WORCESTER — Earlier this month, when Holy Cross defeated Lehigh, Coach Bob Chesney exulted in the 42-14 win and what it meant for the Crusaders, a fourth straight Patriot League title and Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) playoff berth. The most memorable moment of that Saturday for Chesney was sharing the Trophy with his family, and looking around Fitton Field and seeing his staff and players doing the same.
“To have our families there was so special,” Chesney said. “It is such a big deal for any football program. Our families sacrifice a lot with us not at home, and I think it is really important to share in those moments when you have the chance to do so.”
Again Sunday, when the Crusaders gathered for the FCS selection show at the Prior Performing Arts Center, there was a strong family presence with spouses, sons and daughters in attendance.
Offensive Coordinator Chris Smith cherished the moment with his wife, Natalie, and their children, 5-year-old Calvin, who received a rousing welcome from HC players when he entered the auditorium, and 3-year-old Eleanor. Defensive Coordinator Scott James and his wife, Rebekah, celebrated HC’s No. 8 seed and first-round bye with two of their three kids, 6-year-old Caiden and 3-year-old Lincoln, who both wore purple jackets. Baby Brighton, who turns 1 on Thanksgiving, was at home with his grandparents.
“Chris has worked on other staff where they feel family is a distraction,” said Natalie Smith, who met her husband when they were Holy Cross students. “Holy Cross has definitely fostered an environment where we feel very welcome. We’ve really loved the atmosphere and the family feeling under Coach Chesney.”
Chesney has said on numerous occasions that the 11-0 Crusaders’ success this season would not be possible without the support and sacrifice of their families.
“There can only be 11 guys on the field at one time,” Chesney said, “and they represent our program, but our program goes much deeper. Everyone that helped our players get to the point they are at in their lives and in their football playing careers, our coaches and how much they sacrifice and how much their families sacrifice, our administration, our alums, the community. When you add it all together I think the amount of pride and sacrifice everyone has invested emotionally, personally, financially, there are a lot of people helping this team and that is not at all lost on us. We are grateful.”
Chesney’s focus, drive and commitment to building the Holy Cross program into a national contender requires typical 16-hour work days for him and his staff. During the season, he usually has breakfast with his wife, Andrea, and their three kids, 12-year-old Lyla, 9-year-old Hudson and 8-year-old Bo at their Worcester home, “before the day gets crazy ,” Andrea said, and they go their separate ways to work, school and activities. Chesney gets home around midnight, well after the kids have gone to bed.
“It is one of the most demanding careers that I can think of,” Andrea said. “It can be an emotional roller coaster for all of us, but it comes with some of the biggest rewards.”
Indeed, the accomplishments of the 2022 Crusaders have been gratifying for everyone involved. On Monday, Chesney was named a finalist for the Eddie Robinson Award, presented to the FCS Coach of the Year, and on Tuesday, Chesney earned his second straight Patriot League Coach of the Year honor.
“I’m just so proud of him and of all the coaches and players,” Andrea said. “It’s been really rewarding to see their success and to know that all the hours and Bobby’s attention to detail and the coaching staff’s attention to detail and sense of urgency have paid off. That piece of it can be an emotional rollercoaster, but it does come with some of the biggest rewards.”
Andrea, who works full-time in customer success, met Bob when he was the defensive coordinator at Delaware Valley State in 2002. She caught on quickly to a football coach’s arduous and unorthodox schedule.
“We knew what we were getting ourselves into,” Andrea said.
Holy Cross is Chesney’s third head coaching stop. The Chesneys have been married for 15 years.
Chesney’s parents, Bob Sr. and Claudia, relocate to the Worcester area from their home in Pennsylvania during the season. Bob Sr., whose own coaching career spanned 38 years, including 27 at the high school level, is on the HC staff. Claudia helps out with the kids and paces behind the end zone with Andrea during games.
“It has been really special seeing Bobby and his dad coaching together,” Andrea said. “His mom has been at this for way more years than we have. We look to her for guidance and help when we need it.”
Lyla, Hudson and Bo, as well as Calvin Smith, are regular visitors to Holy Cross practices. During HC’s bye in October, Chesney was looking forward to attending Lyla’s and Hudson’s musical recitals. Lyla is a member of the Worcester Children’s Choir and Hudson plays the piano.
Recently, Chesney brought a group of players to watch Bo’s Central Mass. Miami Dolphins win their flag football Super Bowl.
On Halloween, a group of coaches’ wives organized trick-or-treating for the kids in the football office. Every Wednesday night, Natalie Smith prepares dinner for the coaches – her meatloaf is a staff favorite – and brings it to the office. She and the kids stay and eat with Chris.
“It’s such an important time for Calvin to see what his dad does,” Natalie said, “and the environment there is so kid-friendly and inclusive.”
Natalie and Chris, who was a star offensive lineman for the Crusaders, were in the same Holy Cross class (2009). They have been married for seven years.
Natalie said Chris received a job offer from PricewaterhouseCoopers coming out of college.
“It was a nice paying job and the hours were good,” Natalie said, “but it wasn’t his passion.”
Smith began his coaching career at the University of Buffalo, and spent three seasons at the University of New Haven before returning to his alma mater as Offensive line Coach in 2016.
The Smiths have breakfast together and Chris usually sneaks in a game of catch with Calvin before he leaves for school and Chris heads to HC.
Natalie takes Eleanor, who is disabled, to hippotherapy (horse riding therapy), as well as physical, occupational and speech therapy sessions in Boston, and usually one appointment per week at Boston Children’s Hospital. Eleanor goes to school in the afternoon. After they pick up Calvin, they may go swimming at the YMCA or have a play date.
“I like to keep very busy,” Natalie said. “Calvin has a lot of energy.”
The Smiths have been to all the home games this season, and enjoyed spending time with the other HC families.
“There’s just a really special feeling because there are a lot of kids there,” Natalie said, “and everyone watches each other’s kids. We’re all in it together, and we understand what it’s like to be a football family. It’s just a really nice place to be right now.”
Chesney and Scott James go back more than two decades, to their time together on the Norwich staff, but Rebekah James had never met or even talked to Chesney until five years ago.
“He called me,” Rebekah said, “and asked me if he could offer Scott the (defensive coordinator) position. Kind of like, ‘Do I have your blessing?’ It did start off on the right foot, knowing he had kids and a family and he knew what it was like.”
The James family lives in South Berwick, Maine, near where Rebekah and Scott grew up and where their family and support system is. James previously coached at the University of New Hampshire, which is about 15 minutes from their home. James makes the daily, 90-minute, one-way commute to Worcester every day.
He leaves at 5:30 and gets home after 11, except on Thursdays, when there are no meetings and he heads out of Holy Cross right after practice.
“They see the older kids for 5-10 minutes,” Rebekah said, “and it makes their world.”
Rebekah, who works full-time for a medical device company, and Scott attended the same high school in Maine, but didn’t meet until they both worked at Boston College, she as a strength Coach and he as a Graduate assistant.
“Football brought us together,” Rebekah said.
They have been married for eight years.
Caiden was born during 2016 spring ball, Lincoln at the start of 2019 training camp, and Brighton three days before HC’s FCS first-round playoff game against Sacred Heart last year.
James was away from the team for two days leading up to the game, but prepared the entire week and stayed in close contact with Chesney and the staff, while being at Rebekah’s side in the delivery room. James was emotional and grateful to Chesney for the opportunity.
The Crusaders held Sacred Heart to three points over the final 50 minutes in a thrilling 13-10 win.
James had a place in Worcester during the 2019 season, but that changed when he was home during the COVID shutdown.
“They said, ‘I couldn’t go back to being gone for five months,'” Rebekah said.
It was during that time, too, when James was meeting regularly with coaches and players over Zoom, when Rebekah witnesses something firsthand.
“I got to see how much of a family environment it was,” she said. “Caiden and Lincoln would sometimes sit on the chair with their dad and wave to the players and they would get so excited. Last season, (linebacker) Jacob Dobbs Facetimed my daughter every Friday night. That made it even more of a family thing.
“I look at the sacrifice all the families put into it,” Rebekah said. “It feels worth it. If you’re going to put everything into it, you want to know everyone around you is that committed. It’s a very unique culture they have created and they are all in.”
After Thursday morning’s practice, most of the HC team will head to Maxwell Luciano’s Banquet and Conference Center at Union Station for Thanksgiving brunch, before getting a couple days off. Coaches who don’t go home will go to Chesney’s house and give thanks with Chesney’s family and neighbors.
“It will be nice,” Chesney said, “to spend some quality time together.”
—Contact Jennifer Toland at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @JenTolandTG.