At the University of Virginia, football returns while a tragedy never left
Spring game is UVA’s first in football since the shooting deaths of three players
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — In the store fronts of the downtown mall, on the makeshift signs displayed in windows of Main Street apartments, or written in chalk on sandwich boards up and down University Avenue, you’ll see a two-part message. #UVAStrong — 1. 15. 41.
These are the jersey numbers of University of Virginia football players Lavel Davis Jr., Devin Chandler and D’Sean Perry, the three young men killed on Nov. 13, 2022. It’s a reminder that the Cavaliers’ last football season ended in tragedy, with the shocking shooting deaths of three Black men on a bus who were coming home from a field trip.
The days and weeks that followed brought an outpouring of love and coming together from the community, but few answers and even more grief as a fellow student was charged in the killings. The final two games of the football season were canceled. The men’s basketball games served as somewhat of a proxy for healing. People tried to grasp what they had just been a part of on the grounds of one of America’s most prestigious universities, a place that has one of the most unique histories in the country.
On Saturday at Virginia’s spring game at Scott Stadium, coach Tony Elliott’s team will take the field for the first time in front of a crowd since the lives of Davis, Chandler and Perry were cut short. To say the incident didn’t affect recruiting would be Pollyannaish. Expectations for this team aren’t of any concern and what the summer and fall hold for Elliott, the second Black head football coach in school history, are to be determined.
But before what is, at the very least, a symbolic return to the gridiron, feelings about how the school and community are still coping are multifarious. In November, for anyone with any remote connection to the university, it was an unspeakable tragedy. In many ways, it still is.
To truly understand how the events of that fateful evening affect today, you have to know what you’re looking at when you get to town. On the surface, the educational powerhouse that slaveholder and U.S. president Thomas Jefferson founded so many centuries ago feels like an idyllic enclave in lovely Albemarle County, typically shielded from the crime of nearby-ish places such as Washington or even Richmond, the state capital.
It also happens to be one of those places where if you’re a Black student, it’s a test of who you are. If you’re an athlete, you’re living in a bubble within a bubble. Sure, that isn’t remotely unique to student-athletes, but in a place where a statue of Robert E. Lee stood until 2021, the feeling of being on campus just for your physical attributes affects you in a different way.
“[The] UVA experience is different. They love their sports, they love their athletes. So it feels like you’re kind of under a microscope and I feel like if you go somewhere people will recognize you and things like that,” Armaan Franklin, a senior guard on UVA’s basketball team, said last week during breakfast at Pico Wrap, behind Disharoon (baseball) Park.
During the coronavirus pandemic, he transferred from Indiana University sight unseen to UVA after a coaching change for his home state Hoosiers. Franklin is forgoing his extra year of eligibility to turn pro.
“But at the same time, you still feel like you’re misrepresented because you know there’s not a lot of people of color here, so it’s harder to maneuver around. Then, if you don’t hang out and you feel like if you hang out with other people that aren’t your race, you’re considered [lame],” Franklin said. “Sometimes, you definitely feel like an outsider. Teachers assume you’re going to be lazy and not do your work. Sometimes you get treated like you’re here to do a job and not be part of the larger community. I don’t think I felt unsafe at any point, but … I mean, in some places here you would feel like you’re not represented well with the community of color, obviously.”
Which is why field trips like the one that Theresa M. Davis, associate professor of theatre — known as “Lady T” — coordinated were so important to the fabric of the experience for Black students. Brandon Lee, a former UVA football player who still lives in town, sympathizes with her.
“Mind you, shout out Lady T who sponsors that field trip. I hope nothing happens to her. She has done the most as a tenured Black theater professor, [and] is one of the top in the country to try to engage students of color into theater field trips,” said Lee, a 2005 UVA graduate.
Lee, who has worked in education and is a stage actor, was talking in the theater of the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center. According to its website, the center was designed to “honor and preserve the rich heritage and legacy of the African American community of Charlottesville/Albemarle, Virginia, and to promote a greater appreciation for and understanding of, the contributions of African Americans and peoples of the Diaspora.” It’s on the site of the first Black high school in town.
“I’m just sorry that this situation came down when she was sponsoring a Black theater field trip,” he said of Davis.
“My homeboy, Sean Singletary, is one of the better players in University of Virginia basketball history [Singletary’s No. 44 has been retired since 2009]. He always says, ‘We watch the NBA, sometimes we don’t watch the emotions, the emotional intelligence that happens in sports, or the lack [thereof].’ And I think there was a lack of emotional intelligence that led to a situation.”
Why does this matter? Because when it comes to the actual ability to recall the incidents of that night, the people I spoke to think of what happened to them, not just what happened to the athletes. For many, more plainly: This was the scariest night of their lives.
Feyi Akinola is a media studies major who still looks back on that night with consternation.
“It was just really weird because we were all in this room in this building, and we didn’t really feel safe because we had heard that the shooter lived near where we were. And so that’s just when everything changed for me. I feel like other people that I was around were still not as nervous about it, but I was really nervous,” Akinola said, describing the early parts of that evening. “We knew that they hadn’t found the shooter, and it was just a surreal moment. I don’t think anyone truly understood what was going on. I was really panicking. I couldn’t sleep, and I was really scared that they hadn’t found him, and that he lived near us. And I was getting texts from my family. My sister called me and she was crying, and I honestly was terrified.”
Akinola and a handful of her co-workers ended up sleeping on the floor of the Student Health and Wellness Center where she worked. A native of Charlottesville, she had an option that many others couldn’t exercise: Her family physically came to her aid.
“Eventually in the morning, he still hadn’t been found, but a lot of people were starting to leave the room that we were in. At first I didn’t understand why people were leaving and going out on the streets, because apparently they were still looking for the guy at the time,” Akinola said. “My mom called me because obviously she’s concerned and she’s like, even though he hasn’t been found, I don’t feel comfortable with you sleeping on the grounds. So she came to pick me up, and I went home. And the ride home was really weird because I didn’t see any police anywhere. So, I was like, are they patrolling? It was very confusing.”
In town, it was a huge deal. For days, weeks, even. Many students found it difficult to go to class, but again, all of these experiences were entirely personal. A night of fear in your home, if you were lucky enough to get there, is an experience that’s impossible to shake, sadly, no matter who the victims are.
“My friend was at the architecture school, which is right where the incident happened. She texted saying that she just heard gunshots,” said senior Khuyen Dinh at lunch last week outside of popular watering hole Boylan Heights. “Then the alerts started to come in that we were going to be on lockdown. We were planning on staying up because one of our other roommates was in the library.
“People were listening to police radios and stuff like that out loud in their living rooms and just checking. There were times where he was on our side of campus and then there were times where he was on the other side of campus, and there was nobody that I felt like wasn’t able to say that night that there was potential that he was nearby.”
Dinh, a photographer for The Cavalier Daily, UVA’s student newspaper, has spent plenty of time at Scott Field covering football games. While not friends with those involved in the tragedy, the support shown on campus was unlike anything she’d ever seen for anything at UVA.
“That was one of the larger crowds I’d seen at UVA in a while. It was just completely silent,” said Dinh, a Manassas, Virginia, native. “I felt like it’s interesting seeing how that occurred, and then the week later I actually went home up to Northern Virginia. It was weird to go from somewhere where this was something that we had lived through. It consumed our entire lives, and then to go back home and hear everybody who didn’t live it in Charlottesville … They didn’t even ask about it. It was kind of shocking to me. I realize, though, they hadn’t lived through it. It’s something they’d just seen on the news.”
Painfully, just another school shooting in America. When you look around the town, it still kind of feels that way.
Since the faces of the victims aren’t part of the tribute, only the numbers, the symbols around town look akin to a date on a calendar. If we’re being completely honest, a casual ask of many folks reminds you that more people remember the football numbers than names. If you’re wondering, the victims had personalities, too. Devin was a Navy brat, Lavel was a big brother who loved his family and hometown fiercely. D’Sean was into art and poetry.
“When the UVA Strong hashtag first came out, I kind of rolled my eyes. I was like, ‘this is just so … [but] of course they have to do this. This is the way it has to go,’ ” Dinh said.
There is one place that will likely hold longest as a memorial to Davis, Chandler and Perry: Beta Bridge.
The archway over the C&O Canal on Rugby Road in the heart of the school connects classroom buildings to Greek life residences. Two short barriers on either side of the archway are a centerpiece of expression for UVA students. It’s a public canvas that changes often, there for groups from all walks of student life to express themselves. It hasn’t been changed since the day the tribute was painted on the bridge in memory of those three.
“I was there when they first decided to paint it because I was covering it to photograph it. Again, it was completely silent,” Dinh recalled. “I don’t think anybody’s going to be painting Beta Bridge over what has been written there. I heard word that one student organization was thinking about it and then someone said, ‘I really just don’t even think you should consider touching that bridge.’ ”
While the bookstores continue to sell gear for their UVA Strong fund, Beta Bridge is the closest connection the student body has to the victims.
“I think they will, but I don’t think it’ll be for a very long time. I think right now that would still be incredibly insensitive,” Akinola said. “Honestly, I feel like that could stay on the bridge for another year.”
Of course, there is still the team itself and the athletic department. It was Elliott’s first year and an almost emotionally insurmountable start to a career. For his wide receivers coach, Marques Hagans, it was especially tough. Two of those players — Davis and Chandler — were in his position room and very tight with one another’s families. Hagans, a UVA grad himself, has since moved on to Penn State.
One of Hagans’ best friends is Chris Long, a Charlottesville native, UVA grad and former football player. A 11-year NFL veteran, he’s the first Wahoo to ever have his number retired while he was still playing. He was in Las Vegas for a promotional work event the night he got the news.
“Immediately you’re thinking about him [Hagans] and you’re just hoping, as if it matters, that it’s not one of his guys. But it’s just, you know, you don’t want to believe it. And then you find out that it is. And actually Lavel was the guy that I got to know pretty good through the Hagans and was basically another son to them,” Long remembered somberly. “And their two kids are best friends with my two kids and they’ve been over the house with Lavel and I know how important that relationship was to them and Devin in the room as well.”
Which meant this was something Long had to talk about with his family, including his young children. The tragedy had literally hit home for the Cavaliers legend. Certainly more connected than most, he still wasn’t entirely sure how to best support the current program without coming across as selfish.
“It was a tough situation, man, because you don’t want to be one of those people that hovers and interjects himself and makes it about me because I was feeling grief, like, I had some distance, but I was also feeling the grief of just everybody,” Long explained. “It was just like, it was one of the biggest mass grieving kind of things I’ve been a part of where everybody is crushed. And it’s like it multiplies the problem because it’s not just everybody’s crushed because they lost so many, everybody around them is also crushed and it’s like a tight-knit community, and people were just walking around like zombies, man.”
He feels particularly bad for his friends, those entrusted with keeping those young men safe, who ultimately couldn’t. That goes as much for the school as it does anyone. The culture shock of UVA is one thing. The ability to potentially succeed on the field is another. The ability to take your degree and go out into the world to achieve is a third. Alas, for three kids, and arguably others – Marlee Morgan and Michael Hollins, the two students who survived the shootings, and the man charged in the killings, Christopher Darnell Jones Jr. – those things won’t happen.
“They were also handling so many crazy things. Like, Marques had to go above and beyond. I think it’s important to note that he had to do so many things from a responsibility standpoint,” Long said. “You know, when a kid walks on campus, you don’t expect to be consoling the family. Lauren [his wife] doesn’t expect to be with the mother identifying a body.”
There was marginal relief in the form of distraction when it came from players in other sports. At home, the three were honored at every game. Away from John Paul Jones Arena, the men’s basketball team did its best to compete, despite the circumstances.
“You definitely felt that pressure to perform on the road,” Franklin said. “It felt good to be a part of honoring their legacy.”
As for this football team coming up – not unlike the tragedy, what people will remember about their lives and where they were when this all happens – we’ll see.
In many ways, this was just another school shooting in America. When the three UVA football players were killed last fall, it wasn’t even the first school shooting in America that week. And it was the first of three mass shootings in Virginia that month.
“No, there’s no blueprint. There’s no road map. And I think that’s the hardest thing is, like, this is such an irregular occurrence, even though it’s relatively regular in our country, to hit sports this way,” Long said. “You’re just busting your a– for the school. And it’s not like Virginia’s some NIL [name, image and likeness] haven or has the best facilities in the world. Like, these kids are trying to build something. They’re definitely still healing, are really good at compartmentalizing and finding ways to get the job done and they continue to lean on each other. And football is a real challenge, but it’s also, I think, probably a welcomed distraction.
“This is the first time the community’s been able to come out and do something for the guys other than mourn. And so I’m hopeful that the nerves and the tone eventually shifts to being like, ‘OK, let’s rally around these guys to help them move forward.’ Because I think the fans can help do that a lot. Not just the grind of playing football keeps your mind off of stuff, but knowing that people are here and it’s going to not feel normal for a while, but when you’re out there playing, you don’t have time to think about it.”