Tragedy to triumph: How the Cavalier program is bouncing back

By Scott Ratcliffe

Virginia head coach Tony Elliott speaks at the 2023 ACC Kickoff in Charlotte, N.C., Wednesday, July 26, 2023. (Photo by Nell Redmond/ACC)

CHARLOTTE — The Virginia football program has been through an offseason unlike any other, as the team continues to grieve the losses of Devin Chandler, Lavel Davis Jr. and D’Sean Perry, who were all tragically shot just hours after the last time the Cavaliers took the field.

A lot has happened since that unfortunate day in November — a full spring practice session, followed by UVA graduation and a few months of summertime team bonding through workouts and weightlifting, as the 2023 season is all of a sudden right around the corner.

As he begins his second year at the helm in Charlottesville, head coach Tony Elliott, his staff and his players are getting through everything the best way they can, continuing to rely on one another to help overcome some of the ongoing stress and emotions of their collective losses.

With fall camp on the horizon and quickly approaching, the Wahoos are ready to turn the page to the 2023 campaign, all the while honoring and preserving the memories of their fallen teammates.

During his press conference in Charlotte Wednesday at the annual ACC Kickoff, Elliott thanked the entire college football community for the tremendous outpouring of affection, understanding and support over the past  eight-plus months.

“We felt it in Charlottesville,” Elliott told reporters at the Westin Hotel. “The same thing with the community of Charlottesville, the University of Virginia, our student body — everybody came to our side immediately.

“While we were in shock trying to regain our footing from what just happened, they held us up in the interim until we could kind of get ourselves grounded and figure out how we’re going to navigate forward.”

As the coach has pointed out, there was no playbook in place to help navigate the waters that resulted from the unthinkable sequence of events that took place on Nov. 13, when Christopher Darnell Jones Jr. allegedly opened fire on Chandler, Davis, Perry and running back Mike Hollins after a school field trip to Washington, D.C.

“This situation is unprecedented. There’s no preparation,” said the coach. “Even though I experienced tragedy as a young person and throughout the course of my life, it still doesn’t prepare you for a situation like this.

“The way that you get through it is together, and that’s the beauty of football. It’s an ultimate team sport, and it forces you to sacrifice and rely on somebody else. It forces you to do hard things that you may not want to do because you have a connection and a bond and a love for your teammates.”

UVA graduate defensive end Chico Bennett Jr. and fifth-year running back Perris Jones are two of several Cavaliers who could have played elsewhere for their final season(s) of eligibility, but ultimately chose to return to Grounds. Bennett explained his decision at the podium on Tuesday.

“I certainly would say the tragedy of what happened was definitely a big deciding factor because it would have been easy to just leave, but for me, it was a no-brainer to come back,” said Bennett, who led the Hoos with 7 sacks in 2022. “One, something like that, nobody should have to go through, but of course, we did. I think it was an opportunity to build off that and take it as Coach Elliott likes to say — turn tragedy into triumph.

“We truly embodied that just as a team and just in our individual lives, especially as we grieve alone and we grieve together as a unit. I think it’s definitely important for me to come back.”

Jones reiterated Bennett’s thoughts, and added that his decision to return had another personal twist as well.

“Same reasons as Chico had really, but even deeper than that,” Jones said. “Coach Elliott and his staff were the first to actually believe in me and give me a chance in my abilities. I feel like I left a lot out there [last season]. I didn’t put my best foot forward, and I was always raised to do so by my parents. I have a lot more to give — a lot more to give my teammates, a lot more to give my coaches, and a lot more to give this program.

“That’s what I aim to do with this last year. That was a big factor in coming back, on top of obviously the tragedy and everything that transpired. I have a debt to pay to those guys, and I plan to pay it.”

Elliott and his team have stuck together through thick and thin, and his ultimate goal is to leave a positive imprint from the lives and legacies of “the three young kings,” via the gridiron.

“The University of Virginia didn’t ask for this, but we were given this opportunity,” said Elliott. “A tremendous challenge, but we were given an opportunity. The opportunity that we see is that we can take something that is unexplainable, unprecedented, very, very difficult.

“You wouldn’t wish it on anybody, and we can find the beauty of it and use it to inspire others going forward by the way that we respond, by the way that we play, by the way that they live, by the way that they go forward in the future, and the individual ways that they decided they wanted to honor the legacies of Lavel, Devin and D’Sean.”