May 21, 2024

Every day for the last year, Virginia athletic director Carla Williams has made sure to check in with the families of Devin Chandler, Lavel Davis Jr. and D’Sean Perry. Today, on the one-year anniversary of their tragic deaths, she will do the same. She knows their pain has been a constant, no matter what the calendar says.

On Nov. 13, 2022, Chandler, Davis and Perry — Virginia football players, friends and teammates — were shot and killed on a bus after returning to campus from a field trip to Washington, D.C., to see a play about Emmett Till.

Their deaths remain hard to fathom.

“It may be the one-year anniversary for some people,” Williams said, “but it’s just like yesterday for a lot of us.”

To mark the anniversary of their deaths, the university, athletic department and football program have planned tributes to honor Chandler, Davis and Perry. Happy Perry, D’Sean’s mother, will serve on a university panel focused on community and individual healing in the aftermath of gun violence. The UVA Chapel will chime bells in their honor following the panel.

Coach Tony Elliott said the football team will take care of its football responsibilities in the morning before an optional gathering later in the day. Happy Perry said a private lantern lighting and release is planned.

“There’s so many different visuals around here that spark thoughts about Lavel, Devin and D’Sean,” Elliott said. “There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t have feelings about them. On this day, I want it to be a true remembrance of the legacies of those young men.”

The ones who knew them keep those legacies alive. Take former Virginia offensive coordinator Robert Anae. He uses Davis in the teaching tapes he shows his players at NC State.

“So as long as I’m involved in the game, he will be on the cut ups,” Anae said. “Because he does it right.”

Take Virginia kicker Will Bettridge. He thinks about his former high school and Virginia teammate, Perry, before he lines up to take every kick. Wearing Perry’s No. 41 this season, Bettridge has had a career year — making 12 straight field goals after missing his first attempt in the opener.

“If I can bring him with me and he’s there with every kick, I just continue to do that,” Bettridge said.

Take Lehigh freshman Cam Gillus. He looks down at his wrist and sees “DC15,” the initials of his cousin, Chandler. On especially tough days, he stops and remembers the joy with which Chandler lived his life.

“I’m excited to go out and play for him this season,” Gillus, a member of the basketball team, said. “That’s something that holds him near to me.”

The impact these three players left on their communities, and those who love them, goes beyond anything they did on the football field. They are remembered for the way they made people feel, for the way they gave to others, for their big smiles and relentless perseverance. They have made those who knew them want to be more like them.

That is why there is so much determination to keep their legacies alive — in Ridgeville, South Carolina; Miami, Florida; Virginia Beach, Virginia; and Charlottesville, Virginia. Their friends and family will not allow them to be forgotten.

“Their loss has taught and continues to teach a lot of people about empathy, overcoming adversity, living for something bigger than yourself,” Williams said, “which in sum total is being remembered for something that everyone can be proud of.”

Lavel Davis Jr.: ‘I feel like he’s still here’

THERE ARE REMINDERS of Davis everywhere in Ridgeville, South Carolina, his one-stoplight hometown about 30 minutes west of Charleston. Davis loved Ridgeville, and if anyone questioned that, he could point to a tattoo on his arm with the exit number to town off Interstate 26.

There is off-ramp construction at the exit these days, which will ultimately help ease congestion into the growing area, but as soon as that clears, there is quiet. Trees, lakes and single-family homes dot the landscape until you reach the main street.

Across the railroad tracks is the elementary school Davis attended and where his little brother, Teigan, is currently a fourth grader. After Davis died, the school principal, Dr. April Sanders, started the Good Character Award in his honor. The first one went to Teigan, “for being determined, resilient, and committed to a legacy of excellence.”

Teigan and Lavel were close. The coaches at Woodland High School, where Lavel attended, recall Teigan tagging along whenever possible. “We used to do yoga during track season, so Lavel’s senior year — Teigan was maybe in kindergarten at the time — he would come with Lavel and do yoga with us,” said Woodland track coach Chavez James.

“Teigan was always with him,” said Woodland volleyball coach Kayla Klinger, who now coaches their sister, Taniya, a sophomore.

Both James and Klinger said Teigan is always around his sister. Sometimes he works the scoreboard at the high school, and he often asks if he can come run while Taniya is at track practice. She’s a member of the team, just like her big brother, Lavel, was. Simone Davis, their mom, is a constant presence at Taniya’s sporting events. She declined comment for this story, wanting the Woodland coaches to speak on her behalf.

When those coaches see Taniya, they see some of Lavel, too — tall and gregarious, with an easy smile.

“There are times she will say things and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, that’s her brother,'” Klinger said. “She has the same smile, she has the same passion.”

“There are so many memories of him here, such good memories,” James said. “We can bring them up, we can laugh and smile, and it lifts our spirits.”

They laugh about Lavel’s affinity for wearing short shorts — especially funny considering he stood 6-foot-7. Or the way he would be the DJ in the locker room and raid the fridge in the guidance office. They laugh about Davis’ decision to use Klinger’s car, a compact Chevy Cruze, to take a driving test for his license. “Just picture this tall man in this mini car parallel parking and driving,” she said. “It was funny.”

“I think about him every day,” Klinger said. “It’s been harder with football season. I’m used to watching him on Saturdays. I don’t know if I’ve grasped …”

James picked up. “I feel like he’s still here. I just haven’t talked to him for a while.”

They sit in football coach Eddie Ford’s office. On the whiteboard above them, Ford has written the names of all the Woodland players who have received football scholarships since he became head coach in 2019. He points to Davis’ name under 2019: Lavel-UVA, the only player to go to a Power 5 school that year. “His senior year he was double covered on probably every play,” Ford said. “There would be a guy in his face, and a guy over the top. But when we needed it, we threw it to him anyway because he could jump up and get it.”

In the gym, Woodland athletic director Tydles Sibert has a framed poster of Davis hanging on his office wall. Just below it, a No. 1 Virginia jersey is draped over the chair Davis would sit in every time he came in to talk. “That’s Lavel’s chair,” Sibert said simply.

Sibert was Davis’ first coach at Woodland, and the two grew close. When Sibert was going through a difficult time after he lost his father, Davis would call to check on him — repeating the same words Sibert told his players: “‘Coach, do what your dad taught you, and what you tell us. That pain you’ve got right now, turn it into your passion.’

“It’s like he was coaching me.”

Sibert jumped from memory to memory — all the times he drove Davis home, the FaceTime calls, watching him outjump players as a middle schooler, reading to elementary school kids on Fridays.

Like so many who knew Davis, Sibert has grappled with questions since the shooting.

“We have to turn to our faith,” Sibert said. “I know some people might say this is crazy, but maybe God needed him more. I mean, why the other guys? They were great guys, too. Why the situation? When kids from our area go to college, we celebrate them. You don’t think in your wildest dreams that would happen. Lavel did all the right things, he went to class, he didn’t party. You’re talking about a school field trip. That’s the part that gets me.”

Woodland retired Davis’ No. 13 jersey this season. The football team wears No. 13 and Virginia decals on their helmets. Last April, a stretch of Highway 78 that connects Ridgeville to Woodland High was renamed the Lavel “Tyler” Norman Davis, Jr. Memorial Highway. The highway also leads to where Davis is buried, just down the road from his elementary school.

His gravesite is impossible to miss. Flowers and two white crosses ring the headstone. At night, solar lights flick on, shining directly onto the headstone so there is no mistaking who is here. A pair of running shoes sit unlaced. Anae, Davis’ former offensive coordinator at Virginia, left them there after he participated in a 5K Memorial Walk/Run through town last January on what would have been Davis’ 21st birthday. The event drew hundreds of people.

“My thought was that boy is a great gift to mankind and he gave me a gift of how good people can be,” Anae said. “Every time I go down there, if I’m free and available, I will do [a 5K] whether they schedule one or not. Just a token of how that kid has influenced my life.”

Devin Chandler: ‘I aspire to be the person Devin Chandler was’

THE FIRST TIME Cam Gillus saw Devin Chandler play high school football in person, it felt surreal. Gillus had already seen all the video clips of Chandler. But this was different.

Chandler served as a de facto big brother to Gillus. Though the two cousins never lived in the same city, they grew close over family trips and Christmases spent at their grandmother’s house. In Chandler, Gillus saw a fun-loving guy with a big smile whose personality drew everyone to him. But he also saw what he himself could be: a college athlete.

Gillus and his family made the five-hour drive from their home in Virginia to show their support that Friday night outside Charlotte. Gillus saw his cousin speed past defenders, score and celebrate. Chandler loved to dance and played with a joy that was unmistakable from where Gillus sat in the stands.

That, combined with the hard work Chandler put in his senior season, served as a road map for Gillus as he approached his own basketball recruitment.

“He set that standard and allowed me to see something that I could achieve as well,” said Gillus, now a freshman on the Lehigh basketball team.

Chandler and his mom, Delayna, moved to North Carolina, in part, to be closer to family. His junior year in Tennessee had been especially tough. Chandler’s father, Quentin, had died of brain cancer, devastating the family. Though Chandler was starting at Hough High School as a senior, only months removed from the loss of his father, he arrived for his first practice with his usual smile.

Curt Neal, who played with Chandler at Hough and later at the University of Wisconsin said, “Devin was always so happy. He was so strong-minded. He was a leader on that team. You could never tell when he was down or going through something. He was always a shoulder we could lean on.”

Chandler was determined as a senior in high school to impress colleges and raise his recruiting profile. He succeeded, receiving multiple offers before opting to go to Wisconsin.

“He was so focused,” said D.J. Boldin, who coached him in Tennessee and grew close with the Chandler family. “It was almost like he knew he didn’t have time, as weird as that sounds now.”

Chandler transferred to Virginia after the 2021 season in search of more playing time and to be closer to family. His mother had moved to Virginia Beach. Chayce Chalmers and Hunter Stewart had an opening in their apartment when Chandler arrived in Charlottesville, so he moved in with them. Chalmers remembers how energetic Chandler was about everything — including trying a new chicken dish Chalmers cooked for his roommates as part of a Virginia video series called “Cooking with the Cavs.”

At the end of the video, Chandler takes a bite, nods and says, “Yeah! You did that!”

“It was always great coming home, hearing him, laughing, talking, having a good time,” Chalmers said. “He made the apartment feel lively.”

Gillus and his parents took an unofficial visit to Virginia in September 2022 and spent time with Chandler in Charlottesville. At the time, Gillus had one scholarship offer — similar to Chandler heading into his senior year. Chandler told Gillus, “Keep working, and they’ll come, and you’ll be on the college stage as well. Eventually, they’re going to recognize your talents and abilities, and all the hard work you’ve put in.”

“Hearing that from him, that meant something to me,” Gillus said.

That was the last time Gillus saw his cousin.

It has been particularly difficult for those close to the Chandlers to comprehend the magnitude of losing Quentin and then Devin within four years — especially for Delayna Chandler.

“Lightning hits you twice,” Boldin said. “Just when you thought she was healing from her grief with her husband, another blow. My heart just goes out to her.”

Delayna has not spoken publicly since Devin died.

Neal has had a hard time, too. He and Chandler were best friends, and he feels his loss every day.

“It’s not really something you accept,” Neal said. “You just learn to live with it. You don’t know why. He wasn’t a bully. He wasn’t none of that. There’s not a narrative you can paint to get me to believe there was a reason my best friend was murdered in his sleep.”

Neal said he honors Chandler every day, not with initials on his helmet or wristbands, but in the way he lives his life. “I feel like he was always a strong-minded, happy person. I try to live my life like that even though it’s so hard, and he should still be here,” Neal said. “I aspire to be the person Devin Chandler was.”

D’Sean Perry: ‘He’s still serving a purpose’

D’SEAN PERRY LOVED many things, but one of his greatest passions was art. He dreamed of one day having his own display at Art Basel in Miami Beach, an annual event showcasing the works of prominent and up-and-coming artists from around the world.

After he died, his family and local community officials wanted to find ways to honor him and keep his legacy alive. Art was an obvious answer, so they created an exhibit for Perry at the South Dade Black History Center in his community in southwest Miami, across the street from the park where he played. When officials chose the date for opening night, Oct. 27, they had no idea Virginia would be playing in Miami the next day.

An hour before opening, volunteers quietly put the finishing touches on the reception outside. In front of the exhibit hall, they positioned a large backdrop with Perry’s photo in his Virginia jersey. Soon, his parents, two sisters, extended family, friends, community officials and high school coaches and teammates arrived — many wearing orange UVA Strong shirts.

Virginia athletic director Williams was there. So, too, was Brenda Hollins, whose son, Mike, survived the shooting and was best friends with Perry. “I couldn’t stay away,” Hollins said. “We’re family now. We’re tied together. We were before this because Mike and D’Sean were like brothers, and now it’s for life. There’s no other place I would be than here.”

The Friday of the art exhibit had already been emotional for the Perrys. Earlier, a group of Virginia players and coaches went to visit D’Sean’s gravesite with the family, after their arrival from Charlottesville. D’Sean’s mom, Happy, was celebrating her birthday Saturday — the day of the game.

The team presented her with flowers and a piece of art as a birthday gift — a portrait of D’Sean painted onto a canvas, with a smaller image of him in his football uniform, a helmet and his No. 41 jersey. Williams had portraits of Davis and Chandler commissioned and made by the same artist, Steve Penley, for their mothers as well.

“That was …” Happy said before stopping to wipe tears. “I had to go home and lay down and give myself a moment.”

Now outside the exhibit, Happy greeted attendees with long, meaningful hugs, thanking them for coming. Inside, the exhibit entitled Love-Art-Football featured Perry’s artwork — both drawings and sculptures. Among them: a colorful anime drawing, also featuring images of a dog and elephant, and a pencil sketch of “The Simpsons” characters Marge, Homer and Bart.

The pottery was on another side — a large lion’s head on a podium to itself, the intricate detail in its mane impossible to miss. The exhibit is more than Perry’s art, though. It is a loving tribute to all that Perry was — football player, artist, brother, son, friend and teammate. Perhaps above all else, to him as a giver — of his time, his talents and his love.

“Whenever you can recognize God’s goodness in human form, it touches you and it leaves an impact,” said Gulliver High School coach Ernie Sims, who coached Perry. “I wish he was still here, he still had more things to do. But look at what he’s doing. Look at what he’s done. So I think it’s important to remember and never forget. He’s still serving a purpose.”

A Virginia graduate himself, Sims went with the family to the first home game against James Madison in September, when the university honored all three players with permanent tributes, plaques for each player on the Legends’ Walk in the north end of Scott Stadium and the Nos. 1, 15 and 41 inside diamonds on the south end. Sims said he could feel Perry there with him.

“Going through the tunnel, I felt something different,” Sims said. “I could feel the essence — maybe it’s the memories, maybe it’s the emotions, but it compelled me to write something to explain how I felt.”

Last month, Gulliver retired Perry’s No. 10 high school jersey in a ceremony, and Sims read his poem, “A Love That Remains” that says, in part:

Just as seasons change
Life will never be the same
But one thing that will remain …
Is the LOVE
D’Sean Emir Perry
A true gift from above.

Sims took his Gulliver team to the game against Miami. The Perrys were there, too, watching from a suite behind the Virginia sideline. The family has chosen to remain close to the football team and active on social media. Sean Perry, D’Sean’s father, posts daily about his son, or scripture verses, or words of encouragement.

“It actually helps me because that’s my way of grieving as well,” Sean said. “I post to keep me strong, really. It helps me every morning when I wake up, and I see something that encourages me, I try to get it out there. It’s still a long journey. It’s rough at times. Very rough. We’re still heartbroken. But I know that’s something that he would like for us to continue on and keep going.”

Happy often visits Charlottesville and attends practice. When she does, she rents an Airbnb so she can have a kitchen to cook meals for the players. “It’s not just us grieving,” Happy said. “They’re grieving, too, and I feel like we can help strengthen each other. These are D’Sean’s friends. I feel like it’s what he would have wanted.”

At halftime in Miami, a cake was delivered to the suite, and everyone sang “Happy Birthday” to Happy. She blew out the candles and smiled, but there was a sadness there, too. Virginia fought to the end against the Hurricanes. Bettridge, who went to Gulliver with Perry and wears his No. 41 now, made four field goals — including one in overtime.

“I always think about it right before I kick,” Bettridge said. “I’m like, ‘This kick is for D’Sean,’ and it’s been working.”

For a moment, it felt as if Bettridge would be the hero — playing in their hometown, in front of their friends and family, wearing Perry’s number. But Miami scored a touchdown on its overtime possession and won 29-26 — one of five games this season the Cavaliers have lost by a touchdown or less.

“It would have been great to get a win here,” Mike Hollins, Perry’s best friend and Brenda’s son who survived the shooting, said afterward. “But I’m leaving everything on the field. We did all we could. And I know our three angels are smiling down on us. They couldn’t be happier for us.”

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