Julius Chestnut, big-time talent, leads Sacred Heart into FCS playoffs

Dom Amore, Hartford Courant
·5 min read

It was March, it was cold, raw, felt more like the end of a season than a beginning. It had been 470 days of waiting, isolating, masking up and dealing with all the obstacles the pandemic has put between Julius Chestnut and his Sacred Heart teammates and the resumption of their football lives.

“Honestly, I missed football so much I was excited to be out there,” Chestnut said. “I didn’t treat it as any different from being in the spring or fall. I was excited to be out there with my brothers and fighting next to them. That was the best part of it.”

Chestnut, who rushed for 1,495 yards in a full sophomore season, and the Pioneers have gone on to pack nearly a full season of production and memories into four games this spring. Chestnut has rushed for 717 yards and gained 888 all-purpose yards, leading Sacred Heart (3-1) to the NEC championship and a spot in the FCS playoffs, where the Pioneers play at Delaware (5-0) next Saturday at 7 p.m.

“I think he’s the best running back in FCS by far,” coach Mark Nofri said, “and if anyone wants to debate me, they can just put the film on and see how the kid plays. He can change direction and cut without changing stride. He’ll cut back against the grain and it’s the same speed. I’ve seen him run people over, and when he gets open, he’s 230 pounds and I’ve seen him pull away from people. His size, speed, ability to cut and his vision, it’s phenomenal.”

More important than the way Chestnut, the NEC’s offensive player of the year, has carried the football is the way he has carried himself. Sacred Heart, since returning to practice Jan. 25, has had only one positive COVID-19 test, losing only a handful of players for a few days due to contact tracing.

“Yeah, it’s hard trying to do everything with a mask on and staying socially distant,” Chestnut says, “but we got the point that, in order to play this spring, this is something we’d have to do. We had to make sacrifices. I walk around with two masks on at practice every day and try to be a leader on the team in that way just to make sure that we are able to play, making sure people have their masks on so we don’t have positive cases.”

And, as Nofri has learned, teammates tend to follow Chestnut’s moves.

“He does everything right on and off the field,” Nofri said. “When they see him in the weight room working as hard as he does, when they see him on the field working as hard as he does, then you see him walking around with a mask on — ‘Julius Chestnut is the best player in FCS, and it’s not to much for him to wear a mask, so why can’t you?’ Football is important to him. He wants to play and be a competitor. Well, what do you do to get yourself on the field? Wash your hands, wear a mask and stay socially distant, and he’s done it.”

Chestnut, from Bowie, Md., was carrying the ball for Archbishop Spaulding High when he was spotted by SHU’s offensive coordinator Matt Gardner, who came back to campus and convinced Nofri there had to be a new No.1 on his top 10 list of running back targets. Later, Chestnut was called into his coach’s office and handed the phone. Gardner was calling to offer a scholarship, and happened to be calling from a doctor’s office, where he was with his wife and their newborn getting a checkup.

“At that moment, I thought, ‘He’s taking time out of his day to call me while he’s at [a doctor’s office] with his wife, that means something,’” Chestnut said. “Then I got there on my visit and it just felt like home.”

Nofri defines the ‘Sacred Heart mold’ as tough, gritty, blue collar kids, maybe players who were not wanted at other schools and have something to prove. Chestnut, toughened up by older cousins, fit perfectly.

“That’s what we’re based off of, grit,” Chestnut said. “That’s a thing we live by. Me, personally, I’ve been raised like that, to just go hard, and it made it an easy fit for me.”

The Pioneers lost their first game, at Duquesne, then beat LIU and Wagner and ended up playing for the conference title in a rematch at Duquesne, ranked 25th in FCS, on April 11. Chestnut rushed for 173 yards and a touchdown that put the Pioneers up 14. When Duquesne scored twice to send it to OT, Sacred Heart took the lead on Marquez McCray’s TD pass to Naseim Brantley and sealed it when Omar Fraser forced a fumble at the goal line and Frank Alfano recovered.

“We knew what had to be done, and everybody was locked in,” Chestnut said. “After we won, it was a crazy moment because we hadn’t beaten [Duquesne] in five years. It just felt good to know you’d done it in a year with such havoc going on in the world. That was an unbelievable moment for us.”

If the pandemic and vaccination process go as planned, there will be an unusually quick turnaround, more like 120 days, before Chestnut takes the field for his senior season in the fall. Then, what?

“Size, speed and power,” Nofri said. “I don’t think there’s any doubt he can play on Sundays [in the NFL]. Somebody has to give him a shot, and he’ll take advantage of that to show people that he does belong playing on Sundays.”

Dom Amore can be reached at damore@courant.com.