Virginia’s victory is ‘inspiration’ for Charlottesville
Cavaliers win football opener, receive show of support from opponent William & Mary
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Virginia — As the Virginia football players ran through a tunnel of band members and cheerleaders to the roar of the Scott Stadium crowd, their opponent, William & Mary, was on the opposite side of the field, facing a sea of orange and a filled-to-the brim student section.
In the corner of the north end zone, William & Mary players briefly kneeled in prayer as captains made their way to the center of the field for the coin toss.
Slowly, the rest of the players on the sideline turned toward the crowd, moved close together and linked arms, some swaying back and forth. Just below the bottom of each player’s jersey hung a T-shirt that read “United We Stand, Divided We Fall.”
The Tribe players wanted to show their support for their counterparts across the field after the tragic events nearly a month ago, when James Alex Fields allegedly drove his car into a crowd of counterprotesters at an Aug. 12 white supremacist rally in downtown Charlottesville, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer.
“The expression represents our desire to make a positive statement about our shared beliefs in cultivating a society based on respect for people of all ethnicities, cultures and backgrounds and one that embraces unity, civility and loving one another despite our differences,” a team statement read.
After weeks of turmoil, anger and uncertainty, the Virginia football team — and, by proxy, the city and university — finally had something to cheer about. With a 262-yard, three-touchdown performance from senior quarterback Kurt Benkert — including a toe-tipping, back-of-the-end-zone pass to senior receiver Andre Levrone in the second quarter — and a stifling defense that allowed the Tribe past midfield just once during the first half, the Cavaliers cruised to a 28-10 victory on Saturday in front of a crowd of 38,828.
“I think that just by seeing people compete fiercely and hard for a purpose, for a cause, for an institution, for each other, there can be inspiration there,” Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall said after the game. He insisted that the same would be true if the score were inversed.
“When the result happens, I think it’s easier to acknowledge. I think you have to be careful with that because sometimes without the result, there’s still really phenomenal effort and stories going into people that are overcoming adversity and still unified for the same purpose.”
A dreary day — a shivering 59 degrees, with nonstop rain — didn’t prevent fans from coming out hours before the game for their beloved Cavaliers.
About 500 yards from the stadium is Durty Nelly’s Pub and the Wayside Deli, a small Irish bar with wood paneling as walls and a brick-lined base that holds up the main serving counter. It’s 11 a.m., and owner Gary Hagar is the only one here. He’s been at this location since 1978, making Durty Nelly’s of the oldest establishments in the city.
Football is by far his largest traffic booster, and he’s elated that the season has started. “I wish we had a game once a month to pay the rent.” While not specifically talking about last month’s protests, Hagar said a victory Saturday would be “a win for the team and the businesses of Charlottesville.”
Hagar said he prefers the rain, as it brings more people inside to watch the game on TV. Moments later, “diehard” 30-year season-ticket holders Tracy McCauley and Tripp Gough walk in, the only expected patrons for at least another hour. McCauley has lived in Charlottesville her entire life. She graduated from UVa and has been a Virginia football fan forever, vividly recalling the Cavaliers — or, Wahoos, as her sweatshirt reads — upsetting No. 2 Florida State, 33-28, in 1995. On the wall next to a mounted bear head with a UVa cap on hangs a T-shirt commemorating that game.
They both expected a win against William & Mary, mostly because of their shared belief in Mendenhall and returning All-American defensive players Micah Kiser and Quin Blanding. A win would also send the message that “we’re better than we were before. They can’t hold us down. Even if they continued to plan these things and show up here, we’ll just keep getting stronger,” McCauley said.
Back at the stadium in the parking lot, a long, two-toned Lincoln stretch limo is stretched across two parking spaces. The orange and blue carriage belongs to 81-year-old Henry Chiles VIII. He’s owned the limo for about 20 years and has been coming to UVa games for 40. He’s joined by a collection of family and friends, including his son Henry Chiles IX and grandson Henry Chiles X.
Chiles X, 21, attends rival Virginia Tech, but he had been home in Crozet, 15 miles outside of Charlottesville, throughout the summer. He said he was sad to see what happened in Charlottesville, and he tried his best to stay out of it. Saturday’s game, he said, was “a great way to get away from everything going on.”
A left turn out of the parking lot, at the intersection of Stadium Road and Dunova Court, a tailgate of mostly parents of the players is slowly starting to pick up. On a side street lined with cars and a spread of different food dishes, the parents, siblings and grandparents congregate two hours before game time.
Safety Quin Blanding’s father, Kevin, is rocking a Frankenstein’d mashup of his son’s white away and blue home jerseys, reminiscent of rapper Nelly’s Ravens-Giants concoction at halftime of Super Bowl XXXV. He’s joined by Quin’s younger brother Kaevon, who is a few weeks removed from competing in the Little League World Series. Since Mendenhall reached out to him right away once a state of emergency was announced by Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Kevin never feared for his son’s safety. He said Saturday’s game was a way to put all that happened behind them.
“I’m not a politician, but everybody loves football,” Kevin said. “And everybody comes together for football season.”
Before the teams took the field, the public address announcer called for a moment of silence in remembrance of Heyer and state troopers Lt. H. Jay Cullen and Berke M. M. Bates, who died when their helicopter crashed during the rally. Mendenhall spoke about that moment after the game.
“I think it does contribute [to the healing process]. I also think action contributes to the healing process, so I was so thankful that the fans showed up and the support they gave us today. And maybe some were there, rather than to see a football game, but to heal,” he said.
The locking of arms by the William & Mary players was reminiscent of a team photo the Cavaliers took just days after protesters violently took over the city and on campus at the Rotunda, one of the most sacred buildings at UVa.
“When you have an event and there’s something to do to move forward, I think that helps the process,” Mendenhall said. “Yeah, it is football, but possibly through football, and seeing young guys out there competing and trying hard, already having acknowledged that they believe in diversity and respecting others for differences, hopefully there’s an alignment there that made it a special day for those that came to watch.”