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Michael O’BrienSeptember 08, 2023
Composite image (Wikimedia Commons)

Readers of America might have noticed over the years that this media ministry does not always give sports the attention that it deserves; America’s offices were recently described as a place “where ‘sports’ is a dirty word and there are more fans of Quidditch than of baseball, football and basketball combined.” However, tomorrow offers a collegiate football event that not even the most casual Catholic sports fan can ignore: Boston College and Holy Cross are renewing their longstanding gridiron rivalry for the first time in five years.

Much like the respective institutions themselves, there is plenty of colorful history to this matchup. In just their second-ever meeting, on Nov. 14, 1896, a fight broke out between the teams, ending the game early. This meant that the final score has long been contested; Holy Cross claims a win by the score of 6-4 in their record books, while The Boston Globe declared Boston College the victors by a score of 8-6.

Dave Anderson called Holy Cross’s win over B.C. in 1942 “arguably the biggest upset in college football history.”

In a 1992 article in The New York Times, the Pulitzer Prize-winning sports journalist Dave Anderson called Holy Cross’s win over B.C. in 1942 “arguably the biggest upset in college football history.” (Granted, this assessment may be a bit skewed: Anderson was a 1951 graduate of Holy Cross.)

Despite losing that game, Boston College won far more than they could have on the field. The Boston College team was so confident that they would beat the Crusaders that they planned a victory party at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub in Boston. After Holy Cross pulled out the win, Boston College canceled the party. That same night, nearly 500 people were killed when the club burned to the ground.

Brawls, underdog stories, miracles—this rivalry has had it all. It will be time to add a new chapter to this storied matchup when the Eagles host the Crusaders tomorrow in Chestnut Hill, Mass., for the schools’ 84th meeting. Though the schools have only met twice since 1986, Holy Cross has nevertheless played Boston College more than almost any other opponent: The Crusaders have played the Eagles 83 times while squaring off against Colgate University 84 times.

Part of the reason for the rivalry cooling off over the years is the different paths the two football programs have taken in the last couple of decades. Boston College currently resides in the Atlantic Coast Conference of the NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision (F.B.S.), while Holy Cross belongs to the Patriot League of the NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision (F.C.S.). For readers unfamiliar with these categories, while both schools field Division I teams, the F.B.S. essentially resembles “Varsity Division I,” while the F.C.S. represents “Junior Varsity Division I.” This is one reason why Boston College has won all but two of the schools’ last 20 meetings; however, don’t be surprised if the Crusaders make some noise in this year’s game.

As a senior in high school whose first-choice school was Holy Cross, I can remember thinking I wasn’t in for much fun watching football if I was admitted, as I witnessed Boston College steamroll the Crusaders 62-14, leading to a mediocre 5-6 record in the program’s first season under head coach Bob Chesney.

However, things have changed in Worcester, Mass., in ways that not even the most loyal Crusader fan could have expected. Beginning in 2019, Mr. Chesney’s teams rattled off four incredible seasons, resulting in back-to-back-to-back-to-back Patriot League Championships, with appearances in the F.C.S. playoffs and perfect regular seasons to boot. This 2023 team is perhaps the most complete that Mr. Chesney has had during his time on The Hill, culminating in being ranked fifth in the F.C.S. in one poll.

Brawls, underdog stories, miracles—this rivalry has had it all.

While there is no doubt that Boston College is historically the better program and currently plays tougher opponents, the Eagles have struggled to take a strong foothold in the A.C.C. over the past couple of years, finishing with just one winning season since 2019. Opening their 2023 season with a heartbreaking 27-24 overtime loss to Northern Illinois of the Mid-Atlantic Conference, a non-Power 5 school, the Eagles may feel pressured that this is a “must-win” game against a little-brother opponent, while Holy Cross has nothing to lose. And there is nothing scarier than a team with nothing to lose.

Alumni and students of both schools will be hoping for bragging rights tomorrow, but the matchup also provides a chance for Crusaders and Eagles alike to revel in their Jesuit bond. Ahead of the game, Jack Dunn, assistant vice president for university communications at Boston College, told America:

We’re looking forward to the B.C.-Holy Cross game on Saturday, as it brings together students and alumni from two New England Jesuit institutions that share a common heritage and long athletics traditions. Growing up here and attending B.C.-Holy Cross games throughout the ’60s and ’70s, I remember vividly when this was the can’t-miss game and social event of the season.

Mr. Dunn continued: “Whether it was played in Chestnut Hill or Worcester, everyone seemed to know someone from the other school. It will be great to renew that tradition. While B.C. is heavily favored in Saturday's game, what matters is that we are coming together to celebrate our common bonds as Jesuit schools. It should be a great day in Chestnut Hill for all.”

Holy Cross president Vincent Rougeau: "Two of my children are proud B.C. Eagles, but while I contend with a house divided, my heart is purple.”

While Mr. Dunn aptly pointed out oddsmakers’ beliefs, Vincent Rougeau, current president of Holy Cross and former dean of Boston College Law School, told America : “It’s been five years since our last football game with our friendly rival, Boston College—and much has changed since then. Our Holy Cross community eagerly anticipates this weekend. Two of my children are proud B.C. Eagles, but while I contend with a house divided, my heart is purple.”

Another figure with ties to both Boston College and Holy Cross is Kevin Spinale, S.J., a Jesuit priest and an assistant professor at Fordham University. (Father Spinale is also the moderator of America’s Catholic Book Club.) Father Spinale played rugby in his undergraduate years at Holy Cross before earning his master’s of divinity degree from Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. When I asked him if he secretly had a dog in this fight, he told me:

I won’t secretly be rooting for a team–I will quite openly hope and cheer for Holy Cross (the underdog) to steamroll B.C. Holy Cross has a chance this year, and I wish I could attend the game in person. As a sophomore rugger at The Cross, we beat B.C. at a small, nondescript field in Brighton, and the feeling was glorious. I hope Crusader football experiences that feeling tomorrow.

There is no love lost between these foes, and I am all the more excited to be making my way back to Massachusetts to watch in person. Alumni Stadium will be rocking with loyalists from both sides tomorrow, and while it pains me to say it, I am predicting a 31-23 victory for the Eagles to help get their season back on track.

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