Virginia’s return to football: ‘I don’t think there is a

  • Andrea Adelson, ESPN Senior WriterSep 1, 2023, 07:00 AM ET


    • ACC reporter.
    • Joined in 2010.
    • Graduate of the University of Florida.

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Virginia coach Tony Elliott came to kicker Will Bettridge with a simple, but meaningful, request.

“Do you want to wear No. 41 this season?” Elliott asked.

Bettridge was close with D’Sean Perry, who had previously worn No. 41. The two played on the same Pee Wee and high school teams in Miami. The reason Bettridge decided to go to Virginia was because Perry had chosen the Cavaliers and loved it. Bettridge describes Perry as “the brother I never knew I had.”

Wearing No. 41 would be the perfect way to honor Perry, who was shot and killed along with teammates Devin Chandler and Lavel Davis Jr. this past November. But before Bettridge could answer Elliott, he first had to make a call to the Perry family.

“It was a great feeling when I got their blessing,” Bettridge said in a phone interview with ESPN. “The big word for me throughout this whole thing has been legacy, just keeping their legacy going. It’s the least that I can do right now. Just knowing that we’re playing for a bigger purpose, we’ve got three angels watching over us every day, and they won’t let us fail. That’s why we’re doing it for them this season.”

For the past nine months, Elliott has navigated through extraordinary circumstances, leading a program devastated by the shooting deaths of Chandler, Davis and Perry on a charter bus after returning home from a class field trip to Washington, D.C. Two others were injured, including running back Mike Hollins.

Christopher Darnell Jones Jr., a former UVA student who was on the trip, has been charged with 10 counts: three counts of second-degree murder, five counts of the use of a firearm in a first felony offense and two counts of malicious wounding. Jones’ case will go before a grand jury Oct. 2.

The final two games of last season were canceled after the shooting. When Virginia takes the field Saturday against Tennessee in Nashville, the Cavaliers will be doing so for the first time since the tragedy. Elliott concedes he has no idea how he or the team will feel when they walk into the stadium. “It’s going to be emotional for me,” he says. “It’s going to be a lot. It’s going to mean a lot.”

His players and staff know this, too. They have accepted the hard days to come, tear-filled milestones and an emotional gauntlet that might be too heavy at times. But they also want to play on — for something bigger than football, and themselves.

Virginia football coach Tony Elliott speaks during a memorial service for three slain University of Virginia football players — Lavel Davis Jr., D’Sean Perry and Devin Chandler — this past November. Steve Helber/Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports

ELLIOTT HAS DEALT with grief and trauma. When he was 9 years old, he survived a car accident that killed his mother. He has lived with that pain ever since. Elliott knows grief is not linear, that there are good days and bad days. When you are leading a program with more than 100 players, coaches and staff, those days do not always coincide.

Now in his second season with Virginia, Elliott knows some players were closer with Davis, Chandler and Perry than others. He knows their pain might be different. Defensive end Chico Bennett had a connection with all three. He and Davis rehabbed torn ACLs together in 2021. Perry was in his position group. His locker was next to Chandler’s. The two also wore the same number, 15.

“One of the biggest things for me, I was trying to figure out why did everything play out the way it did?” Bennett said. “I had to do some self-reflecting, and one thing that my father said was very important. He said, ‘Wickedness happens to good people.’ So that put my mind at ease, and I came to peace with it because for a long time I was upset, and I was angry. I knew that if I came back to the field, I wouldn’t be in my right mind.

“So being at peace made it a lot easier to now go out and play in their name and their honor. I know I’m not the only one who feels some sort of way. We have to go out there without them, but they’re with us in spirit.”

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Since the shooting, Elliott has monitored how his players are feeling — looking for signs that someone might be having a bad day without expressing it, letting everyone know that whatever they are feeling is normal and acceptable. He has also tried to prepare them for what will come, including birthdays, anniversaries and key in-season dates.

“Over time, things will be a little bit easier to talk about, but they’re still very difficult to talk about, and not everybody’s in the same place from a healing standpoint,” Elliott said. “So just being very direct and sensitive, but then also doing a great job of trying to prepare them so they don’t get caught off guard or blindsided by something that may be coming up.”

Elliott describes a “supernatural strength from a higher power” that drove him immediately after the shooting. “Then reality starts to set in and hits you in the face,” he said. “It’s a challenge daily. Because you don’t have answers. You don’t know why. But you also have a lot of other people that don’t know why, and they’re looking at you to lead them where they need to go.”

There are good days and bad days for Elliott, too. “That’s probably been the hardest part of all this, is figuring out, where is the team collectively?” he said. “What’s the right message to put in front of them? Trying to manage what’s enough, what’s not enough, what’s too much. It’s day-to-day, to be honest with you.”

The coaching staff has been there for Elliott as a support system but have also marveled at his ability to put the team first. “It’s going to be tough for anybody because there’s no playbook for what we went through,” running backs coach Keith Gaither said. “To be able to get up there every day in front of us, not just the kids, but his peers, and be consistent with his message and be human. To cry and be vulnerable. Be Tony. He has done a great job.”



Virginia RB Mike Hollins: Fallen teammates will always be on my mind

Virginia running back Mike Hollins discusses how the 2022 UVA shooting victims are a constant presence to him.

HOLLINS SPENT ONE week in the hospital after he was shot in the abdomen. He had little doubt he would heal physically, but he had no idea whether he could get there mentally to play football again.

There were days he thought about transferring for a fresh start; days he questioned whether he wanted to get out of bed and keep playing; days he wondered how he would make it without Perry, one of his closest friends. Ultimately, he decided to stay at Virginia.

When he returned to practice in the spring, he called it “freeing.” It gave him a chance to think about something else. But his friends were never far from his mind. After he scored on a 7-yard touchdown run in the spring game, into the end zone painted with the names and numbers of his three teammates, he placed the ball on Perry’s name.

“You’ll never find the proper way to carry such a traumatic experience,” Hollins said. “It will always weigh on you. There will never be a day when you won’t remember it or feel something missing from your heart, always thinking about it. So just learning to accept that it will be a lifelong journey, it’s not something that comes easy. It’s just a constant battle of acceptance, really.”

His roommate and fellow running back Perris Jones has been with Hollins nearly every day since the shooting. He calls Hollins “Superman” and “Iron Mike.” Hollins has pushed his teammates forward even as he has tried to deal with his own trauma.

A special patch will be placed on the Nos. 1, 15 and 41 jerseys — previously worn by Devin Chandler, Lavel Davis Jr. and D’Sean Perry. Courtesy of Virginia Athletics

“He’s the example of what we want to be and what we need to be,” Jones said. “The grace that he carries himself amidst the tragedies that he witnessed firsthand and was a part of. It’s inspiring how he gets up every day with an extreme amount of energy and passion to play, and supports and encourages his teammates.

“It shows us that we can be that, too. Because he’s doing it, with the motivation of knowing, ‘I’m carrying these guys with me. Their spirits aren’t going to die.’ If we emulate that, as his teammates, we’re going to be a powerful group. It’s going to be something truly inspiring to watch.”

Hollins is further along in his grieving process than he was in the spring. He said he’s “better. Not great yet.” There are times in class or around town he is stopped and asked questions about what happened, questions he simply does not want to answer.

He has sought advice from Gaither about how to handle those situations. He has also had to come to terms with what outsiders expect from him, and the “hero” label being placed on him. Hollins had gotten off the bus, but was shot when he ran back on to find his friends.

“I’m an inspiration, and I’m a hero in some people’s eyes, and it’s for something that I didn’t ask to happen,” Hollins said. “So it’s kind of a weird feeling, being looked up to for something that you would take back in a heartbeat. Because I wouldn’t ever wish this on my worst enemy, no matter how bad they wanted to be an inspiration to someone.

“But it comes with it, and I’m learning to see that God puts you through things and gives you certain tasks because he knows you can handle it. That’s what I’m leaning on. Sharing my faith, where I get my motivation from with as many people as possible because I know I wouldn’t be here alone.”

Happy Perry, center, and family join together to celebrate the honorary graduation of former UVA football player D’Sean Perry, who was killed last year. Courtesy Virginia Athletics

ELLIOTT HAS PRIORITIZED making sure both he and Virginia are doing right by the Chandler, Davis and Perry families. That requires a delicate balance, as all three families are processing their grief differently.

Virginia will wear helmet decals in honor of all three players this season. In addition, a special patch will be placed on the Nos. 1, 15 and 41 jerseys — previously worn by Chandler, Davis and Perry. That patch will remain on those jerseys as long as Elliott is head coach. Davis’ No. 1 is now worn on offense by freshman receiver Suderian Harrison, who went to the same high school as Davis and is playing the same position. The school also plans to honor the families at the first home game against James Madison on Sept. 9.

“There’s many days where my heart is heavy because I just can’t imagine what they’re feeling, what they’re dealing with,” Elliott said.

On what would have been Chandler’s 21st birthday last month, his mom threw a birthday celebration at their home in Virginia Beach. Bennett told ESPN he went to show his love and support.

“I think it did good for her heart,” Bennett said. “It’s one of those things where, for a moment, people come and show you love, but they move on. For her, as well as the other families, they’re stuck in that moment. It’s tough to move forward, so I think for her to see us and see others come and continue to support her shows that she’s not alone, and the other families aren’t as well.”

Perry’s family has made multiple trips to Charlottesville. His mother, Happy Perry, walked in his place during graduation ceremonies in May and accepted his diploma in his honor. She was also at a recent preseason Virginia football practice and spoke to the team, words that Bettridge described as “lifting everyone up in the midst of fall camp.”

“If we have a hard day at practice, and we see Mrs. Perry there with a smile on her face, we’ve got nothing to complain about,” Bettridge said. “She’s always out there supporting us, texting me after practice, making sure I’m doing good. It’s been nothing but a blessing to always have her around here.”

Happy Perry walked in the spring 2023 graduation ceremony to receive a degree on behalf of her son D’Sean Perry. Courtesy Virginia Athletics

Bettridge and his teammates have described their team camaraderie as stronger than before. “We’re working harder for a greater good,” he said, “more than ourselves.” But there remains a heaviness.

“I don’t think there is a way to ever go back to being normal,” Jones said. “You’re always reminded. In our hallways, we’ve got posters of them. We understand what happened, and we continue to work day in and day out for these guys and let that be our biggest motivation.”

There is a season to play, of course, one that features a new starting quarterback in Tony Muskett, a transfer from Monmouth who was not at Virginia in November. The team has turned over its roster at various positions, including quarterback, receiver and defensive back. Including transfers and freshmen, there are nearly 40 new players on the team this season.

“I knew the situation, but I wanted to help,” Muskett said. “This is a community that I care about, and these are guys that I care about. I know the other transfers feel the same exact way. Any way we can make this process easier for them in the slightest bit, we want to pray for them, and always put their needs above our own.”

Elliott isn’t judging this season based solely on wins and losses. Virginia went 3-7 last season after having its final two games canceled following the shooting. In the preseason ACC media poll, Virginia was picked to finish last.

“You know what I’m going to be judging?” he said. “The quality of the young man’s heart and the effort they put in, the mindset that they show up with every single day.

“For us, it’s the ability to compartmentalize and use the tremendous amount of weight that we’re carrying in a positive way and channel it into performance on the field. But performance in a way that inspires because you can tell that it’s coming from somewhere deep inside, someplace that you can’t measure, you can’t define.”

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Virginia is a 28-point underdog headed into Saturday’s game against Tennessee (Noon, ABC), and everyone agrees emotions will be different for each individual once they arrive at the stadium. Tennessee will wear decals honoring the deceased Virginia players and there will be a moment of silence held before the game in Nashville.

“There’s going to be reminders that they’re taking the field without their brothers that should be on the grass with them,” Elliott said. “For us, it’s one step forward and trying to figure out what our new normal is.”

Hollins said it is hard to anticipate how he will feel on game day, but he’s ready.

“I don’t see a way that this season can be a failure, no matter the record, no matter the ending, no matter anything, as long as we go out there and play like we’re doing their legacy justice,” Hollins said. “Because we’re here. We don’t have to be. No one would say you’re wrong for saying, ‘I want to sit the season out because I just haven’t recovered.’ So just showing up is enough. And I believe that it’s enough for them.”

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