Virginia football team, coach Tony Elliott faces the unimaginable

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — Tony Elliott stood Saturday afternoon in front of a microphone on a stage on the floor of a basketball arena rather than in the center of a football locker room, delivering a speech he never would must have had to do. Seven days earlier, his job was to inspire young men to win football matches. His job now is to inspire again. 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 Saturday after the three footballers were shot on Sunday by a classmate following a field visit to DC events of the week were incredibly sad. John Paul Jones Arena filled with 9,075 people who paid their respects and embraced each other in an attempt to settle everything.

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

He took the microphone towards 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 moving forward. And this mission requires an enormous responsibility. In the midst of pain and suffering, there is hope.

At the memorial service, U-Va. community mourns shooting victims

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

From Davis’ “187” tattoo – not for his area code but for the Interstate 26 exit in South Carolina that took him back to his small hometown of Ridgeville.

“Whatever it was,” sophomore cornerback Elijah Gaines said, “when he smiled, I smiled.”

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

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

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

“He had the personality to light up the room,” said Donovan Johnson, second security.

The deceased players were individually and enthusiastically spoken about. The arena was lifted with the light moments of the past. Videos on the dashboard showed their smiles, over and over again, their smiles. What smiles.

“We are better and we will do better thanks to Devin, Lavel and D’Sean,” said athletic director Carla Williams. “To the families, we love your sons.”

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

She left the podium in tears. She fell in her chair. She bit her lower lip. He was given a handkerchief.

This is what awaits us, moments like this in public and in private, for who knows how many and who knows how long. Saturday’s program was appropriate and, in many ways, necessary. Members of the community came in costume and dressed in blue and orange Riders. The choirs sang. Grammy-winning gospel singer Cece Winans sang “Goodness of God.” The Chandler, Davis and Perry families hugged, 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. Like Laval. Like D’Sean.

To do this, Elliott referred to a Bible verse: 1 Corinthians 15:41, which he read as follows: “The sun has one kind of splendor, the moon another and the stars another. And the stars differ from the stars by their splendour.

And so he differentiated his fallen stars.

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ve never had such a proud moment as a coach,” Elliott said.

There must be prouder times to come. The University of Virginia is a different place after the events of November 13. The survivors on the bus where a gunman shot the players – including two recovering from injuries – will never be the same again. The football program inevitably has to be different too. A two-hour program in a basketball arena is a good package. Emotions cannot and will not be contained until Saturday.

There will be, at some point, the question of football. It wasn’t Saturday when the Cavaliers chose to cancel their last home game against Coastal Carolina. That game has been replaced with a private Senior Day ceremony at the school’s indoor training facility – something no one imagined last Saturday. Whether the Cavaliers will make the season finale against Virginia Tech remains to be determined. They are 3-7, as if that matters.

What will matter is what will happen in the future. Elliott knows conflict. When he was 9, his mother was killed in a car accident. He spent time homeless in Southern California before moving across the country to South Carolina to be raised by an aunt and uncle. At Clemson, he went from wide receiver to team captain, returned as a coach, and became the offensive coordinator for a national champion. This is the kind of resume that lands a head coaching position at the ACC at 42 years old.

The task he faces now will not fit into a job application. It’s raw and it’s human. As he closed his reminiscence, Elliott reminisced about Davis’ No. 1 jersey, Chandler’s 15 and Perry’s 41.

“Because of 1, 15, 41, we have a responsibility to rebuild this community and this program on the legacy of their stars,” Elliott said. “And do it in such a way as to bring light into the world. Lavel, Devin, D’Sean – I can’t wait to see the strength, drive, courage and love you all bring to triumph in the days ahead.

Before John Paul Jones Arena empties into the dark, cold November evening, into dinner parties and Thanksgiving and the holidays beyond, these numbers displayed on the scoreboard in the center of the arena: 1, 15, 41 The task at hand is to keep the memories of Devin Chandler, Lavel Davis Jr. and D’Sean Perry alive while somehow building up the lives of the players they left behind.

The memorial service was moving. He cannot predict what awaits us. Tony Elliott and his players should be on our minds whether they face Virginia Tech or not. They wear more than they ever imagined.

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