After tragedy, Virginia begins the long march through grief

After Dale Earnhardt died in a last-lap crash in the 2001 Daytona 500, his fellow drivers, including his own son, decided to return to the track the very next weekend. When Miami Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez died in a September 2016 boating accident, the team canceled that night’s game but resumed play the next night. When President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, the NFL played games the very next weekend, and when Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter crash, the NBA played games that same night, two decisions that drew intense criticism.

Grief works at its own pace and in its own time, which means sports leagues — defined by rules, schedules, tradition and order — are uniquely ill-suited to handle the intrusion of the real world on games. When the cruelty of life storms into the arena, fans and players alike are at a loss.

Charlottesville mourns its students lost to gunfire. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Charlottesville mourns its students lost to gunfire. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Five students were shot in a horrifying act of gun violence Sunday night on university grounds, and three of them — football players Devin Chandler, D’Sean Perry and Lavel Davis Jr. — died in the attack. The alleged shooter was arrested 75 miles away after a daylong manhunt, and remains in custody, charged with three counts of second-degree murder, among other charges.

It’s impossible to overstate the impact the deaths had on the university and the surrounding town of Charlottesville, as pastoral and idyllic a college town as exists in America. We’re long past saying “I never thought it would happen here” — sadly, gun violence can erupt anywhere in the United States, at any moment — but when it does arrive, it’s terrible to behold.

About 150 miles to the southwest of Charlottesville is Virginia Tech, which suffered the horror of a gun rampage in April 2007. An undergraduate at the university killed 32 students and faculty and wounded 17 more, terrifying and paralyzing the community. Dr. Gary Bennett, Virginia Tech assistant athletic director and a licensed clinical psychologist, sees tragic echoes of what happened in Blacksburg in Sunday’s tragedy in Charlottesville.

“It takes a community coming together to start moving forward,” said Bennett, who lived in Blacksburg at the time of the Virginia Tech shootings. “There’s a sense of, ‘How do we even start to get through this?’ For an individual, moving forward can be overwhelming, but when a community comes together, they can tap into that sense of identity to start moving forward.”

Virginia canceled its game against Coastal Carolina this weekend. The team’s season-ending game against Virginia Tech, scheduled to take place next weekend in Blacksburg, remains uncertain.

A mourner at a makeshift memorial outside Virginia's Scott Stadium. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
A mourner at a makeshift memorial outside Virginia's Scott Stadium. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

What’s the right response in these situations? There’s no answer, no playbook, no roadmap for what to do when violence rips through the heart of your community. The university and Charlottesville remain in shock, stunned at the cruel nature of the crime and the sudden loss of young lives snuffed out.

“You have to give people space for their emotional reactions — listen a lot, be there to support each other, extend a lot of grace to those who have suffered more than others,” Bennett said. “There’s no right or wrong way to grieve. Some people bounce back quicker than others. If there is a wrong way, it’s telling people to get over it and move on.”

After its own shootings, Virginia Tech canceled its spring football game, and the campus basically shut down for a week. The first public event was a baseball series against Miami, and the college used it as an opportunity to move to the next stage of grief.

“It became a rallying point. We came together and celebrated being together, instead of this heavy mourning at a vigil,” Bennett said. “Those sporting events can be therapeutic. It’s hard to imagine [UVa] could have done that this weekend.”

The Cavaliers decided as a team not to play. That’s their right, their decision, and by definition it’s the correct one, because it’s what felt right for them. Some students and players may want to hide until the grief subsides, some might want to resume whatever will pass for normal life as soon as possible, some may want to gather together and cheer as one, raging at the universe’s cruelty while holding one another up to move forward. There’s no one proper way to process this kind of trauma. The grief is communal, the pain individual.

"A community is made up of lots of individual people who process things differently," Bennett said. "It would be nice if we could all fit into that Five Stages of Grief model. But for most people, grief comes in waves. Some days, things seem normal, and then out of nowhere comes this overwhelming sense of sadness and loss."

There is always this, though: be glad you’re alive, and keep alive the memory of those lost. They were exceptional men, and they deserved the full, joyous lives that they won’t get. It’s all so hideously unfair.

“The message is that most communities think that this cannot happen here,” Bennett said. “The reality is, we see that it can happen anywhere. So we need to value our relationships. We need to care for each other, support each other. Not just in crisis — it needs to be a daily thing.”

The question isn’t whether a team should play through grief. The question is, why must a team have to make the choice at all?

For a list of GoFundMe campaigns to support the families of the three players, go here.


Contact Jay Busbee at or on Twitter at @jaybusbee.