Hollins’ TD run highlights Virginia’s emotional return to football in spring game

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Photo: UVA Athletics

Mike Hollins would have never imagined last Nov. 12 — two weeks before the regular season was scheduled to end — that his eight rushing attempts in Virginia’s 37-7 loss to Pitt, would be the last time he would touch a football in Scott Stadium until Saturday afternoon.

The very next evening, Hollins miraculously survived a horrific mass shooting that left three of his Cavalier teammates slain before his very eyes. Wounded by two bullets in his back, Hollins underwent surgeries only to learn when he regained consciousness that his friends were killed, leading to UVA shutting down the remainder of the football season.

Virginia returned to football on Saturday for its Blue-White spring game, but it was much more than just football.

“It’s real life,” said UVA coach Tony Elliott, who supervised his squads as they battled it out to a 34-19 White team win before a sparse crowd.

It was an afternoon filled with emotion for families, fans and members of the program there to honor the memories of the slain players — Lavel Davis Jr., Devin Chandler and D’Sean Perry. The north end zone was adorned by a ‘UVA Strong’ logo, featuring their names and numbers: 1-15-41.

When Hollins, who made a statement on the game’s very first play from scrimmage with a seven-yard run, eventually scored a touchdown, plunging into that same end zone late in the first half, tears flowed as he was mobbed by celebrating teammates.

Hollins would go on to carry the ball 11 times for 40 yards, not only representing his personal comeback from the tragedy, but Virginia football’s recovery. After he crossed the goal line, he took the ball and placed it on his best friend — Perry’s name — and lovingly patted the ground in tribute.

“We were through the roof … we were super excited,” said sophomore linebacker Trey McDonald, a defensive standout with 10 tackles on the day. “It was a testimony to how much [Hollins] has worked this spring. Every day he has brought a smile and a hard-working attitude to the day, and that is all we could ask of him. To see him score was amazing.”

Hollins’ younger brother, Deuce, wearing a replica of Mike’s No. 7 jersey, celebrated the moment with his hero, something Elliott rejoiced in observing as did offensive coordinator Des Kitchings, who had “chills” from Hollins’ score, and defensive coordinator John Rudzinski, who said he had tingles up his spine.

“Just being able to play football again is a blessing,” said wide receiver J.R. Wilson, who celebrated his 63-yard catch and run for a TD in that same end zone by doing snow angels on the turf. “The tragedy we had made you reflect that any day could be your last day.”

While the rain-marred game was a day to remember, it also was a day that offered hope for a struggling football program that won only three games last season and isn’t predicted to do much better in 2023.

All that didn’t damper the effort of transfer quarterback Tony Muskett, who completed 11 of 14 passes for 149 yards and the long scoring hook-up to Wilson to lead the White to victory. Jay Woolfolk, who is expected to compete with Muskett for the starting job in fall training camp, did not play due to his obligation as a pitcher on UVA’s baseball team.

Freshman and early enrollee Anthony Colandrea, who should have been getting ready for his senior prom at Lakewood High in St. Petersburg, Fla., instead was starting for the Blue team after his arm and attitude impressed the coaching staff in spring drills. Colandrea was 18 for 29 passing for 218 yards, a touchdown and an interception.

While UVA boasts a crowded backfield of potential starting running backs, it was sophomore Jack Griese (Miami Dolphins’ great Bob Griese’s grandson), who led all rushers with 90 yards and a score on 12 attempts for the White squad. Xavier Brown paced the Blue team with 60 yards on 11 carries.

Veteran Jack Hardy closed out the win for the White with a 99-yard interception return for a touchdown to end the contest and Northwestern transfer wide receiver/kick returner Malik Washington showed some speed with a 61-yard kickoff return for the winning squad as well.

It was an emotional ending to spring practice as the Cavaliers can focus on the upcoming season, perhaps having some closure to the tragedy by returning to real football Saturday.

Still, those memories will always linger.

“There’s going to be days where all of us are going to be emotional,” said Elliott, in his second year as Virginia’s coach. “I get emotional if I go a certain route on campus and at times I tear up a little bit. But I also know the byproduct of everything that we went through is that our relationships are going to be stronger.”

UVA Strong.