Defensive lineman Hollis Dirstine ’26 never expected to play on the same turf as the 2024 Super Bowl. A member of the Bryant University Football team, this is his first year with the travel squad. The young man from Acton, Massachusetts, has grown a great deal in the last year. He’s earned his spot on the defensive line, made friends with his teammates, and was even named to the Big South Conference’s Presidential Honor Roll.
Now it’s time to prove himself in the biggest game the team has ever played.
On Saturday, the Bulldogs played their first match of the season against the University of Las Vegas (UNLV) Rebels at Allegiant Stadium, home of the Las Vegas Raiders. To get there, the team flew more than 2,700 miles from Smithfield, Rhode Island, to Las Vegas, Nevada, the farthest they’ve travelled as a team.
Awaiting them at the end of their journey is the toughest opponent they’ve ever faced, a member of the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS), the highest level of college football in the United States. Bryant, a member of the Big South-OVC Football Association, has played FBS teams before, such as Florida International University last year and the University of Akron in 2022, but, even then, UNLV is a cut above.
“This game is the largest stage many of these students will ever play and the biggest spotlight they’ll ever play under,” Bryant University Football Coach Chris Merritt notes before the game. He knows his players, though, and that they wouldn’t be cowed by that spotlight.
Instead, they yearn for the chance to test themselves. “I never really thought I’d get the chance to play here, and I probably won’t play here again,” admits Dirstine quietly. But even as he says that, he — seemingly unconsciously — flexes his left forearm, which is tattooed with the words “Bet on yourself.”
The flight is late. An anonymous false threat called into TF Green airport has disrupted the takeoff schedule, delaying the day’s departures, including the Bulldogs’ charter to Vegas.
After the wait, and conscious of the long day ahead, the players, coaches, and assorted athletics personnel are eager to get through the security checkpoint and begin their journey. That doesn’t stop Darnel Shillingford ’23 ’24MBA from taking a moment to reassure a teammate who isn’t used to flying.
When Shillingford, one of the team’s five captains, says the football team is like family, he means it — literally. His brother Rahim, a member of Bryant’s Class of 2017, played on the team in the same position he does and now Shillingford is continuing his legacy. This is his fifth year with the squad, and he’s watched Bryant’s football program grow as he’s grown with it, graduating with a degree in Finance and completing the College Honors program.
“I feel better than I’ve ever felt in my life.”
Shillingford plays on the defensive line. The job takes grit, confidence, teamwork, and quick-thinking — the same skills he’s honed in his classes at Bryant. Helping to manage the school’s $2.6 million Archway Investment Fund, Shillingford admits, isn’t exactly the same as football but the two feed off each other.
Being a better student makes him a better football player, and being a better football player, where he can test what he’s learned under pressure, helps him succeed in the classroom, he argues.
The upcoming game, he says, is part of that process. Getting better means testing yourself, figuring out what you're capable of and how to exceed it. It’s a philosophy that’s worked for him thus far.
“When you go against the best, everything after that gets a little easier,” he notes as he prepares to board the plane.
Friends and adventures
Once in the air, most of the players are silent, either thinking about the trip ahead or trying to rack up some much-needed sleep in the darkened cabin.
Not Dirstine and Jaymian Simon ’25, though. The two spend nearly all of the trip laughing and joking with each other with the ease of a seasoned comedy duo. They laugh about old teammates, movies, memories from practice, and life back on campus. The subject doesn’t really seem to matter, as long as they’re laughing together.
Currently, they’re preoccupied with a video someone took of the team climbing the stairs to their chartered flight. Occasionally, they call across the plane to other teammates, drawing them into their inside jokes and routines and never failing to get a laugh.
This is what it means to be part of the Bulldogs football team, the duo explains between jests. “It’s all about chemistry,” Simon notes: you need it to play well with your teammates — to trust them to keep you safe and to know that they’re playing for you as hard as you’re playing for them. That means practicing with them, training with them, joking with them, and hanging out with them on special occasions like calzone night — silly traditions invented as an excuse to be together.
It also means going on adventures with them like the UNLV trip — going farther than you’ve ever been before, experiencing new things, and standing with your brothers against the odds.
The Neon Capital of the World
Despite the mostly quiet trip, there are still stirrings of life aboard the flight. As the plane prepares to make its descent, one of the players tentatively raises the shade on his window, only to be struck by the natural beauty of the landscape, its towering mountains and verdant forests, now that they’ve come out of the clouds. First a few, then several others follow suit.
“That’s really pretty, man,” one of the players, who prides himself on playing one of the toughest sports in the world, whispers in an unguarded moment.
The view is less inviting when the plane touches down. The players exit into a pouring rainstorm so bad that emergency flash flood warning notifications pop up on their phones before they board the buses that greet them on the tarmac.
But the dampened spirits only last until the buses hit Las Vegas’s strip. Then the occupants wipe the condensation from the windows and are almost blinded by neon. For many, this is their first trip to Las Vegas; for others, there’s still so much to see.
The Bellagio fountains, the Eiffel Tour at the Paris resort, advertisements for some of the most famous performing acts in the world — the players point them out as if the sights are not right in front of them all, focused on making sure everyone sees everything. They talk excitedly about where each attraction appears on television and in movies — quoting films like Ocean’s 11 and The Hangover as they do so.
“This is VEGAS!!” one of the students shouts with glee.
After only a few minutes but a wealth of sightseeing, the buses pull into the Horseshoe Las Vegas Hotel and Casino, their home base for the evening. The lobby is a gaming floor filled with slot machines and other wonders, each engineered with scientifically determined lights and sounds designed to draw you in.
The players, though, dutifully ignore the siren call and ascend to the ballroom on Horseshoe’s 26th floor, where they assemble for a team meal and meetings with their respective coaches. The coaches, Merritt and his dedicated staff, break down a head spinning number of formations, tendencies, strategies, and plays with names like “Hollywood,” “Shake Flush,” and “Devil’s Exit Batman.”
Outside the window, signs for some of the most famous casinos in the world peer back at them. The brand new 366-feet-tall by 516-feet-wide Sphere at the Venetian Hotel runs advertisements for the first professional football games of the season, a reminder of the day ahead for the Bulldogs.
The day of
The next morning, the drive lasts about fifteen minutes, barely enough time to gather one’s thoughts. It takes the team a startled second to realize they have a police escort on their journey.
In the blink of an eye, Allegiant Stadium comes into view, its gleaming black bulk seeming to block out the sun and drawing quiet murmurs from the team. The 65,000-seat domed venue is home to the Las Vegas Raiders NFL team, as well as UNLV Football. This February, it will host Super Bowl LVIII.
“We’re playing this game today because of that feeling you’ve got in your gut right now. That’s why we play every game.”
Just being here makes an impact on the team, some of whom have never been to an NFL stadium before, much less been behind the scenes. Playing here seems like something out of a dream, and even when they find their uniforms already hung up in the locker room, it still feels ephemeral.
Past the locker room and tunnel, the players step out onto the field for the first time to warm up. Some of them pace its length, trying to see any kind of advantage or hazard in the manicured turf, or perhaps memorize everything down to the blades of grass. Many can’t resist pulling out their phones and taking videos of the arena, attempting to document the experience — and keep reminders of what they’re feeling for as long as possible.
But for now, they’re doing everything they can to get ready. Offensive lineman Andrew Berkery ’25 has his headphones in as he stretches, singing AC/DC and Guns N’ Roses at the top of his lungs. Linebacker Colin Elliot ’24 puts on his pads and uniform atop a Superman T-shirt.
Running back Kyle Cichanowsky ’24 is practically vibrating with energy waiting to be unleashed. “I feel better than I’ve ever felt in my life,” he says. Cichanowsky loves football more than almost anything and is anxious to follow it as far as it will take him. That’s why he loves Bryant football, he says: because of the culture of hard work and determination and the passion for testing themselves. Playing games like this, says Cichanowsky, show the world what they’re capable of.
The game and beyond
After an eternity of waiting, the countdown clock hits zero and the players emerge onto the field, ready to play. Surrounding them is a sea of red, the color of the UNLV Rebels. Later on, after the game, one of the players will look up the attendance for the game: more than 20,300. When he tells his friends, they ask him to repeat it in disbelief — and then a third time to be sure. It’s by far the largest crowd they’ve ever played in front of.
Before they head into the spotlight, Coach Merritt offers the players a few final words. “We’re playing this game today because of that feeling you’ve got in your gut right now,” he tells the team. “That’s why we play every game.” Everyone in the huddle nods.
Quarterback Zevi Eckhaus ’25 provides a different encouragement, a simple one. “Do it for your brothers,” he reminds them.
And then as one, the team runs out to the field, past the band, past the cheerleaders, past the cameras, while a tempest — the return of the flooding rain — roars outside.
Throughout the game there are moments of brilliance from the Bulldogs on both sides of the ball. Defensive back Robert Crockett III '24MBA makes a diving interception — his first with the team — stunning the UNLV fans into a brief silence. Defensive end Kenny Dyson Jr. ’24 bursts from nowhere to sack the UNLV quarterback for a seven-yard loss. Working as a team, Defensive back Sean Hunt ’25 forces a fumble and fellow Defensive back De Vante Ford ’24 recovers it, ending a promising set of downs for UNLV. Dirstine makes his first tackle with the varsity squad and assists with another — achievements that are perhaps not as flashy as the others but a milestone for the player.
On offense, Eckhaus is the architect of a series of impressive drives on his way to 230 passing yards and 89 rushing yards — the latter a university record. Perhaps the most impressive set of the evening took the Bulldogs 79 yards down the field, feeding off a 76-yard pass to wide receiver Matthew Prochaska ’24, followed by a three-yard run by Eckhaus that brings the ball to the three-yard line. Running back Ryan Clark ’24 then pounds the ball over the goal line for his second touchdown of the game.
It’s electrifying to watch, 11 players working as one. But those moments are matched by an inimitable foe. UNLV takes an early and commanding lead that would last for the remainder of the game. So, all they can do, as Cichanowsky noted, is show the world who they really are.
For 60 minutes, the Bulldogs do not give up, not for a second. As impressive as the moments of glory are, even more stirring is how the team sticks together when the odds are stacked against them and challenges mount — including losing veteran tight end Jihad Edmond ’23 '24MBA to injury in the second quarter.
Eckhaus paces the team bench, every bit the field general, reminding his teammates how far they’ve come and why they do what they do. “We are not a team that turns on each other, no matter how difficult things get,” he reminds them.
At halftime, Berkery waits at the entrance to the locker room, offering words of encouragement to everyone who passes by. Defensive lineman Beau Shugarts ’26 never loses faith, shouting there’s still time to get back in it. The coaches take every opportunity to change tactics, try out new plans and, at the very least, use the events on the field as a learning tool.
Time and again, the team huddles, puts their hands in and shouts a single word when they break.
The word is “family.”
When the end comes, and the final score is not on their side, the Bulldogs stand unbowed — beaten but not defeated and still holding their heads high.
Then, they’re surprised by a cheer behind them. A small but intensely loyal group of more than 300 Bryant fans — alumni, friends, and family members — have been rooting for them the entire game and now send them off with a roar. Eckhaus and the rest jog to the railing, effusive in their gratitude. Humbled, Shugarts points to the crowd, thanking them for their support.
As the Bulldogs trot off the Allegiant Stadium field for the final time, Clark, who ran in both of the team’s touchdowns, is among the last to leave, slowly taking it all in as if he still can’t believe he’s there. Suddenly, he hears the call. A group of young boys in UNLV red cry out for his autograph, lowering down pens and shirts.
Clark stays to sign every single one.