Glenn Caruso felt something missing.
This was what every NCAA Division III football coach dreams about. The championship game in picturesque Salem, Virginia. Fancy team hotels. Gourmet meals. A national television audience. The Appalachian Mountains peeking out of the background.
But as his team began warming up for the 2012 title game, the University of St. Thomas coach felt surprisingly homesick.
Then, as the sun set on Salem Stadium, Caruso saw the silhouettes coming over a ridge outside the venue.
First, a giant hammer constructed out of cardboard and duct tape. Then a wrench comprised of the same materials. Then a giant St. Thomas flag. All carried by a group of boisterous college seminarians sporting hard hats and painted-on beards.
Then the coach heard the chants. Caruso’s Crew had arrived.
“It shouldn’t feel like home, because it was a big moment,” Caruso said of his program’s first-ever national championship game appearance. “But in a moment, you went from feeling out of sorts and uncomfortable away from home to just — I don’t know, kind of like a mother’s hug or a warm blanket, just made you feel good.”
Both St. Thomas, Saint John Vianney College Seminary and the Catholic Church as a whole have learned in recent years that a lot can change during a short amount of time. But the presence of Caruso’s Crew – the group of SJV seminarians that leads the St. Thomas student section at football games – has not only withstood the test of time.
It’s also become a source of unity and fraternity between a seminary, a football team and a university.
“I think it blesses all that are involved,” said seminary rector Fr. Jonathan Kelly.
Many traditions changed when St. Thomas transitioned all its sports to the Division I level earlier this year. The unprecedented jump from the Division III world to major college sports has come with challenges and sacrifices.
But those are nothing new to a collegiate athlete, who spends most of his or her waking hours either studying or preparing for the next competition.
They’re also quite familiar to a college seminarian, who forgoes the usual comforts and social experiences of American college life in order to discern a higher calling.
Kelly knows. Before entering the priesthood, he was the captain of the nearby University of Minnesota golf team and subsequently played on multiple professional tours.
“I would say the first thing is learning to make sacrifices… for the sake of the community,” Kelly said, “but then also for what will be the trajectory of with your life. And I think the young men that are discerning a call to the priesthood are learning that at an early age. One of the challenges, I think, of our culture is to be too independent and to have an extended bachelorhood experience. And these men, right out of the gates, are giving their lives to something greater and beyond themselves.”
Said Caruso: “Catholic traditions are a part of how we grow our program, how we grow our men and how our culture is sustained. You know, we’ve only been [coaching] for 14 years here at St. Thomas, but the traditions that are carried from the Catholic Church into the school into our program give it roots that feel like it’s thousands of years old, even though it isn’t.”
Setting the foundation
Part of St. Thomas’ move to Division I in all sports has been the perpetuation of a new rallying cry: “Roll Toms.” It’s an adaptation of the University of Alabama’s famous “Roll Tide” slogan, and it is plastered across St. Thomas athletics facilities and on merchandise available in the campus store.
Turns out it’s not the first ode to the powerhouse Crimson Tide to make its way through St. Paul, though.
There are a few different versions out there of the genesis of Caruso’s Crew, and thus the unique bond between St. Thomas’ football team and the seminary a short walk away from O’Shaughnessy Stadium. All of them involve then-rector Fr. William Baer walking into Caruso’s office shortly after the coach’s 2008 arrival and telling him “we’re here to support you.”
That year, Caruso began speaking to the seminary community at the beginning of each semester. He still does today.
“We talked quite a bit about wanting to work tirelessly for each other, and with a humility and selflessness that is rarely replicated,” Caruso said of Baer, who passed away in 2018. “And I think a lot of those same core principles that we wanted to have to hold up our program are ones that the seminary also feels very near and dear and close to their heart. … The idea of a blue-collar mentality kind of gained some traction. And I expected there to be some sort of tenets of that.
“But God bless our seminarians, they took it to a whole new level, right?”
Which is where the Alabama ties come in. According to SJV graduate Fr. Dan Westermann, the Caruso’s Crew motif was born when Zach Greenwell transferred in from Mobile, Alabama – the same year Caruso took over as coach. Greenwell – now Fr. Zach Greenwell and a Crimson Tide fanatic – brought … with him the school’s “Rammer Jammer” cheer, which includes the phrase “Rammer Jammer yellowhammer.”
“One of the challenges, I think, of our culture is to be too independent and to have an extended bachelorhood experience. And these men, right out of the gates, are giving their lives to something greater and beyond themselves.” — Fr. Jonathan Kelly, Rector, Saint John Vianney College Seminary
The yellowhammer is Alabama’s state bird. But Greenwell once took it literally and built a large, yellow hammer out of – you guessed it – cardboard and duct tape and brought it to an Alabama-Auburn rivalry game.
When the guys at SJV heard that story, the ideas started popping.
“We figured we should build a big purple and silver one for UST,” said Westermann, now the pastor at St. John the Baptist Parish in Ypsilanti, Michigan. “We had all kinds of fun with it.”
Miraculously, the same hammer appears at just about every home game and select road contests as well. It and the other props have been reconstructed and smothered with duct tape too many times to count.
The construction theme became even more prevalent when St. Thomas began building the Anderson Student Center right next to the stadium. Hard hats, overalls and flannel shirts on seminarians at football games soon followed. So did paint-on beards to complete the ensemble – St. John Vianney seminarians are required to be clean shaven.
“It wasn’t any one ‘aha’ moment,” Westermann said. “It was really just organic growth, all from this one guy that built the hammer. From there, we just went all out, as often was the case at SJV. If something’s good, we’re gonna take it and run with it.”
It’s evolved into the mainstay of the gameday experience at what’s now a Division I Football Championship Subdivision football destination.
There are organized chants led by the seminarians. “Hammer!” is shouted after big hits. “Saw!” comes out when St. Thomas’ running back slices through the defense. “Wrench!” means the Tommies just got the ball back on a turnover.
Sometimes, they’ll throw a classmate up in the air cheerleader-style. Others, they’ll open up a lunchbox and pretend to take a break from their construction shift during a timeout.
“Catholic traditions are a part of how we grow our program, how we grow our men and how our culture is sustained.” — Glenn Caruso, head football coach, University of St. Thomas
There are rules, too. No cussing. No booing. No celebrating penalties against the other team.
Positive vibes only.
“I think that follows the idea of ‘OK, we didn’t earn the yards,’” said current seminarian and Caruso’s Crew regular Dominic Schoenle. “You’ve got to get it by hard work.”
St. Thomas has certainly done that, amassing a 126-21 record and two Division III championship game appearances since Caruso’s 2008 arrival. Caruso has been named National Coach of the Year six times in 14 seasons.
And the seminary has been right there alongside him.
When ESPN’s “SportsCenter” aired live from St. Thomas and archrival St. John’s University’s game in 2015, Caruso’s Crew could be seen – and heard – right behind the set.
When COVID-19 led to a cancellation of St. Thomas’ first planned game as a Division I program earlier this fall, over 2,000 fans came out for an impromptu scrimmage and pep rally at O’Shaughnessy Stadium. The SJV seminarians present were the loudest.
“At the game, you can hear them, you can feel them,” Caruso said. “But it’s more so not just the noise that they create; they bring a positivity, and really, they get the entire student section going.”
There’s even been the occasional seminarian on Caruso’s roster. After all, every young man at SJV is a St. Thomas student, and therefore eligible to put on the pads.
One of them, Jordan Roberts, transferred in from South Dakota State in 2015. He was named Division III’s offensive player of the year and led the Tommies to that year’s national championship game.
“When he arrived, he brought a depth and a breath of faith into our locker room and rejuvenated it in a way that I didn’t even know it needed to be rejuvenated,” Caruso said. “Being able to have someone on the team who walked the walk with his brothers in the seminary and his brothers in the football locker room. And to see those to be able to come together at a place like the University of St. Thomas and St. John Vianney was priceless for me.”
Building the brotherhood
That coming together goes well beyond the student section.
In addition to Caruso’s annual talk with the seminarians, several players attend Mass on Saturday mornings before home games at SJV. The seminary’s “Last Chance Mass” on Sunday nights was originally created for football players who may be coming back from a long road trip Sunday morning.
They shake hands when they see each other on campus. Both groups are known for sitting in the front of class and carrying themselves with a mature but friendly demeanor.
“The relationship between SJV and the football team is this unique kind of brotherhood,” said Crew member Zach Schmitz. “There’s this mutual respect and honor that they know that we have their back completely no matter what the situation is. And we know that when we’re on campus that they’re going to support us as well.”
The relationship will only continue to grow, and on a larger national stage, as St. Thomas seeks to cement itself at the Division I level.
A new layer in 2021 was Kelly’s appointment as team chaplain. Caruso asked him to serve in the role shortly after Kelly was announced as rector.
“There was really no way I could say no,” Kelly said.
In eight years as a priest formator and now rector, Kelly has provided spiritual direction for several football players. He also oversees Bible Studies that include the team and members of the seminary.
It’s all a central part of what makes St. Thomas football St. Thomas football, Caruso says. And the engagement in public, social life in an authentic, human way, Kelly says, is a primary step in discernment for men finding out whether or not they’re called to be a Catholic priest.
“I think Coach Caruso and I both have a privileged place of watching young men come into themselves and flourish,” Kelly said. “At such an important age when they are making major decisions that will shape the rest of their lives and impact the lives of many others, I think I can speak for coach and say there is no place we’d rather be.”