The Virginia football team opened spring practice on Tuesday and there were plenty of sport-specific things to focus on and develop. Beyond fundamentals and foundational elements, however, UVA coach Tony Elliott had his eyes trained toward two intangibles. Gratitude and enthusiasm.
The reasoning for that is easy to understand. While winter workouts and conditioning competitions had returned for the program, the Cavaliers had not held a practice since last November. The season abruptly ended when Devin Chandler, Lavel Davis Jr., and D’Sean Perry were tragically killed in a shooting shortly after returning from a school field trip. Virginia running back Mike Hollins, who remarkably returned to practice with the team at the start of the spring period, and another student were also injured in the shooting.
There is no specific road map for how to bring players back to practice following a tragedy, but the ongoing healing process continues to focus on supporting one another and honoring the lives lost. One way to do that is through appreciation.
“Just grateful to be on the grass,” Elliott said. “That was the message that I closed practice with and that’s the spirit I came out with. It was matched by the players. Just grateful to have an opportunity to get to play football again. It’s been a long time. Definitely, still got heavy hearts for everything we went through as a program, still grieving, and supporting the families of Lavel, Devin, and D’Sean, but really, really just grateful to be on the grass is big picture for me.
“I was excited to see these guys have a ton of enthusiasm to start the day,” he continued “I thought it was a really, really good first day. Not a ton of just practice fundamentals that I had to correct so there was a lot of carry-over from the last time. You worry about those things when you’ve had a long break, how much of the fundamentals and core values you’re going to have to coach but I thought the strength staff did a great job of preparing them so I was just grateful to be back on the grass to be honest with you.”
The players and those directly affected by the player deaths must continue to face difficult milestones following the tragedy. The holidays at the end of last year. The return to school. The start of winter workouts. And, Tuesday, the start of spring practice. Other spots ahead are the Spring Game, the first game of the season, the first home game, and the one-year mark in November. Elliott said how to help individuals and the team navigate milestones like that is “still be determined” because each one must be addressed at that specific time and there’s no way to know how things will feel in any given moment.
For the start of spring practice at Virginia, Elliott had prepared to make changes if needed but sensed that the team opened the period in a good place. He credited UVA’s sports psychology department and the football team’s strength and conditioning staff for helping work through the first two months of the year. He also said the players came back to school with an “unbelievable spirit” among themselves.
That all helped set the tone for Tuesday.
“I didn’t feel like I had to do anything different [Tuesday],” Elliott said. “I think coming back in January, I was a little bit nervous, apprehensive because they had been gone for such a...
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