If you’ve read the game notes and stories during the Valparaiso University football program’s surge in recent years, you’ve seen references to the year.
First time since 2003 this, first time since 2003 that, most of this since 2003, most of that since 2003.
It was a year and season so special that two decades later, it still represents the standard for the Valpo football program. As members of the 2003 Pioneer Football League championship team gather at Brown Field for a 20-year reunion as part of homecoming weekend on Sept. 23, they’ll take a trip down memory lane to the moments they shared during that season that is forever etched in Valpo lore.
An Underdog Story
The 2003 Valpo football season started as an underdog story in more ways than one. When the PFL Preseason Poll was released on Aug. 6, 2003, the league’s head coaches did not display much optimism in their prognostications for the Brown and Gold.
At that time, the PFL was divided into North and South divisions. Dayton was projected to win the North division, while Morehead State was picked to win the South. San Diego was predicted to finish second in the North. Then Drake. Then Butler, And finally, Valpo. The team was picked fifth in the five-team PFL North.
And who could blame the voters? Valpo had gone 1-10 overall and 0-4 in league play in 2002. The team had a 3-8 record in 2001, totaling just one league win in the two seasons prior to the 2003 campaign. Furthermore, the heights and weights on the Valpo football roster did not exactly jump off the page.
“We were a lot of undersized guys and we had something to prove,” defensive back Jeff Vlk said. “We were not the biggest or most athletic team that I even played for at Valparaiso. When I came in 1999, the team was big and fast. I thought, ‘I’m never going to play here.’ When you put all of us together, it was a bunch of guys who had something to prove. We had a chip on our shoulder. If someone started to look past us to someone else, we heard them.”
The 2002 season featured a 1-10 record, mostly lopsided losses and the lone victory coming over Lindenwood in the season’s penultimate week. From an outside perspective, that may not have seemed like a building block toward hoisting a championship at the time, but for those inside the locker room for head coach Tom Horne’s team, it was the start of something special.
“We went 1-10, but something felt right and it was clicking on both sides of the ball,” offensive lineman Kyle Padgett said. “We had good leadership. We had an incredible offseason in the weight room. We were an incredible group of guys who hung out together all the time. When we were picked to finish last in 2003, that lit a fire under us.”
The underdog story didn’t end with the previous year’s record, the preseason poll and the team’s undersized nature. The injury bug was also a factor in 2003. Padgett had a knee injury in training camp and was originally told he would miss the season before getting a second opinion and electing to play on the injured knee before undergoing postseason surgery.
“It was the best decision I ever made,” Padgett said. “It was very important for me to be out there with those guys. It was the best season of my life and the most important thing I had ever done. So many guys on the team fought through major injuries that year. It was about being part of something bigger than yourself and persevering.”
The Regular Season
After losing to Murray State in Week 1, Valpo rapped off three straight lopsided wins over Wisconsin Lutheran (33-13), Austin Peay (38-14) and St. Francis Pa. (38-6). That preceded a set of back-to-back tight losses at Jacksonville (34-27) and vs. Morehead State (32-26) on homecoming before PFL North play began.
The first major turning point of the season came in the PFL North opener at Dayton – a location where Valpo hadn’t won before nor since. David Macchi passed for 404 yards and four touchdowns. Rob Giancola amassed a PFL and school record 275 receiving yards. Valpo 33, Dayton 28. It was only Dayton’s second home PFL loss since the conference started in 1993 and snapped the Flyers’ 14-game winning streak, the longest in the nation at that time.
“When we beat Dayton at Dayton, it made us feel like we could beat anybody,” Vlk said.
“The real turning point was when we beat Dayton on their home field,” Padgett said. “I’ll never forget, Dayton always fills that stadium. We had maybe 100 fans there. They stormed the field after we won and were going crazy. The magic was falling our way. Each week we felt better and better and stronger and stronger. It was a remarkable season.”
The win over the Flyers started a key streak of three straight victories. That continued the next week as Valpo beat San Diego 41-34 as Giancola caught a program-record four touchdowns and Macchi tied a school mark with five TD tosses. That snapped a five-game winning streak for the Toreros. A week later, Valpo clinched a spot in the PFL Championship Game by defeating Drake 51-45 in overtime.
Although the team had started to hit its stride, the Brown & Gold did face adversity with a surprising 25-21 loss to rival Butler, a team that entered the game with an 0-9 mark.
“We felt good about ourselves going into that game because we already had the conference locked up,” Vlk said. “Butler stuck it to us, and that was an important wake-up call right before the conference championship. As hard as that loss was, I think we had to experience that loss to have the success that we did in the conference championship game. Butler made us feel vulnerable, and we knew we had to turn it up for that week going into Morehead.”
The Big Game
Not only was the PFL title at stake, but the Valpo football team entered the Nov. 22 PFL Championship game seeking revenge. A 32-26 loss to Morehead State earlier in the season didn’t sit well with the team.
“The game was highly anticipated because we’d never been in that position before,” safety John Tsahas said. “It was a very exciting game to be a part of both as a spectator and as a player. From the beginning of the game, I felt like I knew that our whole team was dialed in and was not going to lose that day.”
The regular-season matchup between the two teams had a controversial ending as Giancola was ruled to be out of bound on what appeared to be a 50-yard, go-ahead TD pass with 30 seconds remaining.
“When you look at the tape, he was clearly in, and we sent that to the officials,” Horne said. “They apologized that they made the wrong call. Technically, we beat them, but officially, it goes down as a loss. When they came back to play in the championship, we had a little more riding on that game because of what happened the first time.”
Macchi threw for four touchdowns and rushed for two scores to give the program its first outright PFL title since joining the league as a charter member in 1993. The Valpo Athletics Hall of Fame QB finished with 448 yards, 360 through the air. However, what turned out to be an epic performance got off to a shaky start, as Macchi struggled tremendously in the first quarter. During the break between quarters, the Valpo quarterback received a pep talk from an unexpected source.
“My family was from California and would come out to every game,” Macchi said. “The night before the championship game, my sister was not feeling well and was in the hospital with a 104-degree fever. She had been released and was at the game. I was sitting at the end of the bench as we transitioned from the first quarter to the second quarter. I wasn’t playing well and would wear it on my sleeve. The next thing I know, my sister was on the field during the championship game tapping me on the shoulder. I was shocked. ‘How did you get on the field?’ She ripped me upside down and left and right and said, ‘You’re better than this.’ She was 5-foot tall, 100-pounds soaking wet, and she was scaring the life out of me, yelling at me to get it together. Before I knew it, she was back up in the stands, and the rest is history with the championship game.”
Valpo did not commit a turnover, while capitalizing on a Morehead State fumble when James Riker returned it 76 yards for a touchdown, a key turning point in the game. The two teams combined for 956 yards. Giancola caught five passes for 140 yards and Kevin Knutson made five receptions for 107 yards.
Each team scored 35 points in the second half. Tsahas and Lawrence Canada led Valpo with 11 tackles apiece.
“It was a really unique experience for our football team because of the buzz on campus,” Padgett said. “Throughout the season, the buzz picked up. That was the first time we felt bigger than our basketball program. They were tailgating and people were on campus hooting and hollering.”
20 Years Later
Two decades later, the impact of the 2003 program remains evident. Giancola’s 275-yard performance at Dayton stands as the program’s single-game receiving record. His four touchdown grabs against San Diego and Aurora are still the program mark. Macchi’s single-season record of 3,763 passing yards still stands, as does his 38 TD tosses. Giancola produced the most receiving yards in a single season in program history with 1,496 and the most TD catches with 23, marks that stand to this day. Knutson’s 1,139 receiving yards that year still ranks third in program lore.
“I was blessed to have a great receiver crew, and each guy had different capabilities,” Macchi said. “Rob was the equivalent of Randy Moss in the NFL. He would make me look good. Some of the passes may have been thrown into coverage, but I trusted his strength, size and competitiveness. On paper, some of my numbers were amplified because of the YAC (yards after catch) aspect of it. I was definitely fortunate; I had some weapons.”
The 2003 squad owns team program records for points scored in a season (406), total touchdowns (53), total offensive yards (5,370) and field goals (14).
“David had the strongest arm I’ve ever seen for his size,” Horne said. “He provided great leadership and was an excellent passer and decision maker. We got him out of a junior college in San Jose, Calif. If he was 6-foot-3 or 6-foot-4, we probably wouldn’t have had him, but we were fortunate enough to get him. He had as much ability as anybody in the country at the quarterback position.”
The list of records goes on and on, but the true impact of that season goes beyond the numbers. The relationships built among teammates have stood the test of time.
“A lot of us still keep in touch,” Tsahas said. “We talk almost daily thanks to the technology we have with group chats and social media. We take trips together often. We do a lot of reminiscing about that season. It was a group of good people, and that shows now because it seems like every one of us are in good places in our lives.”
Everyone interviewed for this story talked about a group chat of over 50 teammates who still talk daily. Multiple members of the team said they had over 20 teammates at their wedding. They’ve supported each other at funerals. Through good times and bad, members of the team are still there for each other. Just as they were on the gridiron two decades ago.
“That team was so tight and so together,” Horne said. “They believed in themselves and they believed in each other. People asked me after the season, ‘Are you glad it’s over because of all the stress of winning a title?’ That was maybe the easiest year I ever had in coaching because the players were so in tuned to each other. That was the best team unity and team chemistry I ever had in a football team.”
Past Meets Present
The 2003 team will come together on homecoming Saturday to reminisce about their championship season. They will be recognized on the field during a media timeout in the second quarter.
Meanwhile, the 2023 team will be busy with a big game, opening PFL play against Marist. The weekend will present the 2003 group with the opportunity to cross paths with the current team, which has been a point of emphasis for head coach Landon Fox.
“Coach Fox has done a great job with alumni relations,” Vlk said. “I’ve had numerous phone calls with him and he’s taken the time to connect. That goes a long way with the alumni.”
In recent years, the program has taken a step forward and started to achieve feats that hadn’t occurred since 2003 on a regular basis. The next step for the program to reach the high bar set by the ’03 squad is to hoist a championship trophy, something that most recently happened during that magical campaign.
“We follow the scores every Saturday,” Padgett said. “We’re happy with where the program is going. I know Coach Fox and his staff are working hard. It’s been great to see us get some wins that have put us back on the map. Valpo is a special place. Once you’re there, you’re Valpo for life.”