Virginia Football Team Coach Tony Elliott confronts the unimaginable

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — Tony Elliott stood in front of a microphone on a stage on the floor of a basketball arena rather than in the middle of a football locker room Saturday afternoon and gave a speech he never should have made. His task seven days earlier had been to inspire young men to win football games. His job now is to still inspire. The indictment should not come with this complexity.

The University of Virginia held a memorial service Saturday for Devin Chandler, Lavel Davis Jr. and D’Sean Perry after the three football players were shot and killed by a fellow student Sunday after a field trip to DC. The events of the week were incredibly sad. The John Paul Jones Arena filled with 9,075 people paying respect and hugging to clear things up.

Last week, Elliott was a freshman football coach, struggling through an inaugural season. This week he needs to become a healer, a brother, a counselor, a father figure. His attacking style and recruiting ability don’t matter right now. His words and actions do.

He took the microphone towards the end of the program.

“To everyone here, I say, we’re going to turn today’s tragedy into tomorrow’s triumph,” Elliott said. “…We have a mission for the future. And that mission requires a tremendous amount of responsibility. In the midst of pain and suffering there is hope.”

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

That must be the message in times like these, because the alternative is unthinkable. The ceremony lasted nearly two hours, in part because so many of Devin and Lavel’s and D’Sean’s teammates wanted to talk about her so much. There was room for public memories. There was one to need for public reminders.

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

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

Of Chandler’s tendency to dance after each exercise; his sense of rhythm was controversial.

“Your zest for life is contagious,” said sophomore running back Cody Brown in a letter he read to Chandler 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 up the room,” said Donovan Johnson, a security sophomore.

The late players were spoken of individually and glowingly. The arena was lifted with the light moments from the past. Videos on the scoreboard kept showing her smile, her smile. What a smile.

“We’re better and we’re going to do better because of 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 make sure her legacy at the University of Virginia never fades.”

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

This is coming, such moments in public and in private, who knows how many and who knows how long. Saturday’s program was appropriate and in many ways necessary. Parishioners came in suits and 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, 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 Laval. As D’Sean.

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

And so he differentiated his fallen stars.

“While I celebrate the magnificence of Lavel and all that he has given us,” and he talked about vigorously debating the greatest basketball player of all time in Davis’ locker. Davis took Kobe Bryant. Eliot . . . Not.

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

“While celebrating the glory that Devin has given us,” and he spoke of the times Chandler fell asleep in meetings, still with a smile on his face from 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’ve never had a prouder moment as a coach,” Elliott said.

There must be prouder moments. The University of Virginia is a different place after the events of November 13th. The survivors on the bus where a gunman gunned down the players – including two who are recovering from injuries – will never be the same. The football program must also be different. A two-hour program in a basketball arena is a nice package. Emotions cannot and will not be contained until Saturday.

At some point it will be about football. It wasn’t Saturday when the Cavaliers decided to cancel their last home game against Coastal Carolina. That game was replaced with a private Senior Day ceremony at the school’s indoor practice facility – not what everyone involved envisioned last Saturday. Whether the Cavaliers will contest the season finale against Virginia Tech remains to be seen. They are 3-7 as if that matters.

What matters is what happens in the future. Elliott knows fights. When he was 9 years old, his mother died in a car accident. He spent some time homeless in Southern California before moving across 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 a national champion’s offensive coordinator. That’s the kind of resume that, at age 42, lands a head coaching job with the ACC.

The task he is facing now does not fit into an application. It’s raw and it’s human. As he finished his reminiscence, Elliott recalled Davis’ 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 its stars,” Elliott said. “In such a way that light is brought into the world. Lavel, Devin, D’Sean – I look forward so much to the strength, motivation, courage and love you will all bring to triumph in the days to come.”

Before the John Paul Jones Arena spilled into the dark, cold November evening, into Dinners and Thanksgiving and the Holidays beyond, these numbers were displayed on the scoreboard in the center of the arena: 1, 15, 41. The task ahead is to complete the Keeping memories of Devin Chandler, Lavel Davis Jr. and D’Sean Perry alive while somehow building the lives of the players they left behind.

The funeral service was moving. It cannot predict what lies ahead. Tony Elliott and his players should be on our minds whether or not they face Virginia Tech. They carry more than they ever imagined.

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