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What Virginia lost: The pain of 3 players killed in shooting stretches beyond football community

Devin Chandler arrived at Hough High School in Cornelius, North Carolina, a suburb of Charlotte, just before the start of his senior year. For most people, that would mean a year on the margins, watching from a distance as friends who’d known each other since childhood wrapped up their time together, waiting out the days until graduation to move on to another fresh start.

Devin wasn’t most people. He dove into life at Hough the way he dove into everything in his life — eyes wide, smile even wider — and within weeks he’d become an integral part of the community. The life of the party, people called him. A smile that lit up the room. The purest soul.

He was a phenomenally talented football player joining an already successful team, a wide receiver whose gifts on the field matched his enthusiasm off it. Hough’s head coach, Matt Jenkins, had learned the game under Joe Paterno, and brought Paterno’s buttoned-down solemnity to North Carolina. No celebrating. Do your job. Act like you’ve been here before.

For Devin, though, football wasn’t a task, it was a joy. Any time any of his teammates scored a touchdown, he’d run down the field, arms waving in huge circles, with so much exuberance that Jenkins feared a 15-yard celebration penalty was coming, every time. He loosened up the entire Huskies program, and today, Hough players who never even knew Devin Chandler still celebrate by waving their arms in circles, the way he did.

Devin was a star at Hough, without question, but he kept a level head. He befriended teammates like Oliver Kalota, a year below him in age and well below him in skill level. He gave Kalota the strength and will to continue on a football path that seemed a dead end.

“He saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself,” says Kalota, who now suits up for Louisburg College (N.C.). “He’s part of the reason I’m still playing.”

Devin graduated from Hough and joined Wisconsin, where he ran back kickoffs and saw time at wide receiver. Six weeks into the 2021 season, he entered the transfer portal and found his way to Charlottesville, where once again he became the life of a party already in progress.

"He was everything you’d want [competitively] out of a person at this level but he was a big kid,” University of Virginia head coach Tony Elliott said Tuesday. “Loved to dance, loved to sing.”

Even as he worked his way through Power Five football, Devin kept in touch with those he’d known along the way, checking up and checking in.

“Just the other day on the phone I was telling him about stuff I’m going through,” Kalota recalled. “He never lost faith in me. He’d say, ‘Bro, we’re going to make it. You may not believe it, but we’re going to make it.’”

Devin, along with his Virginia teammates Lavel Davis Jr. and D’Sean Perry, died Sunday night, sudden victims of gun violence, a tragedy both beyond comprehension and all too common. The accused shooter, Christopher Darnell Jones Jr., is facing multiple charges, including three charges of second-degree murder.

The nation is only now learning the depths of what was lost, and what will never be.

Memorial flowers and notes line walkway at the University of Virginia's Scott Stadium Tuesday in Charlottesville. Va., after three of the school's football players were killed in a Sunday shooting on campus. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Memorial flowers and notes line walkway at the University of Virginia's Scott Stadium Tuesday in Charlottesville. Va., after three of the school's football players were killed in a Sunday shooting on campus. (AP Photo/Steve Helber) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Lavel Davis Jr., D’Sean Perry made an impact beyond football

The University of Virginia is a campus in shock, the brutality of the sudden, violent deaths wrenching the calm, gorgeous university grounds in the heart of a quiet college town. Students, faculty, coaches, fellow teammates, all are trying to process the tragedy while remembering the names, faces and stories of the victims.

“I cannot find the words to express the devastation and heartache that our team is feeling,” Elliott said in a statement hours after the incident. “These were incredible young men with huge aspirations and extremely bright futures.”

Davis, a junior wide receiver from Woodland High School in Dorchester, South Carolina, kept the locker room loose with NBA debates, then outworked everyone on the practice field, Elliott said. He hit the ground running as a freshman in 2020, catching 20 passes for 515 yards and five touchdowns. His 25.8 yards per reception ranked second in the country. Although a knee injury cost him the 2021 season, he had performed well enough in 2022 that he was starting to draw notice as an NFL draft candidate.

“The world lost a phenomenal young man,” Woodland athletic director Tydles Sibert told the Charleston Post and Courier. “He had such an impact on everyone he came in contact with. This just isn’t fair. He had so much potential in life. This is devastating for the Woodland community. It’s the toughest day of my life.”

Virginia wide receiver Lavel Davis Jr. (1) talked about the team being a 'real brotherhood' in an interview earlier this year. (AP Photo/Adrian Kraus)

In now-heartbreaking video from before the season, Davis praised the Cavaliers team and coaching staff, saying they were “like a real-life family.”

“As a group, we’re together,” Davis said in an unaired interview with Charlottesville’s CBS affiliate. “We hang out with each other all the time, play the game, go out to eat, go out together. It’s like we’re a real brotherhood.”

D’Sean Perry was a junior linebacker and a 2019 graduate of Gulliver Preparatory Academy in Pinecrest, Florida, located near Miami. He was the South Florida Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year. Earlier in the weekend, in Virginia’s loss to Pitt, Perry had two solo tackles.

"This loss will be felt deeply. This was just an absolute tragedy. Just a horrible tragedy,” Cliff Kling, president of Gulliver, told Miami’s CBS affiliate. “D'Sean was a young man with a caring heart and I will also remember his work in one of our art shows. He had a smile that could light up a room."

"He was, to his core kind, thoughtful and caring," Gulliver football head coach Earl Sims told reporters Wednesday morning. "He was like a son to me, he was a gentle giant who added value and purpose to my life as well as others. He will truly be missed."

Elliott called Perry “the most interesting person on the team,” pointing to his love of classical music, art and pottery, unexpected for a linebacker.

Perry’s parents released a statement Wednesday that read, in part, "Our family is devastated by the passing of our son, D’Sean Perry. He was a loving, giving, caring, God-fearing young man who was full of life and potential, and who made his family proud … Football and art was his passion, but the love that he had for his family, friends and his community was proven time and time again through his candid dedication. We truly appreciate the outpouring of love and support from so many people. We continue to keep the families of the other victims of this senseless tragedy in our prayers."

Virginia linebacker D'Sean Perry was deemed 'the most interesting person on the team' by head coach Tony Elliott. (Photo by Bryan Bennett/Getty Images)
Virginia linebacker D'Sean Perry was deemed 'the most interesting person on the team' by head coach Tony Elliott. (Photo by Bryan Bennett/Getty Images) (Bryan Bennett via Getty Images)

Mourners open up more than their hearts

The generosity of Charlottesville and the nation is on display in the various fundraisers set up to aid the families of the three men. The GoFundMe to aid Chandler’s mother, Delayna, had nearly reached its goal of $125,000 as of early Thursday. The GoFundMe for Davis’ family had nearly reached its $175,000 goal as of Thursday morning. The GoFundMe for Perry’s funeral expenses has totaled more than half of its $25,000 goal as of Thursday, while a separate GoFundMe for Perry’s family is closing in on its $150,000 goal. Half a million dollars raised in just days, half a million dollars that never should have been raised for such grim reasons.

Last Friday, in preparation for a playoff game, Jenkins, Devin Chandler’s high school coach, spoke to his team. He didn’t know it at the time, but he was already eulogizing Chandler and his embrace of life.

“I told them, young people are afraid to give 100 percent unless there’s no chance of failure or regret,” Jenkins recalled on Wednesday night. “They’ll give 90 percent and keep 10 percent back if they fail, as an excuse. Devin gave 100 percent to everything he did — football, schooling, loved ones, siblings, his fellow students.”

His voice hitched, but he paused only a moment before going on.

“I always tell my kids that you’ll be miserable if you look back in 20 years and say, I wish I’d given more,” he said. “Devin didn’t get to look back in 20 years. But I can promise you he’s in heaven, and he’s saying, ‘I don’t have any regrets about what I did when I was on earth.’”

Three players with the world ahead of them, three players whose lives and stories ended far too soon. The depth of the tragedy is immense and, for those who knew and loved them, lifelong.

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Contact Jay Busbee at jay.busbee@yahoo.com or on Twitter at @jaybusbee.