pool
Director of Sports Performance, Head Strength & Conditioning Coach for Football Chris Grautski stands at the edge of a pool during an aquatics workout with the football team.

Amid daily on-field August practices, the team squeezed in morning workouts in the pool. Following the defense, the offense started an aquatics session at 9:30 a.m.

Players arrived early. Some launched off the small diving board into 80-degree water, about 15 degrees warmer than the temperatures outside. Others climbed to the top of the board at least 12 feet in the air. 

Like a defense disguising a blitz, they stood atop the ladder posing as if the height didn’t intimidate them. As their teammates executed dives and backflips off the lower board, those who climbed the taller diving board walked cautiously to the end. Most jumped without coordination or any designed dive. They landed knees first into the water below and came to the surface with a sense of relief having survived the ordeal.

At 9:32 a.m., Grautski blew his whistle. The shenanigans ceased. Sluka stood in the middle of the pool in front of Grautski. Veterans like offensive lineman Christo Kelly acted as another coach in the water, ensuring the drills were performed as instructed. 

Men stand in lines in an Olympic-sized pool
The Holy Cross football teams prepares for an aquatics workout before the season.

Players ran through the water. They ducked underwater and held their breath to increase lung capacity. They sunk into the shallow end and deep stretches.

“They enjoy this the most, but it’s probably one of the harder things that they do,” Grautski said. “That’s why it can only be a half hour.” 

A portrait of Jacob Dobbs
Holy Cross senior linebacker Jacob Dobbs.

Ten days before Holy Cross, ranked 14th in the preseason, kicked off its season against Merrimack College, they practiced on Rev. Anthony Kuzniewski, S.J., Field. The season carried with it one goal: history. Seniors took the field having never finished worse than atop the league, sporting championship rings on four of five fingers on one hand. In their swansong, they expected nothing less.

“It’s really hard when you have such high expectations sometimes. You just feel this pressure build up. But at the end of the day, it’s the game of football. It’s fun,” Dobbs said. “You can only control so much. We boiled it down to control what you can control.”

While the team held off on implementing specific game plans for the season opener, Chesney’s children sat in the pressbox prepping for the regular season by creating nameplates for the coaching staff.  On the field, purple helmets dotted the turf with the defense wearing black jerseys and the offense donning white. 

Holy Cross' football team practices in August.

A whistle at 2:33 p.m. moved players into position groups. Taylor Swift’s voice projected from the sound system forcing the coaches to scream their directives. 

Romeo, take me somewhere we can be alone / I'll be waiting, all there's left to do is run / You'll be the prince and I'll be the princess / It's a love story, baby, just say, ‘Yes’

“This is [Jared] Dyer’s playlist!” Chesney shouted over the Swifties on the field.

A couple of tracks later, the offense broke the huddle with Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” blaring in the background. Sluka received the snap, dropped back and in mid-season form fired a bullet to Coker on a skinny post up the middle.

Portrait of Matt Sluka
Holy Cross senior quarterback Matt Sluka.

The head coach interrupted any celebration by yelling “Twos!” signaling for the second-string offense. Before they snapped the ball, the play clock expired. Delay of game. 

The offense reset, trying to diagnose the cause of the penalty. Chesney continued counting down. “Twenty-five! Twenty-four! Twenty-three!”

The first team returned. Sluka dropped back and found Coker, delivering a strike low, just off the ground, but high enough so only the receiver could grab it.

“It’s hard going undefeated back to back,” Sluka said. “It’s definitely hard to meet those expectations but, just realizing that there’s always something you can do better. There’s always another step to take.”

Football player in uniform enters a tunnel
Holy Cross quarterback Matt Sluka enters the locker room tunnel before the team's game at Boston College in September.

Boston College

Jacob Dobbs, the Patriot League’s all-time-leading tackler, committed to Holy Cross in August 2018. About a month later, Boston College steamrolled the Crusaders, 62-14. The Eagles scored 48 unanswered points before Holy Cross scored in the final minutes of the third quarter.

After beating Merrimack 42-20 in the 2023 season-opener, Holy Cross traveled to Boston College, only their third matchup over the past 37 years, with a different mindset.

'They wanted us to win bad.'

The Holy Cross football program hosted a golf outing during the summer. Each alum who saw Quarterback Matt Sluka greeted him with the same message: It was time for the Crusader to end the 45-year drought against the Eagles.

The voices who played on the  1978 team, who beat Boston College 30-29, sat with Sluka the longest.

“They wanted us to win bad. It’s an in-state rivalry between us,” Sluka said. “With ACC competition, It was like a chance to beat up on your big brother.”

Boston College limped into the matchup losing in overtime to beat a mid-major opponent in Northern Illinois. The Eagles started Emmett Morehead at quarterback, but Thomas Castellanos rallied the Eagles to the victory.

The BC coaching staff played coy leading up to Holy Cross.

“They were saying throughout the week, ‘Oh we don’t know who our quarterback is,’” Chesney said. “You know damn well who your quarterback is. I know damn well who your quarterback is...I knew who they were playing, but I was hoping they weren’t sure.”

“The way we walked into that game. We [believed we] legitimately have a chance to win,” Dobbs said. “You walk into that game and you’re, like, ‘Yeah, I’m confident in the guys we have. I wouldn’t trade these guys next to me for the world. I wouldn’t trade our coaches. I wouldn’t trade this school. I wouldn’t trade our fans.”

Holy Cross and Boston College first met on a football field in 1896. The bad blood developed only hours later. With three minutes to play, a fight broke out. Amid the mayhem, BC scored, but not before the officials called the game 6-4 in favor of Holy Cross. Soon after that decision, the officials called both teams back on the field to conclude the contest. Holy Cross refused and claimed the win.

To this day, the schools still dispute the inaugural game’s victor. Holy Cross claims a 6-4 win. The Eagles attest to an 8-6 win.

Since that contest, BC holds a 48-32-3 series edge, with Holy Cross’ last victories coming in consecutive years,1977 and 1978. Since then, the Eagles have won the last nine meetings.

Newspaper clipping of Holy Cross' win over Boston College
A newspaper clipping from the Sunday Telegram showing Holy Cross' last win against Boston College.

“It’s a chance to beat up on your big brother,” Sluka said. “So just giving everything we possibly had to fight for every last inch, just do everything perfect that week. We knew one minor mistake here or there would cost us.”

Holy Cross boarded four Silver Fox buses at around 8:30 a.m. on Sept. 9 from the Luth parking lot. Before departing campus, a Massachusetts state trooper boarded the third bus and told the driver, “No matter what, stay on his ass,” pointing to the bus in front of her.

By 8:50 a.m., the buses began the journey to BC’s Alumni Field behind the police escort, which enabled the team to make the 40-mile drive in 31 minutes.

Players shuffled into “Locker Room A.” Sluka sat down at one of two lockers sandwiched between a pair of doors. No one claimed the space next to him.

Hip hop blared through the locker room:

Know you feel some type of way (some type of way) / Mr. CEO is what my title say (Rich Homie baby!)

“It’s a chance to beat up on your big brother."

Quarterback Matt Sluka
Sluka's pregame routine honors loved ones

As Matt Sluka prepared for Boston College, the senior asked for a Sharpie after taping his wrists, a tradition he began in high school.

On one wrist he wrote “OPA”, what he called his grandfather Claude Macari, who died before the season. 

On his other wrist, Saluka wrote “4MF”, dedicated to a high school lacrosse teammate who was killed by a drunk driver in 2021.  Following the fatal crash, the local community remembered Farrell through the abbreviation “MF4” - Farrell’s initials and lacrosse number.

“I put the ‘4’ first because I do it for him,” Saluka said. “When I played lacrosse with him, he cherished every game. He cherished every moment.”

Saluka has a voice recording of Farrell when they won the state championship together. He listens to it before every game.

“It was one of the best moments of my life,” Saluka said. “Just being able to smile before I go out there and putting his initials on my wrist, I just say, I’m doing it for him. He’s always a part of my life.”

With about 10 minutes until kickoff, offensive coordinator Dean Kennedy joined Sluka at his locker. They hugged before the room recited The Lord’s Prayer. The pregame speech followed. The head coach’s voice dripped with such determination and intensity that he stuttered seconds into the speech because he couldn’t remember the word “stamina.”

“When it’s said and done, they do not respect you. Right? And they should, right? They do not believe in you. But they should,” Chesney said, beginning to scream. “They do not fear you, but they f****** will. By the time this thing is over, they’re going to f****** understand what this is about!”

Bob Chesney's Pregame Speech at Boston College
Audio file

The Crusaders ran onto the field welcomed by the BC student section chanting “Safety school!” As the Eagles entered the stadium from the tunnel, all-league running back Jordan Fuller prepared himself for the fight ahead, “This is going to be a long friggin' day.”

A man throwing a football on a football field
Holy Cross quarterback warms up with a throw before the team's game against Boston College in September.

Boston College struck first with a touchdown. Holy Cross responded when Fuller punched it in from 2 yards. After several questionable pass interference calls against Holy Cross, cornerback Terrence Spence, the culprit of those calls, looked at Sluka.

“I need you,” he said to the quarterback.

The three words triggered Sluka, bringing him back to his first season. During a team meeting, then senior wide receiver Tenio Ayeni discussed the vulnerability and urgency tied to someone saying, “I need you.” Years later, it remains the most powerful statement Sluka has ever heard within a football environment.  

“It wasn’t ‘Pick your head up.’ It wasn’t ‘Get better.’ It was, literally, ‘I need you,’” Sluka said. “‘I don’t have time for you to waste.’ Honestly, when I heard that, it became a saying for me. It’s so powerful. There’s nothing else you can do in that moment but go out and help your teammate, your brother. I went back to that moment.”

It’s so powerful. There’s nothing else you can do in that moment but go out and help your teammate, your brother. I went back to that moment.

Matt Sluka

Thirty-seven seconds later, Sluka capped off a four-play drive by running over a defensive back for an 8-yard touchdown.  As he returned to the sideline, Spence and Dobbs smiled at the quarterback. “Thank you,” Spence said.

Holy Cross entered halftime down 24-14. Players pillaged a table packed with oranges, Rice Krispies treats, pickle juice and other protein-rich and recuperating snacks.

Sluka needed extra as the sun bore down on him and the temperature on the field turf exceeded 90 degrees. For only the second time in his 41-game Holy Cross career, he received an IV during halftime. He looked away at the trainer as the team physician administered it.

As the team left the locker room, a voice screamed from the huddle, “We’re getting the ball, going down the field and scoring. Then we’re winning this f****** game!”

When the Crusaders reached the sideline, fans behind the bench chanted “HO-LEE CROSS!”

Crowd cheering in stands
Holy Cross fans packed the stands at Alumni Stadium when the team played Boston College.

Shortly after, Sluka converted on a 23-yard pass to running back Tyler Purdy. Nodding on the sideline, Fuller said, “Oh, yeah! We got ’em!” before breaking off a 45-yard run. Two plays later, Sluka made it 24-21.

The teams exchanged touchdowns into the final drive of the game with the Eagles leading, 31-28.

We’re getting the ball, going down the field and scoring. Then we’re winning this f****** game!

'We've been there before'
Lightning delay was nothing new

In 2021, the Crusaders endured a first-half lightning delay against Fordham where they sought shelter in the locker room down 21-17. After an hour-and-12-minute delay, the Rams extended the lead to 24-17. Holy Cross responded by scoring 28 unanswered points en route to a third consecutive Patriot League title 

Under Chesney, Holy Cross practiced for that lightning delay just as it practiced for the delay at Boston College. Chesney implemented the scenario in practice after watching lightning delay the FCS championship game in May of 2021.

In practice though, the delay lasts only about 30 minutes.

“It still felt like a normal situation,” Dobbs said. “The cool thing was everybody was calm, expected to win and acted like we’ve been there before. There’s so much confidence. We’re getting the ball and we’re going to score and win this game.”

With 1:58 remaining in the game, Holy Cross took over on its own 25. Before taking the field Sluka, looked to the crowd and said, “I got it.” But he never entered the huddle. Despite sunny skies above, the officials sent both teams to the locker room due to impending severe weather.

“I was so confused. It wasn’t raining,” Sluka said. “We didn’t hear thunder. We could have easily finished the game out. But they thought it was best that we go inside. Everyone was really just confused as to what was going on.”

As the visitors during a three-hour weather delay, Holy Cross dealt with disadvantages. They couldn’t change out of their sweat-soaked clothes. Players sat on hard plastic chairs with the icy air conditioning blasted toward them. Staff couldn’t leave because the delay was open-ended and the game could restart at any time. Eventually, some left to restock the locker room with food and supplies for players.

The team had a few dry socks to pass around. Chesney offered Sluka the option to finish the final 2 minutes with dry feet.

“I told him I didn’t want to do anything different,” Sluka said. “We fought this battle with wet socks, and I’m leaving my wet shoes on. At this point, we’re finishing how we started it.”

As the delay wound down, Sluka and Kennedy, the offensive coordinator, discussed options to close out the game. Before the delay, Kennedy selected a play to kick off the drive. In the locker room, Sluka lobbied for a different call, one that allowed him to make a play.

“Can I just have the ball one time?” Sluka said.

“If you want it,” Kennedy responded, “I’m not going to tell you no.”

Bob Chesey message to team during lightning delay
Audio file

Sluka selected an empty formation that would allow him the liberty to spark the offensive drive with his feet. BC hadn’t seen it all day. “It’s a play that’s always a good one. I was really confident,” he said.

Sluka correctly predicted the BC’s coverage out of the delay. He broke through the line and had only one player to beat.

“Every single time I cut back. But this time, I was, like, ‘No, trust the sideline. Trust the sideline. Trust the sideline.’ I cut back every time and I always get caught,” Sluka said. “ I had Jalen Coker out there [blocking] I said, ‘Trust the sideline’ The way I made the cut, I knew the sideline was going to be close, but I thought I could tiptoe it. Then I wasn’t able to.”

Sluka gained 35 yards bringing the ball to the BC 40. Only the sideline prevented him from scoring.

A football player running by a man

An oversized photo of the moment lives within the office of Kit Hughes. Holy Cross’ Associate Vice President for Intercollegiate Athletics was standing at the spot where Sluka stepped out. About an inch separated Sluka’s foot from remaining inbounds and scoring. The photo shows both Hughes and Sluka with looks of disbelief.

“That’s my, ‘You’ve gotta be kidding me grin,” Hughes said as he looked at the picture, which captures just how close Holy Cross was to victory.

Two plays later, Sluka fumbled. Boston College recovered. 

“I forget who I was throwing it to, but there was a defender there, so I tried to step up and make a play and just get it out of my hands,” Sluka said. “If it was incomplete I would’ve been fine just to stop the clock. But a rainy ball, it slipped out. I lost it.”

The Eagles pounced on the loose ball, and jaws dropped among the Holy Cross faithful. The phrase “Are you kidding me?” permeated the sideline.

Sluka hobbled to the sideline where senior cornerback Devin Haskins embraced him. Coker and Fuller were next. As time expired, the score read BC 31, Holy Cross 28; the game officials patted Sluka’s back. The BC coaching staff met Sluka near midfield, praising his efforts.

As the team huddled near the endzone, Haskins and sophomore defensive lineman Daniel Santiago helped Sluka. They supported him with his arms on their shoulders; the past 6 hours had drained everything from the quarterback.

“You came in here and did something nobody else in the world thought you could,” Chesney said to the team.

The words didn’t land with Sluka. Tears filled his eyes as he crouched over the “B” at midfield. Dobbs leaned in for a private meeting between team captains. 

You're the best player in the country. The only reason we’re in this game is because of you. Don’t let this game be defined by one play. Stuff happens. We all make mistakes, but the position you play, it just so happens that everyone sees it.

Senior linebacker Jacob Dobbs' message to Matt Sluka

The few BC students who remained chanted “Butter fingers” when Sluka entered the tunnel back to the locker room. Safeties coach Anthony DiMichele ’11 pulled the senior aside, “It’s a long season, a long season.”

About 10 hours after the buses departed Worcester, Sluka sat in a nearly empty visitor’s locker room with his head down, scanning his phone. Dozens of notifications alerted him of well-wishing messages. None erased the loss, the fumble or the physical exhaustion.

At about 6:30 p.m., Sluka mustered the last strength within his body to stand, pick up his bag and toss his dirty uniform in the laundry bin.

A trainer asked how he felt before exiting the locker room.

“I feel like shit,” he said. 

Men walk in black sweatsuits
Team captains Jacob Dobbs (left) and Matt Sluka lead Holy Cross to the locker room before the team's game against Georgetown.

Road to five straight

November clouds hung in the sky as a pair of buses pulled up next to Fitton Field at 10 a.m., for the 11th and final game of the season, against Georgetown. The 2023 campaign hadn’t gone to script, but as the players shuffled out of the buses, the goal of a fifth-consecutive league championship remained in reach.

After departing the bus, a sea of black sweatshirts and sweatpants congregated at the entrance of the field. Co-captains Dobbs and Sluka stepped toward the front. For the final time in their Holy Cross careers, the pair and 35 other seniors walked through the gates and down into the baseball outfield to high-five and embrace fans.

Behind the herd, several injured players lagged. Senior cornerback Devin Haskins navigated the steps with crutches in his hands, while all-league running back Fuller negotiated the stairs on a medical scooter designed to take the weight off his knee. Offensive lineman Christo Kelly, wearing a walking boot, cautiously moved down each step. They were the latest casualties in a season full of them. The list of players who missed important games due to injury mimics that of an all-Patriot League roster, including Sluka and Dobbs.

Three men sit on an aluminum bench
Holy Cross players Christo Kelly, Jordan Fuller and Eddy Cachon sit on the bench before the team's game against Georgetown.

Sluka dressed for every game, but missed most of the action in the later-season matchups against Fordham and Lehigh, marking the first — and only — games he didn’t start in his Holy Cross career. The starts went to junior backup quarterback Joe Pesansky, who led the team to victories over both teams.

Portrait of Joe Pesansky
Holy Cross quarterback Joe Pesansky.

“I just knew it was better for the team. I have full faith in Joey,” Sluka said. “He’s always been there for me and helped me out. I couldn’t be at my best so I told Chesney, if I’m not above 80%, it doesn’t make sense for me to go. Joe at 100% is better than my 80%.”

Dobbs injured his left shoulder early against Fordham. He finished the game with 10 tackles and a sack, but he missed the next two games — at Lehigh (a 28-24 win) and at Army (a 17-14 loss).

“I told the staff, ‘You can hold me out for those two games, but I’m going to fight you for the last one,’” Dobbs said. “They’re going to win the battles, but I’m going to win the war. I would’ve went out against Army, but it wasn’t safe. I didn’t care what safe meant against Georgetown.”

One of the most crucial injuries of the season occurred against Bucknell when senior corner Devin Haskins suffered a knee injury that ended his Crusader career.

Freshman California native Donovan Comestro stepped in. As temperatures cooled on The Hill, Chesney joked during practice with the West Coast native about the temperatures: “You been in this weather before? This is the greatest day of your life. What’s this feel like?”

It was new to Comestro, who grew up in Ladera Ranch, California, fewer than 100 miles from the Mexican border. There, the average low in December barely drops below 50.  

Until arriving at Holy Cross, Comestro had never played in temperatures approaching freezing. A raindrop never touched his helmet during a game. His cleats had never stepped into real grass. With Haskins out, Comestro started against Lafayette with the temperatures hovering in the 40s and in a steady rain pelting the players and the grass.

The freshman fell twice on plays where his receiver scored.

Man standing in background with football player running in foreground
Former Holy Cross Coach Bob Chesney stands in the rain during a game against Lafayette.

“My mind flashed back to that practice. It’s a windy, rainy, natural grass day. There’s a lot to overcome,” Chesney said. “He was thrust into that as a starter.”

The Lafayette scores dug Holy Cross a 24-7 hole. Still, the sideline remained calm. Senior guard Eric Schon stood next to a young fan and his father. Schon fist-bumped the youngster and nodded with a smile. The gesture plastered an ear-to-ear grin on the face of the little boy.

Portrait of Jordan Fuller
Holy Cross running back Jordan Fuller.

Not long after, Sluka scored to cut the deficit to 10 in the third quarter, prompting running back Jordan Fuller to walk up to Dobbs, “I need you.”

Despite the plea, Lafayette responded with a touchdown, lengthening their lead to 31-14.

After the score, the Holy Cross defense sat on the bench with their heads down and licked their wounds. Dobbs demanded their attention: “It’s crunch time. Don’t be afraid to make a play. Enough has gone wrong that it’s about time we make a fucking play. They can’t score another f****** point.”

Holy Cross cut the lead to 31-28 with just under 8 minutes to play. Lafayette responded with a 5-minute, 40-second drive to push its lead back to 10.

Portrait of CJ Hanson
Holy Cross offensive lineman CJ Hanson.

An onside kick down by three was Holy Cross’ final prayer. As the ball bounced into the hands of Lafayette, tears filled the Crusaders sideline. Holy Cross fell to 4-3, with four games remaining. The loss also represented the first of the seniors’ career.

C.J. Hanson looked at Sluka, “It’s the one game that we’re going to have to look back on.”

“That emotion was more for losing our true first Patriot League game. We knew we had to do a lot more to win the ring,” Sluka said. “After losing Devin [Haskins], we didn’t have a lot of people. It was the only Patriot League game I lost. There were a lot of things that came at that moment. It was a tough situation. We had never been there.”

On the final day of the regular season, Holy Cross’ record stood at 6-4 yet with a win they would finish in a familiar spot: atop the Patriot League.

Despite beating the Crusaders, Lafayette lost to Colgate two weeks later, which left the door open for Holy Cross to grab a share of the league crown. The news made its way through the locker room and team buses as the team traveled back to Worcester from Lehigh.

Dobbs noticed an alert on his phone as he celebrated the win at Lehigh. “You immediately become invested. Then they lose, and you’re, like, ‘OK. No matter what happens, as long as we win that last game against Georgetown, we win the league,’” he said.

On the final day of the regular season, if Lafayette lost to Lehigh and Holy Cross beat Georgetown, the Crusaders would be outright champions for the fifth year in a row. Preparation for Georgetown began with a picture of Fitton Field. Chesney pointed out the championship banners hanging from 1920 through 1922.

“If you win this game, regardless of what [Lafayette] does, you’re hanging another banner and you’re etching your name on another trophy. You’re not done yet,” he told the team.

Football team in purple jerseys huddled in locker room
Holy Cross takes a knee in prayer before its game against Georgetown.

In the locker room, the team began The Lord’s Prayer as the Star Spangled Banner played within Fitton Field.

“It’s not about any one person. It’s about everybody in here. It’s about uplifting an entire community, an entire school and an entire program,” Chesney said during his pregame speech. He ended it with a statement of fact: “Sixty minutes. Sixty minutes and you put another on your thumb.”

Bob Chesney's pregame speech vs. Georgetown
Audio file

Holy Cross responded, opening the game with 10 straight points. When Georgetown converted on a field goal to cut the lead to a touchdown, Sluka stepped on the gas.

“Don’t let up. Don’t let up,” Sluka urged his teammates. In the final 6 minutes of the second quarter, Sluka found the endzone twice — once through the air and once on the ground. 
At halftime, the Crusaders led 24-3. Thirty minutes until championship No. 5 and Lehigh was ahead of Lafayette.

A football player walks into endzone
Holy Cross senior Phoenix Dickson scores against Georgetown.
Two football players hug on sideline
Quarterback Matt Sluka hugs wide receiver Jalen Coker (80) on the sideline during the team's game against Georgetown.

Dobbs knew the Lehigh/Lafayette score and his mind flashed back to a similar situation in 2021 at Fordham. Needing some help to clinch the Patriot League title, the coaching staff shared scores during halftime. Holy Cross outscored the Rams 28-0 in the second half. Dobbs convinced the staff to again let the team know that Lehigh led, to motivate the squad for a strong second half.

Holy Cross tacked on another touchdown and the defense smothered the Georgetown office.  Up 31-10, the eventual final score, the public address announcer updated the crowd with the out of town scoreboard: Lafayette 21, Lehigh 21.

Soon after, Fuller, among teammates on the sideline, glanced at his phone.  

Farewell Champions

The Holy Cross offense ran out the final 5 minutes, 4 seconds of the game. Dobbs stared from the sideline reminiscing about the five years as a Crusader. His mind wandered to the week leading up to the contest. His dad, who played college football at Wayne State, put Dobbs career in perspective.

“If you would have told yourself at 18 years old, you would accomplish half of what you were able to do as a team the past five years, you would have been ecstatic,” Dobbs remembered his dad saying. “You would have signed the paper right there. So you look back at how lucky you are.”

“Lafayette up two scores,” he reported to senior fullback Phoenix Dickson in the fourth quarter. “Now up three.”

The Crusaders rolled through the Hoyas, but Lafayette scored 28 unanswered second-half points to beat Lehigh, 49-21. Holy Cross would share the Patriot League title.

With 2:53 remaining in the game, Holy Cross called timeout to allow the offensive seniors to come out of the game. Dickson blew kisses to the crowd. Sluka waved. The seniors went down the line hugging players and coaches.

Sluka and Coker posed in front of the stands for fans to capture a photo. The tears that erupted after the loss against Lafayette returned in the postgame against Georgetown.

“It’s historic,” Dobbs said. “It’s unprecedented. Unless people play here for six years, no one can ever win more in a row than we did. You think about it, you’re like, ‘Wow, that’s special.”

As a team, they celebrated the fifth trophy at midfield. Staff handed out white conference champion hats. Friends and family filled the field in anticipation of senior day festivities, which also allowed for personal pictures of the championship moment.

Players assembled at midfield for a team photo, Sluka in the center raising the trophy with his right arm, which amassed more than 5,916 yards through the air in his Holy Cross career.

When he climbed out of the team photo huddle, Sluka took a deep breath and exhaled, in disbelief of his four championships in four years, but also that his career as a Crusader was complete.

Football player in uniform flexing
Holy Cross quarterback Matt Sluka.

Sophomore offensive lineman Noah Eldridge approached the quarterback. “It’s been an honor,” he said. “Seriously, you’re the best player I’ve ever seen.”

The 2023 five-time Patriot League champions assembled for the final time the following day. They packed into the Luth Concert Hall at the Prior Performing Arts Center to watch the FCS NCAA selection show, where they would learn if their season would continue with a playoff game. 

Four regular season losses pitted them as underdogs to get a bid, but two of those defeats came against higher divisional opponents — BC and Army. They also christened a fifth-consecutive championship the previous afternoon.

Ring of Honor
Sluka arrived at Holy Cross with a dream

When Sluka arrived on campus in 2020, he had those words in his mind. As a freshman, he noticed the ring of honor that encircled the north side of Fitton Field.

“That was a dream of mine,” Sluka said. “That was a goal of mine, to be on there.”

The details mattered. Sluka researched the qualifications for induction into one of the most prestigious fraternities on campus. He’s checked off every box, but one feat stands ahead of him, graduation.

“I’ve gotta walk across that stage and we’ll see what happens,” Sluka said.

“It was one of the most emotional moments we’ve had,” Dobbs said. “You get your hopes up and you expect to win. All the fifth-years, we walked in thinking we were going to get it. When you don’t see your name on that screen, your heart just drops.”

Dobbs dived into the selection show possibilities. Holy Cross was a bubble team, along with others such as Youngstown State. If they got in, it was likely the Crusaders wouldn’t. Then the announcement came: Youngstown State received an at-large bid to play Duquesne.

“With every team that gets selected, reality sinks in a little more,” Dobbs said “When you look at the last one, you just know you didn’t get in. It’s over. It’s an extremely tough pill to swallow in that moment. That’s it. There’s no offseason or saying ‘Let’s get back after it.’ You’re done. It’s all over.”

The chapter of 37 seniors, five consecutive championships and a coach who created a winning culture is complete.

“It’s good learning for the underclassman,” Grautski said. “This program was built on the backs of guys like Sluka, Dobbs and all the hard work they put in. My heart broke for them but they’re realists, they know we just didn’t do enough.”

Football players hoist a trophy over their head cheering
Holy Cross football players hoist the Patriot League trophy over their heads after beating Georgetown in November.

Even within defeats, though, champions find success, Grautski said. For the first time since 2018, the strength coach implemented an offseason workout within the final weeks of the semester. That time, the last four years, was filled with playoff game preparation.

“We would all trade the workouts for being in the playoffs,” Grautski said. “But those guys who had the best season in school history in 2022, their core DNA was developed through these workouts.”

The evidence sat only feet away. Within Grautski’s office in the weight room, four championship rings glistened in a case from his desk. A fifth is on its way with room to add more.

“We’re starting to build on a new generation,” Grautski said. “These guys can take the torch forward.”