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

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

Every Virginia recruit 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 out of the coach’s 30-acre ranch outside Charlottesville, Virginia. Parents would watch from a distance. Athletes would get quick instruction, and they were off.

It was different. It might have been quirky. It was bonding for the coach known sometimes for his different and quirky tactics.

“It was not only [bonding], but it was a great way to assess 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 any of them. They were being 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 that ride on the ranch dubbed “HB3” by its owner. (That label represents his wife Holly, Bronco himself and their three sons.) That equine tradition was one of the immediate reflections Mendenhall had when he learned Saturday that three of his former players had been fatally shot.

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

No one signed up for this.

A campus, a sport and once again a nation has been ripped apart by senseless gun violence. Christopher Darnell Jones Jr., a former UVA walk-on player, is in custody for the killings. He was expected to make his first court appearance Wednesday after allegedly shooting the players on a bus returning from a field trip in Washington, DC

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

Reached Wednesday, Mendenhall was more than willing to remember Chandler (the wide receiver he recruited out of Huntersville, North Carolina), Davis (the receiver from Dorchester, South Carolina) and Perry (the linebacker from Miami). Look at their media guide headshots. They’re all smiling — beaming, in fact. Like a lot of 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 unselfish,” Mendenhall said. “D’Sean Perry was so selfless, diligent, hard working. Nothing came easy to D’Sean. He battled daily to get on the field and have a role of significance.”

Chandler was different. He transferred in from Wisconsin having only caught two passes and returned six kicks in two seasons with the Badgers. Chandler did not have any statistics for the Cavaliers this season.

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

Mendenhall resigned before Chandler arrived on campus, but the memories kept flooding back.

“His smile, it immediately lights up the room,” the former coach said. “Larger than life. His vibrancy of spirit and countenance draws people to him.”

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

“You’re a football player and … who else, what else are you?” he asked them.

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

The Mendenhalls were just getting up Monday at their new house in Kalispell, Montana, when their phones lit up with news of the tragedy. Bronco immediately started calling the parents of the deceased.

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

Mendenhall is in the process of traveling back to Charlottesville to grieved with the families and theVirginia community. No memorial date has been set as of yet.

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

Mendenhall has long been a coach not cut from the usual mold. He suddenly resigned last December to spend more time with Holly. Before coming to Virginia in 2015, he had spent 25 of his 26 years in 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 have so much value that people forgot I was a football coach,” Mendenhall said upon his resignation. “That they would have to go back and look it up.”

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

The former coach has a saying, “No one will save you.” That means you are responsible for you. Whether a 32-year coaching career is over isn’t certain. This time is not about him. It’s about him being with the afflicted in their time of need. That’s the greatest gift he can give any of them.

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

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