CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) — Virginia played its first home football game in 10 months on Saturday and went in hoping to create a high point in what remains a long, emotional journey that started in a horrific way.
The day didn’t end the way they wanted; James Madison went ahead on a touchdown pass with 55 seconds left and Virginia couldn’t answer in a 36-35 heartbreaker.
“Unfortunately, the game of football, you know, it’s not a game of deserve,” coach Tony Elliott said. “It’s about what you are and today, unfortunately, we didn’t make enough plays. We weren’t a disciplined enough football team to win. But we’ll respond.”
Tributes for three players slain in a shooting last November began Friday with a tree planting and the placement of a plaque to honor the three, as well as another player and a female student who were wounded. The victims were also honored before the game.
More than two hours before kickoff Saturday, cheering fans lined the path the team walks to get to the locker room. Many later donned the orange “UVA STRONG” T-shirts given out to the first 35,000 fans to enter the stadium.
Fans were encouraged to be in their seats by 11:30 a.m. for a pregame ceremony, and they cheered loudly when the team emerged from the locker room. The players went through their normal stretching and pregame routine before heading back inside.
They returned and stood on the back line of the end zone to watch a 5-minute video tribute narrated by Samuel L. Jackson that left many fans in tears. Parachutists then dropped into the stadium, three carrying a banner bearing the jersey number of one of the players and the last one with a UVA STRONG banner.
Another video highlighting Virginia’s football tradition ended showing plaques honoring the three that now hang under the pergola at the open end of the stadium, then the families were introduced on the field. The numbers of the three killed were revealed on the LED board at the other end of the stadium, where the announcer said they would remain permanently.
“I thought it was it was an awesome, awesome moment, done very, very well and, you know, set a great example for honoring the lives of young men who were who were lost to soon,” Elliott said.
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, was different. When the Cavaliers ran out of the stadium tunnel before kickoff, flames shot into the air on both sides of them. Hollins was the first one out, as he was last week. The team ran toward an end zone painted with the words “UVA STRONG” and the names and numbers of the three slain. Most knelt in prayer when they got there.
Hollins was the team’s lone representative for the coin toss, and a moment of silence followed.
The end zone will remain painted to honor the three throughout the season. The Cavaliers wore helmet decals and those wearing jersey Nos. 1, 15 and 41 — the numbers of the three killed — had legacy patches on them. The visiting Dukes also wore helmet decals.
As Elliott, in his second year, 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 earlier in the 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 they will honor the memories of the players 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.
The Cavaliers and their fans won’t be the only ones familiar with the emotional aspects of the weekend. James Madison had a star softball player take her own life last year.
“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, JMU president Jonathan Alger and Sun Belt Commissioner Keith Gill would be among those on the field for the pregame ceremony.
Bourne said he wants Dukes fans to be fierce and supportive of their team, while at the same time finding an “appropriate balance between competition and compassion by standing strong with UVA to offer our support for healing.”