Bronco Mendenhall remembers three Virginia football players killed as community continues to mourn

Bronco Mendenhall remembers three Virginia football players killed as community continues to mourn

Every recruit in Virginia had to ride a horse. It was a mandate from former coach Bronco Mendenhall. Cavalier prospects couldn’t become Cavalier players until they completed a riding path cut into the trainer’s 30-acre ranch outside of Charlottesville, Va. The parents watched from a distance. Athletes were given quick instructions and off they went.

It was different. Maybe it was weird. It was a bond for the coach known at times for his different and offbeat tactics.

“It wasn’t just [bonding], but it was a great way to gauge who someone really was,” said Mendenhall, who resigned last December after six seasons at Virginia. “It was really a compelling way to get to know each other. It was, quite frankly, the greatest gift I could give them. They were asked to make a decision about a place and people in a relatively short period of time.”

Devin Chandler, Lavel Davis, Jr. and D’Sean Perry all made this drive to the ranch dubbed “HB3” by its owner. (That tag depicts his wife Holly, Bronco himself and their three sons.) That equine tradition was one of Mendenhall’s immediate thoughts when he learned Saturday that three of his former players had been shot and killed.

Mendenhall recruited them all. He sat in their living room making the usual promises coaches make to prospects and their parents.

Nobody signed up for it.

A campus, a sport and once again a nation have been torn apart by senseless gun violence. Christopher Darnell Jones Jr., a former UVA player, is in custody for the murders. He was due to make his first court appearance on Wednesday after he allegedly shot the players on a bus returning from a trip to Washington, DC.

Jones was also briefly on the roster under Mendenhall. However, he was only with the team for a short time before injuries forced him to the sidelines. “A very limited fashion” is how Mendenhall described Jones’ time with the program.

Reached on Wednesday, Mendenhall was more than willing to remember Chandler (the catcher he recruited from Huntersville, NC), Davis (the catcher from Dorchester, SC) and Perry (the linebacker from Miami). See their portraits in the media guide. They are all smiling – beaming, in fact. Like many 20-somethings, you could tell this was the time of their lives.

“Lavel Davis was very contemplative and introspective and humble and unique and genuine and sincere and thoughtful and really selfless,” Mendenhall said. “D’Sean Perry was so selfless, diligent and hardworking. Nothing came easy for D’Sean. He fought daily to step onto the court and play an important role.”

Chandler was different. He was traded from Wisconsin after catching just two passes and returning six kicks in two seasons with the Badgers. Chandler had no stats for the Cavaliers this season.

“He was sitting on a porch overlooking our property, choosing between us and Wisconsin,” Mendenhall recalled. “When he made his decision for Wisconsin, I just had this thought…it wasn’t going to be over.”

Mendenhall quit before Chandler arrived on campus, but the memories kept coming back.

“His smile immediately lights up the room,” said the former coach. “Larger than life. His dynamism of spirit and face draw people to him.”

Former Virginia running backs coach Mark Autaia started “Freestyle Fridays” under Mendenhall during the season. Autaia would start with a made-up rap and pass it on to Perry. It was during this time that Virginia players lived by Mendenhall’s “And…” philosophy.

“You are a footballer and … who else, what else are you?” he asked them.

“It feels like a nightmare, to be honest with you,” current Virginia coach Tony Elliott said Tuesday, reflecting on the loss of those players he had been coaching for less than a year. , “and I’m ready for someone to pinch me and wake up and say that didn’t happen.”

The Mendenhalls had just woken up Monday at their new home in Kalispell, Montana, when their phones popped up with news of the tragedy. Bronco immediately began calling the parents of the deceased.

“It’s almost inconsolable,” he said. “Just the confusion as to how these kids got away. The reality that they are makes no sense to me. I have their pictures on my [phone] screen saver just so I can see them every day. I can’t believe they’re not here.”

Mendenhall is returning to Charlottesville to mourn with families and the Virginia community. No commemorative date has yet been set.

Before all that, Mendenhall will be recording his “Head Coach University” podcast this week. His guests will be his former Virginia staff sharing memories of their former players.

Mendenhall has long been a coach uncut from the usual mould. He suddenly quit last December to spend more time with Holly. Before coming to Virginia in 2015, he had spent 25 of his 26 years coaching east of the Rockies. For 11 years, he was the heart, soul and proud Mormon coach of BYU, going 99-43.

“I would like, at the end of my life, to be so valuable that people forget that I was a football manager,” Mendenhall said when he resigned. “That they should go back and get him.”

When the pandemic hit in 2020, Mendenhall had the courage and candor to suggest there might not be a football season.

The former coach has a saying: “No one will save you”. It means you are responsible for yourself. It is not certain that a 32-year coaching career is over. This time it’s not for him. It is about him being with the afflicted in their time of need. It’s the best gift he can give them.

“The context is the part for me that’s really hard to understand,” Mendenhall said. “In a bus, riding together to enjoy a play. In this context, it’s really difficult to understand, to understand.”

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