How Virginia mourned and then celebrated its fallen teammates
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Virginia Cavaliers coach Tony Elliott walked into his house around 10:30 p.m. on Nov. 13 after a full day at the football offices. He put a piece of pizza in the microwave and sat down to watch “Sunday Night Football.”
Then his phone rang. On the other end, one of his football players was hysterical and panicked, trying to explain what had just happened. Elliott asked the player to pin him his location. He threw his shoes on, got back on the highway toward the school and called UVA police department support services bureau captain Mike Blakey, who travels with the football team as part of its security detail.
Blakey had also received a call about a shooting at Culbreth Garage on campus involving members of the football team. They both arrived at the scene at the same time.
“I got within view of the bus, but they stopped me and sent me to the hospital from there,” Elliott said.
He already anticipated the worst based on his first phone conversation with his player, who was on the bus but has not been publicly identified. Elliott knew four of his players — receivers Lavel Davis Jr. and Devin Chandler, linebacker D’Sean Perry and running back Mike Hollins — had been shot after returning home from a class trip to see a play in Washington, D.C.
Before he left on the trip, Davis had even double-checked that it would be OK with associate head coach/receivers coach Marques Hagans because they would be back late, and the team had an early start scheduled for Monday. Davis was eager to make his return to the field for that week’s Coastal Carolina game after missing time with a concussion, and he assured Hagans he would be ready to go.
Now, Elliott knew nothing would ever be the same. Over the past week, there have been no answers about why suspected shooter Christopher Darnell Jones Jr. allegedly decided to open fire on a charter bus, killing Davis, Chandler and Perry, and wounding Hollins and fellow student Marlee Morgan, after spending the entire day with the players and other students.
Jones has been charged with three counts of second-degree murder and the use of a firearm in the commission of a felony, among other charges.
In the aftermath of the shooting, Elliott and his team — plus the entire Virginia community — have had to confront their own feelings of grief, anger, sadness, frustration, devastation and heartache while trying to accept what happened and begin to honor the lives of their fallen teammates. There are no easy days, but if the past week has taught Elliott anything, it is that he is equipped to help lead his players out of this darkness.
After they were turned away from the scene, Elliott and Blakey headed to the hospital, where medical staff could not tell them much. The area remained on lockdown, so they could not get past the lobby. After about an hour, the Virginia contingent moved into a private room to wait for any news.
Meanwhile, Hagans woke up to pounding on his door in the middle of the night. It was linebackers coach Clint Sintim. Immediately, Hagans knew something was terribly wrong with one of his players. Why else would someone be there to get him?
The two drove to the hospital, joining up with Elliott, other coaches, athletic director Carla Williams, deputy athletic director of administration Jim Booz and track and field coach Vin Lananna. Morgan, who was hospitalized, helps the track team.
“I was hoping that they just misidentified everybody on the bus,” Hagans said. “I kept telling myself, ‘It couldn’t be.'”
Elliott had the same thoughts racing through his mind, refusing to accept the news that ultimately came: Davis, Chandler and Perry had all been shot and killed on the bus. Hollins was shot when he ran back onto the bus to help his teammates and was fighting for his life. Morgan would remain hospitalized, but her prospects for recovery were good.
“I understand part of the process of dealing with extreme adversity is allowing yourself to be broken because at your weakest moments is when the higher power steps in and provides you the strength to move forward,” Elliott said. “Ms. Carla and the other individuals that were there just comforted me, and encouraged me and helped me regain my strength.”
Hagans started crying. “Literally, my wife has screenshots talking to Lavel from 9, 9:30. He had a great experience. He had a great trip. Not even an hour later, he’s laying on the bus being shot.”
Davis had grown extremely close to the Hagans family, from the moment he arrived on campus in 2020. He was like another son to Hagans and his wife, Lauren, and a big brother to their boys, Christopher and Jackson. Davis would go to their basketball and baseball games, and babysit, come over and watch movies.
Hagans decided he had to be honest with his children and not hide what happened. School had been canceled for the day, so he asked his wife to come to the hospital with the boys. He sat them down and told them the truth.
“They lost it,” Hagans said. “They were crying. They were screaming. It was hard to watch them, knowing that their whole life was changing. My wife, she was beside herself. She could barely breathe. Watching those boys cry, it really broke me down.”
They went into a room where others were waiting. Williams came over to hug Hagans. Quarterbacks coach Taylor Lamb was trying to console Lauren Hagans.
“Everybody in the room was crying,” Hagans said. “Seeing the impact that it had on the boys made everyone else more emotional, and it made it more real. I had to wait later on and tell them about Devin and D’Sean because they couldn’t get past Lavel. That was tough. Really tough.”
Now, Elliott had to figure out what to say to his team. By the time they were able to gather in their team meeting around 10:45 a.m. Monday, word had already spread and most everyone knew what happened. Elliott wanted to make sure the team heard from him before a university news conference scheduled later in the day to give details about what happened.
When Elliott walked in the room, players were already in tears.
“It was a really, really tough moment because it was the first time they dealt with adversity, much less three of their teammates at one time in such a senseless fashion with no explanation. It was a very somber, somber time,” Elliott said.
“I was emotional. I was fighting very hard to hold it together. I just said, ‘Hey, this is our time to grieve. We’re going to mourn. We don’t have a ton of answers, and one of the early messages to them was: ‘Don’t ask why.’ Because right now, whatever the answer would be, if we were given it, we wouldn’t receive it because it’s not the answer that we want to hear. So let’s not focus on why. Let’s focus on the three young men and mourning their loss and celebrating their lives.”
Virginia football coach Tony Elliott speaks at a memorial service for players Lavel Davis Jr., D’Sean Perry and Devin Chandler. Erin Edgerton/Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports
ELLIOTT HAS LIVED his life through tragedy. You could say his life has been shaped through tragedy, after he lost his mother in a car accident when he was 9 years old. From that point forward, Elliott vowed to make her proud no matter what he did, and as he grew older he found his calling: coaching, in which he could help make a difference every single day.
A man of deep abiding faith, Elliott says he believes the steps in his life are divinely ordered. In an interview in the spring, a few months after he took the Virginia job, he explained why this was the right place at the right time for him to take the next step forward in his career.
When Elliott spoke with ESPN on Thursday, he talked at length about his faith — and about whether this tragedy is the reason he firmly believed Virginia is where he needed to be all those months ago. He mentioned Esther 4:14, which reads, “You were born for such a time as this.”
“The task is enormous, the weight is heavy, but I’m supposed to be exactly where I’m supposed to be for this particular time,” Elliott said. “… We have an opportunity to show everybody with how we respond to this, that all it takes is the little things: love, faith, hope, togetherness, unity, perseverance, joy, connection, heart, all of those things.”
Elliott said he wanted his team to stop asking why, because even if they had an answer, they would not accept it. Still, accepting what happened has been incredibly difficult for everyone. That goes especially for Hagans, who has dedicated his life to the university and prides himself on the way he leads his players, making sure to always emphasize family first.
A former Virginia quarterback from 2002 to 2005, Hagans ranks No. 10 on the school’s all-time passing list. He has spent his entire coaching career at Virginia, starting as a graduate assistant in 2011. Nobody on the staff is as closely associated with the school as Hagans, who has worked for three head coaches during his time here, purposely staying to help each one. After Elliott was hired, Hagans said, “My job, honestly, is just to help Coach Elliott be the best coach in UVA history.”
Hagans spoke with ESPN because he wanted to represent the players he cared for so deeply. He paused multiple times during his interview, looking down often to collect himself, especially as he spoke about the way Davis will never get to see his sons play sports in high school or college. He wiped away tears, distraught and disbelieving still that something like this could happen.
Those sitting in the room as Hagans spoke felt his anguish, and cried along with him.
“I know at some point, I’ll have to accept it,” Hagans said. “I just don’t understand why those boys had to endure that. They went to a play about Emmett Till, and the power in that story is that a mother lost her son, who she put on display for the world to see. So she could try to make the world a better place. And the irony of that is three mothers lost three sons who now the world will see, and hopefully will make the world a better place in light of their tragedy.”
After the cameras stopped rolling, Hagans said the part that gutted him the most was when his 10-year-old son, Christopher, told him, “I’m going to make it for Lavel.”
Members of the Virginia football team bow their heads at a memorial service for their three slain teammates. Erin Edgerton/Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports
THE PLANNING FOR the Saturday memorial service began shortly after the game against Coastal Carolina was canceled. The first formal planning meeting was held Wednesday mid-morning and involved representatives from across the university.
But Elliott had one more plan for Saturday that remained under wraps. Elliott wanted his seniors to be honored, even though they would not get to play in their final home game. So they began plans to have a private senior day celebration Saturday morning at the indoor football facility.
Virginia had 36 fourth-, fifth- and sixth-year seniors to honor. The public address announcer came in to formally announce each player over the loudspeakers. The entire team attended wearing their jerseys and uniform pants. Those who were not seniors formed a tunnel for their teammates to walk through as they approached Elliott and their family members, who waited with flowers and hugs.
Running back Mike Hollins, who was injured in the shooting and remained hospitalized, was one of the 36 seniors scheduled to be honored. His mother, Brenda, came and wore his No. 7 jersey in his place. The mood inside was described as “uplifting.” Afterward, there was a team brunch.
The most difficult part of the day was ahead.
Before the formal memorial began, the choral group The Virginia Gentlemen performed “On the Turning Away” and “Lonesome Road,” and safety Lex Long, who performs with the group, was singing with them. The families and friends of the players filed into the first several rows of seats, and the football players — dressed in suits and ties — followed.
Former Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall — he recruited Chandler, Davis and Perry — was among the mourners in attendance, who included former teammates, Virginia football alums and Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin. Grammy Award-winning gospel singer CeCe Winans volunteered to come to the memorial after she heard about the tragedy and sang a beautiful rendition of “Goodness of God,” which had the crowd of more than 9,000 rapt in attention.
Many of the most difficult moments came when players presented their own reflections, memories and raw emotions about their teammates.
“I was very angry and had many bad thoughts of revenge from what happened to you,” said defensive tackle Ben Smiley III, when speaking about Perry. “I knew you was all about peace and love, and my mindset switched because I knew you were in a better place. All I ask is you leave some space for me and your brothers and that I love you, D.”
Ahead of Saturday’s memorial in Virginia, head coach Tony Elliott and receivers coach Marques Hagans speak about the legacies the three players will leave behind.
Running back Cody Brown wrote a letter to Chandler that read, in part:
“Dev, I cannot describe to you the sadness we feel in our hearts as we mourn your loss. We never thought we would have to say goodbye so soon. It was never supposed to be this way. You will remain in our hearts forever because of the impact you made on our lives.”
Others told funny stories, including this one kicker Will Bettridge told about Davis.
“The one conversation that comes to my mind is when you told me on the sideline, ‘Damn, Will, I need to tell my son to be a kicker. Y’all don’t do nothing in practice.”
In all, 11 players spoke, many of them with direct messages to the families, who cried and hugged throughout the course of the service.
Bettridge, who played youth and high school football with Perry, and chose to attend Virginia because of him, spoke directly to Perry’s parents.
“Seeing your strength and courage gave me the comfort and peace I was looking for to continue and keep pushing ahead each day myself, no matter the circumstances.”
He then finished with this:
“If I had to leave y’all one thing, it’d be to fight. Fight for everything you do, no matter the task at hand. Fight for what you want, and fight for the people you love the most. D’Sean was the biggest fighter I knew and always pushed himself to be the best person on and off the field. I now fight for you, D. Everything I do is for you now, and I promise I’ll make you proud.”
As the memorial drew to a close, Elliott took to the podium. He relied heavily on his faith in his remarks, pointing out multiple Bible verses in which he has found purpose and meaning, including 1 Corinthians 15:41 — the numbers of his fallen players.
“The text on the passage,” he said. “The sun has one kind of splendor. The moon another, and the stars another, and stars differ from stars in splendor. And if you know anything about verse 42, that talks about the resurrection of the dead. How fitting that we find peace in those numbers, in that verse.”
He closed with a vow to not only the players he lost, but the players he must now lead in the hours, days, weeks and years ahead.
“Weeping is going to last for the night, but great joy is coming in the morning,” Elliott said. “Because of 1, 15, 41, we have a responsibility to rebuild this community and program on the legacy of their stars and do so in such a way as to bring light into the world. Lavel, Devin, D’Sean, I am so looking forward to the strength, motivation, courage and love that you all will provide as we triumph in the days ahead.”
As Elliott walked to sit back down, those in attendance were asked to turn on wristbands left at their seats. As the arena faded to black, the light from the bands twinkled orange, blue and white, shining bright amid the darkness.