WORCESTER — Earlier this month, when Holy Cross defeated Lehigh, coach Bob Chesney was celebrating the 42-14 win and what it meant for the Crusaders, a fourth straight Patriot League title and a place in the Football Championship playoffs Subdivision (FCS). The most memorable moment that Saturday for Chesney was sharing the trophy with his family, looking around Fitton Field and seeing his staff and players doing the same.
“Having our families there was very special,” Chesney said. “It’s such a big thing for any football program. Our families sacrifice a lot when we’re not home and I think it’s really important to share those moments when you get the chance.”
Also on Sunday, when the Crusaders gathered for the FCS selection show at the Prior Performing Arts Center, there was a strong family presence of spouses, sons and daughters.
Offensive coordinator Chris Smith savored the moment with his wife Natalie and their children, 5-year-old Calvin, who was greeted enthusiastically by HC players entering the auditorium, and 3-year-old Eleanor. Defensive coordinator Scott James and his wife Rebekah celebrated HC’s number 8 and first-round bye with two of their three children, 6-year-old Caiden and 3-year-old Lincoln, both wearing purple jackets. Baby Brighton, who turns 1 on Thanksgiving, was at home with his grandparents.
“Chris has worked in other staffs where they feel family is a distraction,” said Natalie Smith, who met her husband when they were Holy Cross students. “Holy Cross has definitely created an environment where we feel very welcome. We really loved the atmosphere and 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 a time,” Chesney said, “and they represent our program, but our program goes much deeper. Everyone who has helped our players get to where they are in their lives and in their football 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 up I think how much pride and sacrifice everyone has put into it emotionally, personally and financially, there are many people helping this team and we don’t lose that at all. We’re thankful.”
Chesney’s focus, drive and dedication to building the Holy Cross program into a national contender requires him and his staff to work 16-hour typical days. During the season, he usually has breakfast with his wife Andrea and their three children, 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 separate ways to work, school, and activities. Chesney gets home around midnight, long after the kids have gone to bed.
“It’s one of the most challenging careers I can imagine,” Andrea said. “It can be an emotional roller coaster for all of us, but it comes with some of the greatest rewards.”
In fact, the accomplishments of the 2022 Crusaders were gratifying for everyone involved. On Monday, Chesney was named a finalist for the Eddie Robinson Award presented to FCS Coach of the Year, and on Tuesday, Chesney was named Patriot League Coach of the Year for the second straight year.
“I’m just so proud of him and of all the coaches and players,” said Andrea. “It was really rewarding to see their success and to know that all the hours and Bobby’s attention to detail and the attention to detail and sense of urgency of the coaching staff paid off. This part of it can be an emotional roller coaster, but it comes with some of the greatest rewards.”
Andrea, who works full-time in customer success, met Bob in 2002 when he was the defense coordinator at Delaware Valley State. She quickly learned the demanding and unorthodox schedule of a football coach.
“We knew what we were getting into,” Andrea said.
Holy Cross is Chesney’s third spell as head coach. The Chesneys have been married for 15 years.
Chesney’s parents, Bob Sr. and Claudia, are moving from their Pennsylvania home to the Worcester area during the season. Bob Sr., whose own coaching career spanned 38 years, 27 of which were at the high school level, is a member of the HC team. Claudia helps with the kids and paces behind the end zone during games with Andrea.
“It was really special to see Bobby and his dad train together,” Andrea said. “His mother has been doing this for a lot more years than we have. We look to her for advice and help when we need her.”
Lyla, Hudson and Bo and Calvin Smith regularly attend the Holy Cross exercises. During HC’s departure in October, Chesney looked forward to attending Lyla and Hudson’s concerts. Lyla is a member of the Worcester Children’s Choir and Hudson plays the piano.
Recently, Chesney brought a group of players to see Bo’s Central Mass. The Miami Dolphins win their flag football Super Bowl.
On Halloween, a group of coach wives organized trick-or-treating for the kids at the soccer 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 is doing,” 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 after he graduated from college.
“It was a well-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 in 2016 as offensive line coach.
The Smiths have breakfast together and Chris usually sneaks into a game of tag with Calvin before going to school and Chris going to HC.
Natalie takes Eleanor, who is disabled, to hippotherapy (equestrian therapy), 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 picking up Calvin, they can go swimming or date him to the YMCA.
“I like to be very busy,” Natalie said. “Calvin has a lot of energy.”
The Smiths have attended every home game this season and enjoyed spending time with the other HC families.
“It’s just a really special feeling because there are a lot of kids there,” Natalie said, “and everyone’s looking out for each other’s kids. We all stand together and 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 spoken to Chesney until five years ago.
“He called me,” Rebekah said, “and asked if he could offer Scott the position of[defense coordinator]. Something like, ‘Do I have your blessing?’ It started 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, close to where Rebekah and Scott grew up and where their family and support system is based. James previously trained at the University of New Hampshire, which is about 15 minutes from her home. James commutes 90 minutes one-way to Worcester each day.
He starts at 5:30am and gets home after 11am, except on Thursdays when there are no meetings and he leaves the Holy Cross right after practice.
“He sees the older kids for 5-10 minutes,” Rebekah said, “and it changes 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 research assistant.
“Football brought us together,” said Rebekah.
They have been married for eight years.
Caiden was born during the 2016 Spring Ball, Lincoln at the start of the 2019 training camp and Brighton three days before HC’s FCS first round playoff game against Sacred Heart last year.
James was off the team for two days before the game but spent the week preparing and staying in close contact with Chesney and the staff while being by Rebekah’s side in the delivery room. James was emotional and Chesney grateful for the opportunity.
The Crusaders held Sacred Heart to three points in the final 50 minutes in an exciting 13-10 win.
James had a spot at Worcester during the 2019 season, but that changed when he was home during the COVID shutdown.
“He said, ‘I couldn’t be gone for five months again,'” Rebekah said.
It was also during this time, with James regularly meeting with coaches and players via Zoom, that Rebekah witnessed something firsthand.
“I saw how much of a family environment it was,” she said. “Caiden and Lincoln would sometimes sit in the chair with their dad and wave at the players, and they were so excited. Last season (linebacker) Jacob Dobbs facetimed my daughter every Friday night. That made it even more of a family thing.
“I’m looking at the sacrifice that all the families put into it,” Rebekah said. “It feels worth it. When you put your all into it, you want to know that everyone around you is so committed. It’s a very unique culture that they created and that they are all in.”
After practice Thursday morning, most of the HC team will head to Maxwell Luciano’s Banquet and Conference Center at Union Station for Thanksgiving brunch before being given a few days off. Coaches who don’t go home will go to Chesney’s house and thank Chesney’s family and neighbors.
“It will be nice,” Chesney said, “to spend some quality time together.”
– Contact Jennifer Toland at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @JenTolandTG.