A Football Team and Its Coach Confront the Unimaginable

From a Washington Post story by Barry Svrluga headlined “At Virginia, a football team and its coach confront the unimaginable”:

Tony Elliott stood Saturday afternoon before a microphone on a stage on the floor of a basketball arena instead of in the center of a football locker room, making a speech he should never have had to make. His job seven days earlier had been to inspire young men to win football games. His job now is to inspire still. The charge wasn’t supposed to come with this level of complexity.

The University of Virginia held a memorial service for Devin Chandler, Lavel Davis Jr. and D’Sean Perry on Saturday after the three football players were gunned down Sunday by a fellow student following a field trip to D.C. The events of the week were impossibly sad. John Paul Jones Arena filled with 9,075 people who paid respects and embraced in attempts to sort it all out.

Last week, Elliott was a first-year football coach, struggling through an inaugural season. This week, he must become a healer, a brother, a counselor, a father figure. His style of offense and ability to recruit don’t matter at the moment. His words and deeds do.

He took the mic near the end of the program.

“To everyone here, I say: We will turn today’s tragedy into tomorrow’s triumph,” Elliott said. “… We have a mission going forward. And that mission requires a tremendous amount of responsibility. Amidst the pain and suffering, there is hope.”

That has to be the message at a time like this because the alternative is unthinkable. The ceremony ran nearly two hours, in part because so many of Devin and Lavel and D’Sean’s teammates wanted to speak so much about them. There was room for public remembrances. There was a need for public remembrances.

Of Davis’s “187” tattoo — not for his area code but for the exit off Interstate 26 in South Carolina that brought him back to his tiny hometown of Ridgeville.

“No matter what it was,” sophomore cornerback Elijah Gaines said, “when he smiled, I smiled.”

Of Chandler’s propensity to dance after every practice; his sense of rhythm was debatable.

“Your joy for life is contagious,” sophomore running back Cody Brown said in a letter to Chandler that he read to the crowd, “and you made everyone around you happy.”

Of Perry’s life as, according to junior linebacker Hunter Stewart, a “Renaissance man,” as an artist who played the piano and rapped, with football fitting in somewhere.

“He had the personality to light the room up,” sophomore safety Donovan Johnson said.

The late players were spoken of individually and glowingly. The arena was lifted with the light moments from the past. Videos on the scoreboard showed their smiles, over and over again, their smiles. What smiles.

“We are better, and we will do better because of Devin, Lavel and D’Sean,” Athletic Director Carla Williams said. “To the families, we love your sons.”

Her voice cracked.

“We love your sons,” she repeated. “And we will make sure their legacy never fades at the University of Virginia.”

She left the podium in tears. She fell into her chair. She bit her bottom lip. She was handed a tissue.

That’s what’s ahead, moments such as this in public and in private, for who knows how many and who knows how long. The program Saturday was appropriate and, in so many ways, necessary. Community members came in suits and in blue-and-orange Cavaliers gear. Choirs sang. Grammy-winning gospel singer Cece Winans belted out “Goodness of God.” The Chandler, Davis and Perry families hugged each other, cried together and managed to laugh together. It was important — it was imperative — that their sons be remembered not as the three murdered Virginia football players but as Devin. As Lavel. As D’Sean.

To do that, Elliott brought up a Bible verse: 1 Corinthians 15:41, which he read as: “The sun has one kind of splendor, the moon another, and the stars another. And the stars differ from stars in splendor.”

And so he differentiated his fallen stars.

“As I celebrate the splendor of Lavel and all that he has given to us,” and he spoke about forcefully debating the greatest basketball player of all time at Davis’s locker. Davis took Kobe Bryant. Elliott . . . didn’t.

“His passion for his beliefs was so strong,” Elliott said, “that he inspired me to believe deeper.”

“As I celebrate the splendor that Devin has given us,” and he spoke about the times Chandler would fall asleep in meetings, a smile on his face still because he had been working so hard.

“You felt and heard Devin before you ever saw him,” he said.

“As I celebrate the splendor that D’Sean has given us,” and he spoke about Perry sharing his artwork with him.

“I have never had a prouder moment as a coach,” Elliott said.

There have to be prouder moments ahead. The University of Virginia is a different place after the events of Nov. 13. The survivors on the bus where a shooter gunned the players down — including two recovering from wounds — will never be the same. The football program must inevitably be different, too. A two-hour program in a basketball arena is a nice package. The emotions can’t and won’t be contained to Saturday.

There will, at some point, be the matter of football. It wasn’t Saturday, when the Cavaliers elected to cancel their final home game against Coastal Carolina. That game was replaced by a private Senior Day ceremony in the school’s indoor practice facility — not what anyone involved had envisioned last Saturday. Whether the Cavaliers will contest the season finale against Virginia Tech remains to be determined. They are 3-7, as if that matters.

What will matter is what happens going forward. Elliott knows strife. When he was 9, his mother was killed in a car accident. He spent time homeless in Southern California before he moved across the country, to South Carolina, to be raised by an aunt and uncle. At Clemson, he grew from a walk-on wide receiver to a team captain, returned as a coach and became the offensive coordinator for a national champion. That’s the kind of résumé that lands a head coaching job in the ACC at age 42.

The task he faces now won’t fit on a job application. It is raw, and it is human. As he closed his remembrance, Elliott evoked Davis’s jersey No. 1, Chandler’s 15 and Perry’s 41.

“Because of 1, 15, 41, we have a responsibility to rebuild this community and program on the legacy of their stars,” Elliott said. “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 to the triumph in the days ahead.”

Before John Paul Jones Arena emptied into the dark, cold November evening, into dinners and Thanksgiving and the holidays beyond, those numbers displayed on the scoreboard in the center of the arena: 1, 15, 41. The task ahead involves keeping the memories of Devin Chandler, Lavel Davis Jr. and D’Sean Perry alive while somehow building the lives of the players they left behind.

The memorial service was moving. It can’t predict what lies ahead. Tony Elliott and his players should be in our thoughts whether they face Virginia Tech or not. They are bearing more than they ever imagined.

Barry Svrluga became a sports columnist for The Washington Post in December 2016. He arrived at The Post in 2003 to cover football and basketball at the University of Maryland and has covered the Washington Nationals, the Washington Football Team, the Olympics and golf.

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