Special To GoHolyCross.com
Central Massachusetts woke up to a light dusting on the morning of December 3, 1983. The snow melted by kickoff, but the outcome of that afternoon's playoff football game at Fitton Field has left an indelible chill on those who played in it wearing purple. For three quarters and most of the fourth, Holy Cross went toe-to-toe with Western Carolina's high-powered offense. But that proved as no consolation at the time, and still doesn't, for members of the 1983 Crusader football team.
That group finished the season 9-2-1, the most wins for the program since 1935, when the squad finished 9-0-1 in Dr. Eddie Anderson's third year on Mount St. James. They even had more wins than the Orange Bowl squad, the only other Holy Cross squad to play a postseason game, which finished the regular season 8-1 before the loss to Miami (Fla.). The 1983 Crusaders were considered one of the greatest teams the program had ever assembled to that time, and yielded the school's first All-Americans since John Provost in 1974. Ranked No. 3 in I-AA (now Football Championship Subdivision) and named the 1983 ECAC Team of the Year and Lambert Cup champion, all roads seemed pointed to a deep run in the playoffs. Instead, it was a disappointing end to an otherwise brilliant season.
"Clearly that was our best team," explained Gill Fenerty, the offensive star of that squad, a third team All-American that year and a sophomore at the time. "We had the best talent on offense and defense. That team was playing great ball. We had [Bruce] Kozerski [on the offensive line], and that defense with [Harry] Flaherty was just really good. It was a lot of fun. It was an interesting season."
Kozerski is one of several notable
names of the last Holy Cross team to make a postseason appearance.
A senior in '83, he was a member of the offensive line that helped
lead the way for Fenerty and fellow running backs Chuck Doyle and
Sandy McMurtry and provided protection for junior quarterback Peter
Muldoon. That team remains second in school history in rushing
yards and third in rushing yards per game. Kozerski and Steve
Raquet were both named first team All-Americans, the first time
multiple Crusaders earned that distinction in the same year since
1951. Raquet graduated with the career mark in sacks with 19.
Flaherty was a four-year starter at linebacker who came to Holy Cross after a successful high school career at Red Bank Catholic in Red Bank, N.J., where he now coaches the tight ends and linebackers. He still holds the Crusader career mark in tackles with 447, and was the team leader in that category in 1983 with 152.
"It was my senior year and I was a captain of that team," Flaherty said, also a third team All-American and the team MVP. "I had the privilege of starting all four years. I loved being there. [Mark] Duffner was my linebackers coach and defensive coordinator. It was an incredible season."
In many ways, the disappointment of 1982 laid the groundwork for the following campaign. Rick Carter was in his third season as head coach, having guided the program to back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since 1961-1962. The Crusaders finished 8-3 in 1982, but losses to Colgate (21-17) and Harvard (24-17) and a 35-10 defeat to Boston College prevented Holy Cross from receiving an at-large bid to the postseason.
The Crusaders opened the 1983 season with a 14-3 win over Boston University. Fenerty ran for 196 yards on 25 carries and two touchdowns in his debut in purple, a sign of things to come. After a 4-0 start, a showdown with undefeated Colgate loomed at Fitton. In an exciting game with 22,551 in attendance, backup quarterback Tom Heffernan relieved an injured Muldoon and drove the Crusaders 64 yards in three plays in the fourth quarter, connecting with Bill Cowley with 4:22 remaining from 20 yards out to give Holy Cross a come-from-behind 21-18 win.
The following week, sacks by Peter Quinlan and Raquet and an interception by Bill McGovern preserved a 20-16 victory over Connecticut. Holy Cross then beat Brown 31-10, which set the stage for perhaps the most incredible individual performance in Crusader football history.
"It was an other-worldly experience, there's no other way to describe it," Fenerty said of his numbers in a 77-28 drubbing of Columbia. "My first carry I got a touchdown. My second carry I got a touchdown." "The Thrill" had four touchdowns by halftime and carried the ball just three times in the second half and scored twice before Carter pulled him. When all was said and done, Fenerty ran 18 times, gained 337 yards, reached the end zone six times and broke or matched several NCAA, New England and Holy Cross rushing records. "Games like that just don't happen," he added.
For the most part, the Crusaders had remained healthy during the season. Senior co-captain and offensive lineman Matt Martin went down with a knee injury in the third quarter of the season opener versus Boston University, something that weighed heavily on the co-captain's mind. "It was devastating to wreck my knee the first game of my senior year," he said. "It was kind of bittersweet for me. I was able to play the last two games [against Boston College and Western Carolina]."
The body count really began piling up with the Harvard game. At a rain-soaked Harvard Stadium, the Crusaders' winning streak was snapped with a 10-10 tie with the Crimson. One week after his monumental performance, Fenerty was lost with a separated shoulder early in the third quarter. "The Harvard game was part of the good and the bad," he said. "One day you're on top of the world, the next week you're injured. It's just part of the game."
Holy Cross shut out Delaware, 24-0, the following Saturday, but Cowley went down with shoulder separation and was lost for the year. Nearly half the offensive numbers disappeared with both he and Fenerty on the sidelines. The Crusaders wrapped up the regular season with a 47-7 loss to Boston College, which was only a 10-0 Eagle lead at the half. "We were in a tough situation [with the injuries] going into the BC game," Flaherty noted. Martin returned for the annual rivalry tilt, but the offense experienced another brutal blow when wide receiver Gary Quinlan suffered a knee injury that ended his season.
Holy Cross finished the regular season 9-1-1, earned a playoff berth and a bye, but was severely shorthanded. "Unfortunately we barely had enough guys to put on the field by the playoffs," Fenerty said, who is now a CPA and tax manager for a public accounting firm in New Orleans. He also remembered the excitement that enveloped Mount St. James as the Crusaders entered postseason play for the first time since 1946. "There was a buzz around the campus. The stadium was filled. That was amazing. I just remember it being a whole lot of fun."
The Western Carolina team that visited Fitton that December was a formidable group and one of the most talented the Crusaders would face all season. The previous week, they had spotted Colgate a 23-7 halftime lead, but rallied to edge the Raiders, 24-23. The Catamounts boasted two All-Americans (Tiger Greene and Eric Rasheed) and seven players who eventually went on to play in the NFL, including Greene, Dean Biasucci, Louis Cooper and Clyde Simmons.
Fenerty made a gutsy return for the Crusaders against the Catamounts, and even scored the game's first touchdown in the second quarter on a 33-yard rush, giving Holy Cross a 7-0 lead. A punishing hit in the second quarter sent him back to the sidelines for the rest of the game, after he'd carried the ball 10 times for 62 yards. "My shoulder didn't really feel connected to the rest of my body after that hit," he said. "It was real difficult not being in there, you feel helpless. You can't help your teammates. It was not a good feeling."
Western Carolina tied the game late in the first half when Catamount quarterback Jeff Gilbert found Rasheed for a 30-yard touchdown strike. Holy Cross took a 14-7 lead in the third quarter on McMurtry's 38-yard touchdown run. After holding the Catamounts on their next possession, the Crusaders drove into Western Carolina territory, when a play occurred that changed the fortunes of both teams.
"We were up 14-7 and we were on their 40 or 35 yard line," Flaherty remembered. "Carter almost called a fake punt but at the last second he called it off. Bruce Kozerski went to snap the ball. [Pat] McCarthy punted it but it was blocked by Tiger Greene." Simmons picked up the ball, and 60 yards later the game was tied at 14.
"It was a momentum shift for them," Flaherty continued. "The tough thing was having the momentum in that game and driving the ball and having a fourth and short, deciding to punt, having the punt blocked and them making it a 14-14 game."
The Catamounts scored again to take a 21-14 advantage early in the fourth quarter, but Doyle's two-yard touchdown plunge tied the game. Western Carolina took a 28-21 lead on Gilbert's third scoring pass of the game and second to Rasheed, putting the pressure on Holy Cross. After trading punts, the Crusaders started on their own one-yard line with less than three minutes to go and drove to the Catamount 15, but Muldoon's fourth-down pass fell incomplete at the five.
"It was a terrific ballgame," Kozerski recalled. "Coach Carter had a great game plan. We just came up a few points short. I think we were better than that team."
Western Carolina advanced to the semifinals of the I-AA playoffs, where they defeated No. 2 Furman, 14-7. Their run ended the following week when they lost to Southern Illinois, 43-7, in the I-AA National Championship.
"Just the camaraderie we had with one another and the friendships I have with those guys," Martin said when asked about what he remembers of the '83 squad. "I hadn't seen some of those guys since I graduated when I came back for 25th reunion. It was like we were still teammates. It was a special group. We were a very cohesive and solid unit." Kozerski added, "The group was very focused."
Twenty-six years later, Holy Cross is back in the playoffs. On Saturday, the Crusaders will visit Villanova in their first postseason game since the Western Carolina game. Despite five Patriot League championships, a pair of perfect 11-0 campaigns and two 10-1 seasons in the years that followed, conference restrictions prohibited Holy Cross from challenging for a national championship.
"I keep track of Holy Cross when I can," Kozerski said, who is now busy teaching and coaching at Holy Cross high school in Coventry, Ky. "I talked to Coach [Tom] Gilmore for a long time when I came up for my 25th reunion over the summer." Kozerski was also the high school coach of a current Crusader footballer, sophomore defensive lineman Eric Oldiges.
Flaherty has been the State Director of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes for New Jersey and New York City since 1995, in addition to his coaching duties as his high school alma mater. Despite his busy schedule, he's been able to keep an eye on Holy Cross while also watching his sons follow in his football footsteps. Harry, Jr., is a tight end for Princeton and just finished his junior season. Another son, Zach, plays on the Catholic University football team. His third son, Jake, is in high school and could become the next Flaherty to attend Holy Cross.
Martin's family ties with Holy Cross did not end with him. His younger brother, Andy, became a Crusader in 1984 and went on to earn third team All-American honors while also being twice named first team All-Patriot League.
Despite playing in the NFL with both the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles and a stint in the USFL with the Tampa Bay Bandits under Steve Spurrier, Flaherty speaks the most highly about his time on the south side of Worcester. "The most fun I had was my four years at Holy Cross."
On Saturday at Villanova Stadium, a new generation of Crusaders have the opportunity to create their own special postseason memories.