CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) — Virginia will play its first home football game in 10 months on Saturday and the Cavaliers hope it is the high point of a long, emotional journey that started in a horrific way.
Tributes and dedications for three players slain last Nov. 13 began Friday with a tree planting and placement of a plaque to honor them as well as another player and a female student who were wounded. The victims will be remembered in an on-field ceremony a half-hour before the noon kickoff against James Madison.
“At University of Virginia, we have a tradition of planting trees to mark the tradition and the moments that have shaped our history,” school President Jim Ryan said before those in attendance, including family members of the players killed, were allowed to help encase the roots in soil.
The tree, an oak, can grow to as tall as 60 feet and live for hundreds of years. The plaque will serve as a reminder of the lives of Devin Chandler, Lavel Davis Jr. and D'Sean Perry. Authorities just this week upgraded the murder charges against the former teammate accused in the attack.
The tragedy caused the cancellation of Virginia’s final two games last year. Instead, there were three funerals to attend, vigils and a moving memorial service.
The Cavaliers acknowledged being emotional when they reconvened in the spring for 15 days of practice, especially when shooting survivor Mike Hollins was in uniform. Their first game back came last Saturday in Nashville, Tennessee, where they lost 49-13 to No. 9 Tennessee.
This game, though, will be different. When the Cavaliers run out of the stadium tunnel before kickoff, it will be toward an end zone painted with the words “University of Virginia Strong” and the names and numbers of the three slain.
The end zone will remain painted to honor them throughout the season. The Cavaliers will wear helmet decals and those wearing jerseys Nos. 1, 15 and 41 — the numbers of the three killed — will have legacy patches on them. The visiting Dukes also will wear helmet decals.
As second-year Virginia coach Tony Elliott has said numerous times since the killings, there is no playbook, no formula for how a program recovers or for how individual players do.
“You’ve got to compartmentalize and be strategic with the hours in the day and know when you need to focus on football,” Elliott said this week. “They’ve also got academics they’ve got to continue to focus on and then also spending the appropriate amount of time mentally preparing themselves for the emotional roller coaster that they’re going to have late in the week and then also on game day. And so it’s a delicate balance.”
In a statement she read at a news conference without taking questions, athletic director Carla Williams said, “We promised the family members that we would never forget their loved ones and we will keep that promise.”
Williams praised the Virginia players, several of whom considered transferring but chose to return for the opportunity to play in honor of their teammates: “We love you because despite the adversity, you refuse to quit," Williams said. "The life lessons you’re learning in these moments will carry you further than you could have ever imagined.”
The players have said their way to honor the memories of the players will be by showing up every day, giving their all and remembering that everything can be taken away in an instant. Results would be nice, too, but as Elliott builds his program, that’s a tall order. The Cavaliers were 3-8 last season, his first as a head coach.
“We enter a community still grieving and still healing, and we will be grieving alongside them on Saturday,” athletic director Jeff Bourne said, noting that he, James Madison University president Jonathan Alger and Sun Belt Commissioner Keith Gill will be among those on the field for the pregame ceremony.
Between the lines, Bourne said, he wants Dukes fans to be fierce and supportive of their team, while at the same time, “we must find the appropriate balance between competition and compassion by standing strong with University of Virginia to offer our support for healing.”