After the Killings at the University of Virginia, a Coach Remembers His Players

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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Tony Elliott, the University of Virginia football coach, and Carla Williams, the athletic director, entered the Tuesday news conference 15 minutes late. Both looked exhausted, their eyes red and filled with tears as they sat in front of two microphones.

They were behind schedule because they had just left the hospital where Mike Hollins Jr., a Virginia running back, was recovering from gunshot wounds.

“It feels like a nightmare, honestly,” Mr. Elliott said, “and I’m ready for somebody to pinch me and wake me up.”

“You prepare for the job; there’s no chapter on the situation like this,” he added. “And so I’m just trying to figure out, step by step, how to be strong for these young men.”

On Sunday night, three third-year players on Virginia’s football team — Devin Chandler, Lavel Davis Jr. and D’Sean Perry — were shot and killed while returning from a class trip. Mr. Hollins and another student were wounded. The police charged Christopher Darnell Jones, who was a walk-on player in 2018, in the shootings.

University officials had said on Monday that Mr. Jones drew their attention in September, during an investigation into hazing, when another student said that Mr. Jones had commented that he had a gun — a remark, officials said, that was not made as a threat. None of the people whom officials spoke with, including Mr. Jones’s roommate, said they had seen him with a gun, officials said.

But officials investigating the claim learned that Mr. Jones had been convicted in 2021 of a misdemeanor concealed weapons violation in another Virginia county and had not told the university about the conviction, which he was required to do. But there has been some confusion in official remarks about the case. On Monday, Brian Coy, a university spokesman, said that on Oct. 27, the department of student affairs had referred the case to the student-run judiciary council, where Mr. Jones might have been sanctioned for “failure to report” the conviction.

But on Tuesday, Mr. Coy said that after looking into it, officials discovered that the case had never actually been referred to the judiciary council — a simple step that could have been done electronically.

“The person who was responsible for doing that was certain that he had,” Mr. Coy said. “I’m not sure if it was a human or a technical thing.”

There are other unanswered questions. At the Tuesday news conference, Ms. Williams said that she didn’t have any details on whether the hazing was related to the football team. In any case, Mr. Jones’s time on the team didn’t overlap with that of any of the victims.

This season is Mr. Elliott’s first as a head coach after he spent 11 years as an assistant at Clemson. While he was at Clemson, two of his former players died: C.J. Fuller, who died from a blood clot during a medical procedure, and Tyshon Dye, who drowned in a lake.

“But this situation here is different,” Mr. Elliott said, because these were three active players who died.

Mr. Elliott never coached Mr. Jones, and no one on his coaching staff had done so either. Even coaches who worked under former Coach Bronco Mendenhall, who stepped down last season after coaching from 2015 to 2021, were unfamiliar with Mr. Jones.

“That’s the crazy thing,” said Ricky Brumfield, Virginia’s special teams coordinator from 2018 to 2021. “When they first came out and said the shooter was Chris Jones, and he was a football player and played in 2018, I was like, ‘Who’s that?’ And I had to hit up a couple of other coaches, and they really didn’t remember him that much either.”

Mr. Brumfield said he had gathered from the other coaches that at some point, Mr. Jones had been injured and hadn’t finished the season, so he never became a player whom others in different position groups would be familiar with.

Special teams coordinators often work with many players on the team because any player can contribute during kickoffs, punts and field goals. Typically, players who aren’t talented enough to play on offense or defense find at least a temporary home on special teams. Still, Mr. Jones never worked with special teams, which could have been because of his injuries, but was still unusual, Mr. Brumfield said.

Mr. Jones was something of an afterthought for Mr. Brumfield when he saw the news of the shooting. Instead, he rushed to call Mike Hollins’s mother. Mr. Brumfield remembers sitting in Brenda Hollins’s home in Baton Rouge, La., in 2018 and telling her and the rest of the family that he would be another “father figure” for Mr. Hollins at Virginia.

“That’s what really hurt me,” said Mr. Brumfield, now the special teams coordinator at Florida International University. “Because of all of the things I told her that I wanted for him.”

On Tuesday, Mr. Elliott cried as he described the players who had been killed, pausing and smiling at times as he described them. He said that Mr. Chandler had been “the life of the party,” that Mr. Davis had “set the standard for what it’s supposed to look like to work in the way that he practiced” and that Mr. Perry had been “the quiet guy that everybody wanted to know more about.”

Saturday’s football game between Virginia and Coastal Carolina was still scheduled, but in the news conference, Mr. Elliott and Ms. Williams suggested that could change after a meeting with the football players. “We’ll use our best judgment,” she said. “We’ll make a decision soon.”

The men’s basketball team postponed its game against Northern Iowa on Monday night, and Ms. Williams said all other athletic events would go on as scheduled. The university, which canceled classes on Monday and Tuesday, said they would resume on Wednesday.

“This is something that nobody is prepared to deal with until you’re inside of it,” Mr. Elliott said. “For me, the focus is not past today. I’m just trying to figure out a way to get everybody back together this evening so that we can see them again and spend some time, and then in due time we’ll collaborate on the path going forward in terms of on-the-field play.”

Campbell Robertson contributed reporting. Kirsten Noyes, Susan C. Beachy, Kitty Bennett and Alain Delaquérière contributed research.

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