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Teel: In 'shock and disbelief,' Bronco Mendenhall pays tribute to fallen Virginia football players

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Returning from extended travels, Bronco and Holly Mendenhall powered down their phones Sunday evening and turned in early at their Montana ranch. They awakened Monday to an unimaginable stream of texts and voicemails.

The University of Virginia football program that Mendenhall coached from 2016-21 was rocked to its core: Players Lavel Davis Jr., D’Sean Perry and Devin Chandler had been shot to death. Teammate Mike Hollins was hospitalized with wounds, and the suspect was a former Cavaliers walk-on.

“Just shock and disbelief and trying to make sense of it all,” Mendenhall said during a phone interview Wednesday.

What Mendenhall understood immediately and inherently is that he could not process this in solitude. He spoke often to his team about empathy, faith and the value of relationships, and now was the time to practice what he preached.

So the Mendenhalls have since spent nearly every waking hour connecting with the victims’ families, current and former players, and current and former UVa coaches and administrators.

“We just grieved and cried and talked,” Mendenhall said.

He acknowledges that Tony Elliott now leads the program, but Mendenhall and his staff recruited these young men to Virginia, and with the blessing of Elliott and Cavaliers athletic director Carla Williams, Mendenhall has joined them as comforters.

As he displayed countless times at Virginia, on varying stages, Mendenhall is eloquent and sincere, gifts that will serve him well as he reunites with his Cavaliers family, gifts that were on display Wednesday as he recalled each of the victims.

“Lavel and I connected through introspection and learning,” Mendenhall began. “Lavel, in my opinion, was kind of an older soul and was an advocate for others and was really interested in becoming exceptional [away from football].”

Mendenhall reveled in making his team meetings more about life than football, and after those meetings, Davis, a receiver from South Carolina with NFL potential, would often approach Mendenhall to delve further into an issue. That curiosity and caring, Mendenhall believes, explain why Davis embraced “The Groundskeepers,” a movement receivers coach Marques Hagans launched after racial violence in Charlottesville.

Davis “was really interested in learning and applying what he was taking in on behalf of others,” Mendenhall said. “... He was one of the first to race to acknowledge anyone on our team who was having success — on any level. ... But he was doing it in a really understated way, so I think humility and sincerity and empathy are what he had.”

Mendenhall marvels still at how Perry “remained determined and diligent and selfless and happy,” even as he struggled for years to discover his role on the defense. When Perry, a linebacker from Florida, intercepted a pass during a 2020 victory over Abilene Christian and then was designated to sledgehammer the Cavaliers’ celebratory rock in the locker room, Mendenhall beamed.

Then-assistant coach Mark Atuaia used to lead “Freestyle Fridays,” rap sessions in which Mendenhall witnessed Perry, a studio art major with a sly sense of humor, reveal his grasp for language. He also saw Perry’s practice intensity upset the offensive players and coaches not accustomed to such internal resistance.

“The combination of just all those things was really unique to see,” Mendenhall said. “He was just a joy to be around.”

Mendenhall didn’t know Chandler, a receiver from North Carolina, as well. The two huddled on Mendenhall’s Charlottesville ranch during Chandler’s recruiting visit, but Chandler instead chose Wisconsin, where he played two seasons before electing to transfer.

Hagans and Mendenhall flew to Wisconsin to court Chandler anew, but shortly after Chandler committed to Virginia, Mendenhall resigned.

“What I do recall in both those instances was, wow, what a vibrant smile, what a giant personality,” Mendenhall said. “He filled the room with light and life, and wherever Devin was, you just wanted to be there because of the countenance and the energy and the positivity. ... He could do work, but he was going to enjoy it at the same time.”

Mendenhall likened Hollins to a superhero. That’s how mild-mannered the running back from Louisiana is off the field and how powerful he is between the lines.

Conflicted by whether college football should have staged a 2020 season during the pandemic, Mendenhall appreciated Hollins’ decision to sit out that year.

“Mike has a duality that was striking to me,” Mendenhall said. “I really admire and love that about Mike. He’s thoughtful and he’s compassionate and he’s kind and he doesn’t seek attention.”

Former walk-on Christopher Jones Jr., a Petersburg High School graduate, faces three second-degree murder charges in connection with the shootings, which occurred on a charter bus returning from a class trip.

“Chris came across our desk as a very strong student who was coming to UVa and wanted to walk on to the program,” Mendenhall said, adding that Jones was injured throughout his one semester on the team in 2018 and was never a discipline problem.

Mendenhall yearns for the times when he can gather in-person with his Virginia football family.

“I just feel like ultimately I need to see them,” he said. “I hope just by hugging — I don’t even know what will happen of value other than just connecting and just letting them know that their sons were loved. Even though it’s been said, I just want to be there in-person to say it and show it.”

Before then, Mendenhall is dedicating the next episode of his weekly podcast to the fallen players. He has invited every assistant coach who worked for him at Virginia to appear and share their memories and insight.

No format. No time limit. Just raw emotion.

Robert Anae, Mendenhall’s UVa offensive coordinator now serving in the same role at Syracuse, revealed some of that emotion in a statement Wednesday.

“I have unbelievable love for the outstanding young men that they were,” he said. “My sentiment is gratitude to the families for trusting me to be a part of recruiting, developing and mentoring these young men. It has been the highlight of my coaching career. I’ll always be tied to them with my heart and soul.”

Mendenhall closed our conversation through the lens of his Mormon faith.

“Without that, I think I would feel hopeless and in despair,” he said, “and I think I would feel angry and I think I would be reactionary only. But my faith promises me that this life is but a moment in the eternal perspective of things, that we have a father in heaven that loves and cares for us, so much so that he willingly gave his son for us. ...

“That gives me solace and peace, knowing that this hasn’t just ended. This is just a new beginning for each of these young men. ... I just hope that anyone that’s reading realizes life is precious and that love and encouragement of others is always the right answer.”

dteel@timesdispatch.com Twitter: @ByDavidTeel

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