His voice was halting. His words were haunting.
Tony Elliott is a young, first-year college football coach who on Tuesday was at the worst kind of news conference, trying to make sense of the senseless, trying to find comfort amid the crushing chaos.
On Sunday night, three of his players were shot to death on a school-chartered bus as it returned to the University of Virginia from attending a play in Washington D.C.
Police said a fellow student began shooting as the bus, with approximately 25 students from a single class on board, pulled into a parking garage. D’Sean Perry, a junior linebacker from Miami, Lavel Davis Jr., a wide receiver from South Carolina and Devin Chandler, a wide receiver and Virginia Beach native were all shot where they sat.
Another player, running back Mike Hollins of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, was injured and is in critical condition. A second student, not a football player, was also wounded and is listed in stable condition.
The alleged gunman, briefly a walk-on with the program before Elliott arrived last year, escaped before being apprehended Monday near Richmond, some 75 miles from UVA’s idyllic grounds.
The killings were shocking and sickening. Three bright lives snuffed out. Three young men who came to this world-renowned university seeking to play football and earn an education were snatched from the families and communities that loved them.
Left behind was a shell of a team and a 42-year-old head coach trying to find a way to lead them through.
“You prepare for this job [but] there is no chapter on something like this,” Elliot said. “So I am just trying to figure out how to be strong for these young men.”
He admits, it hasn’t been easy.
“The first meeting was really, really … ” he took a moment to pause and compose himself. “Really tough.”
No one knows what to do. The athletic department has psychologists on staff and made additional counseling available. Players are apparently trying to cope among themselves, grief therapy through remembrance.
“The process of grieving together,” Elliott called it.
Virginia is scheduled to host Coastal Carolina on Saturday, but no one knew Tuesday whether the game would happen. Athletic director Carla Williams said the decision would be made “together.”
Do you play to honor them or not play to honor them? The game doesn’t seem to even matter.
Elliott said he is trying to figure out what his players need. Three dead teammates. Another wounded. Rage and anger and hurt. The No. 1 question his players have, he said, is what can they do for the families, for whom everyone knows this horror will never end.
“The best coping mechanism for me is the young men,” Elliott said. “To see their pain, to see their hurt, it inspires me to keep pushing forward.”
Elliott is, himself, an astounding individual. He grew up in poverty in Los Angeles, spent time homeless with his mother and sister. When he was 9, he was riding in a car with his mother when an accident took her life. He was sent to South Carolina to live with relatives.
He was a good but not great high school athlete who eventually walked on the Clemson football team without a scholarship. He wound up team captain and earned All-ACC academic honors and a degree in industrial engineering. Later, Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney lured him away from an engineering job to become an assistant coach on his staff. He wound up the offensive coordinator for two national championship teams.
He came to Virginia a year ago, his first chance as a head coach, eager to try to win at a program that often attracts academically minded talent. That includes the deceased.
He talked about D’Sean Perry as a bruising hitter with an artistic side. “You look at him you might not think he listens to classical music and draws and shapes pots. He was the most interesting person on the team.”
He talked about LaVel Davis Jr. as this towering, 6-foot-7 athlete whose personality was somehow even bigger than his frame. “Big smile, lights up the room.” Davis could get a locker room loose by engaging in some passionate NBA debate that drew everyone into the conversation, yet was then the hardest, most serious worker at practice.
Then there was Devin Chandler, who had come back to his state school after initially heading to the University of Wisconsin. Even as a newcomer, he instantly found a way to make everyone smile. “He was everything you’d want [competitively] out of a person at this level but he was a big kid. Loved to dance, loved to sing … Life of the party.”
Perhaps the worst part was how Elliott couldn’t help but slip back and forth from present to past tense when talking about his guys, like none of it had fully set in.
“Feels like it’s a nightmare and I’m ready for someone to pinch me and wake me up and say that it didn’t happen,” Elliott said.
He’s struggling like the rest of them. The head coach is supposed to have the answers, but what if there aren’t any? He has 125 players to try to soothe, plus he and his wife have two young children who are full of questions that they may not be able to process.
“I’ve had my moments where I have broken down,” Elliott acknowledged.
He’s doing what he can as the questions mount and the parents and siblings hit depths that no one would wish on anyone.
“These are outstanding young men and we don’t understand why they are gone so early,” Elliott said.
He just shook his head. Soon he said he had to get back to his team, back to a part of the job that isn’t in the description. In Charlottesville, the pain is just beginning.