Taj Salawu, With the Assist

A soccer player in a purple uniform jumping in the air for a soccer ball that is at eye level
Photo by Michael Ivins

A spontaneous reaction unexpectedly led Taj Salawu to Holy Cross. The international student-athlete, now alumnus, made the most of his years on The Hill — and an impact far beyond the field.

Soccer showcases flip the sport on its head. Hundreds of athletes migrate to an athletic facility hoping to catch the eye of the few dozen college coaches in attendance. On this day, wins and losses are secondary to the performance of an individual player.

At the end of January 2019, Tajudeen “Taj” Salawu, one of 250 prospects, trekked to western Massachusetts, looking to impress the 50 coaches in attendance. Ben Graham, Holy Cross’ men’s soccer coach at the time, arrived in Westfield, Massachusetts, and navigated across the indoor arena and three fields of artificial turf to find the best spot to scout the players in attendance, specifically, Salawu.

The 19-year-old from London should have never been in the dimly lit facility. He came to the United States to play soccer collegiately. Following a year at Taft Academy in Connecticut, Salawu targeted Columbia University and the bright lights of New York City. Instead, another Ivy League school — Yale — showed an interest, but the program reshuffled the coaching staff, prompting Salawu to reopen his recruitment.

“It threw me into the deep end,” he says. One of Yale’s former assistants threw Salawu a life preserver. As one of the showcase organizers, he alerted Graham of the defender’s talent

“He told me, ‘Holy Cross is here. They have a spot for you. Go and play. Show them why you should be there,’” Salawu says. “I had a few good games that day.”

Yet it wasn’t a goal or an assist that caught Graham’s eye. Salawu didn’t overwhelm him with otherworldly athleticism, but Graham left the event knowing the 5-foot-9 defender needed to be a part of the Holy Cross soccer program for an action Salawu took when play was stopped following a goal.

“I ran the full length of the pitch to celebrate,” Salawu says. “One of my best friends scored, and I literally sprinted the whole field.”

“It was a fairly long distance to traverse,” Graham says. “Most of these kids that we look at and identify, they’re all very good players. You’re looking for a little bit extra; we’re building a culture within our teams. You look at football, but you focus on kids that represent the character values that we instill. I remember that specifically [with Taj].”

In his four years with Holy Cross, Salawu logged more than 4,000 minutes on the pitch with 45 starts, which includes the COVID-19-shortened 2020 season that featured just four games. He wore the captain’s armband for two seasons and was one of a few players in the nation to be named an Arthur Ashe Jr. Sports Scholar — a top student athlete — three times.

A soccer player in a white uniform with the ball tries to get passed a player
Taj Salawu on a breakaway against Colgate University in September 2021.

But beyond his successes on the pitch, Salawu’s Holy Cross legacy is tied more to what caught Graham’s eye during the soccer showcase — his instinct to care for others.

Holy Cross serendipitously appeared on Salawu’s radar, but as he walked across the stage in May 2023 with a degree in computer science, his arrival at the College and the relationships he forged felt pre-ordained.

‘It was like a family’

Tajudeen Salawu ’23 grew up in London. His father, Olufemi, grew up in Nigeria. His mother, Tracy, grew up in Guyana, studied in France and lived in French Guiana and Spain before finally settling in London.

“She did a lot of that traveling at university, so I thought university might be a good time to travel,” Salawu says. “I’ve always had the idea in the back of my mind.”

Once an idea finds a home in Salawu’s mind, there’s no stopping him. When Salawu was 12, he asked his mother to take him to the bank so he could create a savings account. His mother supported the idea, but recommended they go on a day she wasn’t as busy.

“He found his own way around on the computer,” she says. “He comes up later and says, ‘By the way, I just need you to sign this. I’ve opened my bank account online. It’s all done.’ He’s always been that way.”

Eight young boys stand with arms on each other's shoulders wearing soccer uniforms
Taj Salawu’s first soccer team, Euro Dagenham, in England.

Where others might interpret roadblocks, Salawu found success. Within his universe, time doesn’t function as it does on Earth. As a Division I soccer player majoring in computer science, Salawu also found “free time” to add other activities to his plate, like a job in Kimball Dining Hall.

“A lot of people choose not to pick something up after soccer,” fellow team captain Matthew McGonigle ’23 says. “They just enjoy life and not having a bunch of obligations, but that’s not really who Taj is. He stays busy all the time.”

Yet adding a part-time job wasn’t enough to fill Salawu’s schedule. As a child, he dabbled in a variety of instruments from the piano to the ukulele, which he still plays along with the electric guitar and saxophone. When he returned from the U.K. back to the States after winter break in January 2022, he brought his saxophone with him. By May 2023, he was performing in the Holy Cross Jazz Ensemble.

“Taj picked up the class not realizing it was a jazz ensemble class. He was playing with four or five people. He realized quickly he wasn’t up to par. He put his head down and practiced. He was already quite good,” McGonigle says. “He raised his game. It was one of the coolest, best events I’ve seen. It was super impressive.”

Salawu’s outgoing personality and musical talents helped him during his first introduction to the Miller family. Salawu and Will Miller ’24, manager for the Holy Cross men’s soccer team, bonded as first-year students, arriving early on campus to participate in soccer workouts. Their connection extended away from the field and they became roommates.

As the two grew closer, Miller invited Salawu to Thanksgiving in 2019. Miller’s grandfather greeted Salawu at the dinner table with a family tradition: Anyone new to the gathering had to introduce themselves by telling a story about themselves or singing a song. Salawu sang the Holy Cross alma mater.

“From that point on, it was like a family,” Salawu says. “I was really close to them.” 

‘A no-brainer’

Each new day in March 2020 brought increased numbers of COVID-19. By the middle of the month, Holy Cross announced that all students must move out of residence halls by 5 p.m. on March 14.

But returning home wasn’t an option for Salawu: “At the time, I didn’t know if I could go home, and if I went home, I didn’t know when I’d be able to return.”

Amid the uncertainty, Salawu’s mother suggested he go to Maryland where they had family. Salawu and Miller, though, had already made plans.

“Once COVID hit and we had to leave campus, it was a no-brainer where I would go,” Salawu says.

Miller’s family — parents Bill and Sara, both members of the class of 1993, and his two brothers — welcomed Salawu into lockdown with them at their home in Westchester County, New York, about 30 minutes from New Rochelle, the epicenter of cases at that time.

“We’re leaving campus — Taj is literally getting in the car — and we’re, like, ‘Are you sure you want to come with us?’ Sara Miller says. “We’re driving to the center of it all and he says, ‘It’s a nobrainer.’”

With Salawu’s arrival, the Miller home included four young men between the ages of 15 and 20. It transformed into virtual classrooms by day and a PlayStation 4 arcade at night.

The Miller family standing while holding Taj across their bodies along their hips, Sara Miller is holding the family dog
Taj Salawu and his surrogate family in the U.S.: Sara Miller ’93, Bill Miller ’93, their sons Will, Sean and Max, and their dog, Munson.

“We were together 24/7 day-in and day out,” Will Miller says. “There wasn’t much more to do over COVID. I feel like every night, my parents would go to bed and the four of us would hang out in the basement, whether it was playing video games or watching a movie.”

When not sitting in front of a screen — for classes or video games — the foursome worked out, rode bikes, went for walks and grew closer. Dinner soon became a “grand event”, according to Sara and Bill Miller. With Salawu at the table, no one wanted to leave. It wasn’t out of the ordinary for the family to sit around talking for three hours. Sunday mornings were reserved for online church, where Salawu became known within the congregation for performing readings every so often. His mother would often join the masses from London.

“Having everyone under one roof was such a gift,” Sara Miller says. “I think we would have been close to Taj regardless because of holidays and vacations, but I never imagined this. He really is a part of the family. Without COVID, I don’t know if that would have happened.”


Salawu knew Will Miller and knew something wasn’t right.

The time spent together on The Hill and in New York built a relationship in which Will and Salawu each refer to the other as their brother. Like any sibling, they knew what made the other tick, and they could also tell when the other wasn’t himself.

“You could clearly see that there was a change in Will,” Salawu says. “His actions, his mood, was different.”

In spring 2022, Miller’s grandfather died. Will Miller is more introverted than his brothers, but even considering that, Salawu grew concerned. Others on campus noticed, too.

“Taj was the first person I felt comfortable bringing it up with,” Miller says. “It was something I hadn’t talked about before with anyone. Just knowing I had somebody that I could open up to, it was a huge relief.”

Four young men and a middle aged women smiling
Left to right, Max Miller, Will Miller, Taj Salawu, Sean Miller and Sara Miller

Miller called his parents after his conversation with Salawu and returned home for the remainder of the semester. While he was in New York and Salawu remained on The Hill, they talked almost daily. Whenever Salawu didn’t reach out to Miller, he sent a text to Miller’s parents to check-in.

“It was unbelievable,” Bill Miller says, his eyes filling with tears. “He was worried about Will. He reached out to us saying, ‘I know he called you, but he really needs to get home.’ For a kid to recognize that in someone else is special.”

Even with Miller home, Salawu never let him forget he was part of the team on Mount St. James. He orchestrated a team trip to travel to New York City on Miller’s birthday and surprise his friend. Miller returned to campus in the fall 2022.

“A lot of the people that I keep close to me, I view them as family, not just friends. I don’t open up to a lot of people,” Salawu says. “All the relationships I have, I want to be strong. I want you to know me and I, you. I don’t want a superficial relationship. To know I gained that with him and he felt that comfortability to tell me anything, it meant I succeeded in creating a brilliant, healthy and strong bond with someone who is not a blood relative.”

A group of 10 people, two familes, shoulder to shoulder, meeting for the first time
The Salawu and Miller families pose for a picture at commencement, where they met in person for the first time.

‘He was loved’

Inside Worcester’s DCU Center on May 26, the sea of people cheering for Holy Cross graduates ebbed and flowed. Some families cheered louder than others as the graduates heard their names announced and walked across the stage to accept their diplomas.

“I was talking to the person next to me and I said, ‘I don’t want it to be silent when I walk across the stage,’” remembers Salawu, who already has a computer science job lined up.

Salar Salim ’23, standing behind Salawu, responded, “Don’t worry, I’ll cheer for you.

”When “Tajudeen Saheed Nathanael Salawu” was announced, the crowd drowned out anything Salim said nearby. Salawu’s family, who traveled thousands of miles to witness the moment, was soon muffled by the dozens of others who cheered as loud as possible.

As Salawu reached to shake the hand of President Vincent D. Rougeau, a smile filled his face as the applause echoed throughout the arena.

“There were four of us. We cheered very loudly, but then the soccer team got up and were even louder,” Tracy Jordan says.

Five students dressed in caps and gowns
Taj Salawu (third from left) on Fenwick Hall’s Commencement Porch with classmates (left to right) Matt McGonigle, Maria Victoria Méndez, Abby Bryant, Maria Alejandra Méndez, Brennan Garcia Hilger, Sydney Coles and Nic Andre.
A group of students standing on a porch next to a pillar and a brick building
Taj Salawu (third from left) on Fenwick Hall’s Commencement Porch with classmates

The response surprised Salawu’s mother, but as she thought about her tour of campus days earlier, it aligned with the stories she had heard of her son. Regardless of where they were on campus — the athletic complex, a residence hall or Kimball — someone approached and told her how much her son meant. When they arrived in the soccer locker room, a giant photo of her son greeted her.

When the commencement ceremony ended and the hordes of graduates navigated against the current of people, Jordan saw her family, her son, and his surrogate family, the Millers. Another smile swept across his face.

Through an unsettled recruiting process thousands of miles from home, which evolved into a global pandemic that left him an ocean away from family, her son had found a home.

“He had four great years there,” Jordan says. “It made me realize, I always knew he was safe, but it reinforced that feeling that he was loved and comfortable at Holy Cross. I’m really proud of him.”