By HANK KURZ Jr. and BEN FINLEY, AP News
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) — They were three college football players working through changes in their sports careers. Off the field, they were funny, sweet and ambitious.
Lavel Davis Jr., aspired to be the country’s best wide receiver and to play in the NFL after overcoming a season-ending injury. And while he was a 6-foot-7 sports star at a school of 18,000 undergrads, he sought out friendships with students who were not athletes like him.
D’Sean Perry shifted seamlessly from linebacker to defensive end when the coaches asked — he said he was “just trying to help the team win.” He also was a studio artist who loved anime and to cook.
Devin Chandler transferred in from Wisconsin, where the wide receiver returned a total of four kicks for 85 yards, including three returns against Notre Dame. He was known for his sense of humor and for lifting people up.
The three University of Virginia juniors were returning from a class trip Sunday when authorities say they were killed by a fellow student and former football player. Two other students were wounded, including another football player, Mike Hollins, who underwent a second surgery Tuesday.
The deaths shook the school in Charlottesville. But the grief was felt widely, penetrating football programs across the country — in part because college athletes can move around more with the easing of transfer restrictions.
Wayne Taulapapa, a running back who transferred from Virginia to the University of Washington, tweeted: “You were never just football players, but rather examples of great and honorable young men.”
LAVEL DAVIS JR.
Davis was a wide receiver from Dorchester, South Carolina. His major was undecided in the College of Arts and Sciences. Davis finished the 2020 season ranked No. 2 in the nation and No. 1 in the Atlantic Coast Conference for average yards per reception, among many other accolades.
An undisclosed injury sidelined Davis for the 2021 season but he returned this year, starting six of the first seven games. In the season opener against the University of Richmond, Davis caught four passes for 89 yards, including a 56-yard touchdown. He was on a watch list for 2022 Comeback Player of the Year.
Herman Moore, who developed a friendship with Davis as an alumni-mentor, said Davis was hoping to finish his college career on a high note after bouncing back from his injury.
Davis had aspirations for the NFL, Moore said. But he was also thinking about life beyond sports, perhaps in business. The future, however, was yet to be decided.
“He wanted to be recognized as the best receiver in the nation,” Moore said. “And he felt he had all the tools and the athleticism to get it done.”
Overall, Moore said Davis was “an outstanding, charismatic young man. He was very ambitious — confident both as an athlete but also as a student. He just had his head on right.”
American studies professor Jack Hamilton, who had Davis in class, offered a similar impression.
“He made a point to come up and shake my hand and told me I should call him Vel,” Hamilton tweeted.
“One thing that struck me about Vel was how much his classmates liked him and vice versa,” Hamilton wrote. “In my experience, star athletes often tend to hang out with other athletes (understandable, given the time commitment). But Vel seemed to go out of his way to make friends with non-athletes.”
Chandler was a wide receiver from Huntersville, North Carolina. He recently transferred from Wisconsin. Chandler’s accomplishments for the Badgers included a 59-yard kickoff return and 18-yard rush in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl against Wake Forest in 2020.
Hamilton, the American studies professor, wrote on Twitter that Chandler had been in one of his large lecture classes.
“He nevertheless made a point to come to my office hours repeatedly, often just to ask questions about how things worked around UVA,” Hamilton wrote.
The professor later helped Chandler to declare his major in American studies, “which he was really excited about.”
“He was an unbelievably nice person, always a huge smile, really gregarious and funny,” Hamilton wrote. “One of those people who’s just impossible not to like.”
Ethan Johnson, who knew Chandler since high school, said he “was a fun guy to be around. He was always dancing. Always dancing.”
Johnson is two years younger than Chandler. But they spent a season together on the high school football team, with Johnson covering Chandler as a cornerback every day during practice. This past summer, the young men worked out together at their former high school.
“And he was there telling me how much of a difference he saw in me. How much I had grown. How I had improved as a player,” said Johnson, who is now a freshman cornerback at Appalachian State. “That was the type of guy he was. He was always trying to lift people up. … That was also the last time I saw him.”
Jim Leonhard, the University of Wisconsin’s interim head football coach, tweeted Monday that Chandler “had a lasting impact on his teammates, even after he left UW, which is a testament to the type of person he was.”
“His personality was infectious and he was a joy to be around,” Leonhard wrote.
Perry was a linebacker from Miami majoring in studio art. In September, Perry recalled how linebackers coach Clint Sintim asked him to move to defensive end, according to the Daily Progress.
Perry told the newspaper it was “no problem at all. It was a smooth transition.”
“Honestly, I feel like I can do both (linebacker and defensive end),” Perry said. “And I prepared myself well to work in space and pass rush during the offseason. … So, both positions I’m very comfortable with and I’m just trying to help the team win.”
Perry appeared in seven games this year and made seven tackles.
Zoe Tran, a friend of Perry’s and fellow student at Virginia, told WUSA9 he “was much more than a football player.”
She said the two met during her first year and quickly became friends.
“He was an amazing studio artist. He loved anime, loved to cook and was one of the most loyal people” Tran told the station.
He was also quiet but extremely sweet, she said. He was gentle and playful as well as religious.
“I wish that more people knew more about him,” Tran said. “He was very reserved, but I think it was because he saved all of his love for those who were close to him.”
Michael Haggard, an attorney for Perry’s parents, issued a statement thanking the South Florida and the Charlottesville communities for “the outpouring of support during this impossibly tragic time.”
“Right now, Happy and Sean will not speak publicly about the incident as their grief is only beginning, and out of respect for the University of Virginia community which has been terrorized by another mass shooting in the United States,” the statement said.
Mike Hollins, a running back on the football team who was also shot, was in stable condition Monday, his mother Brenda Hollins told The Associated Press.
“Mike is a fighter — and he’s showing it,” she said after flying to Virginia from Louisiana. “We have great doctors who have been working with him. And most importantly, we have God’s grace and God’s hands on him.”
Like most college football players, Hollins has aspirations to play professionally, his mother said. But he has other dreams and goals, which include being an educator.
“We’re praying for the other families,” she said.
Hollins had surgery Monday and again Tuesday. The second operation went well and Hollins was doing “great,” his mother told WBRZ in Baton Rouge.
Finley reported from Norfolk, Virginia. Associated Press news researcher Rhonda Shafner in New York and sports writer Steve Reed in Charlotte, North Carolina, contributed to this report.