CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — When a gunman started shooting passengers on a charter bus returning to the University of Virginia from a class field trip on Sunday night, Cavaliers running back Mike Hollins at first thought it was balloons popping.
Then Hollins saw the alleged gunman, former Virginia walk-on football player Christopher Darnell Jones Jr., and screamed at the driver to stop the bus. Hollins and two other students ran off the bus, but he soon realized no one else was following them.
Hollins, from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, told the two students to keep running, but he went back to the bus to help others, according to his mother, Brenda Hollins.
“His classmates are grateful for him because they said he saved their lives,” Brenda Hollins told ESPN on Thursday. “He was the first off the bus and told two of his classmates to run, and he went back.
“He said, ‘Mom, I went back. I needed to do something. I was going to beat on the windows because no one else was coming off the bus.’ He said, ‘I was going to beat on the windows. I was going to go on the bus and tell them to come on, get off.'”
But when Mike reached the first step of the bus, he encountered Jones, who Mike said was pointing a handgun at him. Mike said he turned to run, and Jones shot him in the back.
“The only thing he remembers is he tried to turn, but he saw him lift the gun,” Brenda said. “He felt his back get hot and he ran.”
According to Brenda, Mike said he started running toward a parking garage and pulled up his shirt. He saw a bullet protruding from his stomach.
“He got afraid that if he ran too far into the parking garage, no one would find him and he would die,” Brenda said.
Mike stopped, and a medical student who was on the bus helped him until emergency personnel arrived.
Virginia football players Devin Chandler, Lavel Davis Jr. and D’Sean Perry were killed in the shooting. Another student, Marlee Morgan, was also shot and is believed to be in good condition.
Hollins might have avoided being shot if he hadn’t gone back toward the bus. His mother isn’t surprised by his actions that night.
“Didn’t surprise me,” Brenda said. “It would surprise me if he didn’t. That’s who Mike is, so it didn’t surprise me.”
Cavaliers coach Tony Elliott also wasn’t surprised to learn of Hollins’ bravery.
“It’s the character that he possesses,” Elliott said. “That act is in you before you ever get to that moment. One of the things we talked about in his program is working towards becoming champion men. We talk about heroes vs. zeroes. And guys who set out to be heroic often fail, but it’s the common guy that does what he’s supposed to do in those adverse moments that becomes a hero.
“He’s the kind of young man that cares about everybody else. He had other teammates on the bus, and he was going back for his teammates. One of the things we talk about in this in this program is love, and what love is and what the highest form of love is. The highest form of love is sacrifice, to lay down your life for somebody else. He reacted exactly how I would anticipate. He thought about his teammates. He didn’t care if he put himself back in harm’s way, but he was going back to check on his teammates.”
Jones, who was a walk-on player on the 2018 Virginia football team, has been charged with three counts of second-degree murder and the use of a firearm in the commission of a felony. Prosecutors have also charged him with two counts of malicious wounding and additional gun-related charges related to shooting Hollins and Morgan. He is being held without bail in a Charlottesville jail.
According to Commonwealth’s Attorney James Hingeley, a passenger on the bus told police that Jones was aiming at people and wasn’t shooting randomly. A witness also told police that Jones shot and killed Chandler while he was sleeping.
Brenda said she has forgiven Jones for what he did.
“I already have,” she said. “I had to in order to heal so I can help my son. I mean, I don’t have a choice. I have to, and then I have to move on to help my baby.”
Mike had emergency surgery Sunday night and another surgery Tuesday to explore damage to his kidneys and abdomen. Brenda said he has been taken out of intensive care, removed from a ventilator and walked for the first time on Wednesday.
“He’s recovering,” Brenda said. “Mentally and physically, he’s having a hard time. He doesn’t know why everything happened, why he was shot one time, why he is here and not his friends.”
Brenda said doctors wanted her to wait until after Mike’s second surgery to tell him that Chandler, Davis and Perry were killed. When Mike was intubated and couldn’t talk, he asked about his teammates by writing their names on a dry-erase board.
“We had to tell him that we had no information,” Brenda said. “We told him that because of the severity of the situation, he was confidential and we couldn’t get any information. I don’t think he believed us. He was throwing his hands up and had this look on his face, and I know he was saying, ‘Why? What do you mean?’
“We couldn’t tell him because we needed his vitals to stay where they were because he had surgery coming up. They didn’t want any complications.”
Immediately after Mike came out of recovery from his second surgery, his family delivered the devastating news that his teammates were gone.
“He was waiting,” Brenda said. “Right after they removed the ventilator, I heard him say, ‘Thanks, doc.’ I hadn’t heard him talk, so it was just a blessing to hear his voice. He knew. My daughter was standing closest to him, and he looked at her. She shook her head. She said, ‘He’s gone.’
“Mike’s cry was so deep it was like coming from his soul. It was like a cry I’d never heard before in my life. It was so deep. His cry was so deep. There was nothing I could do. I can’ t grab him and pull him to me and hug him because he’s hurt. I can’t move him. It was like he was alone in that moment. We were there, but he was alone.”
Mike Hollins and Perry, a junior from Miami, were especially close. Brenda said her son said, “Mom, I don’t know how I’m going to live without him.”
“Mike, you’re going to live for them,” Brenda said she told him. “You’re going to live for him.”
Cavaliers coach Marques Hagans, who coached Chandler and Davis, knows that Hollins’ road back is going to be as much about his mental recovery as physical.
“Mike Hollins, I mean so fortunate to get away, but he’s got to live with not just a scar, but the pain of knowing he was on the bus when three of his teammates died,” Hagans said. “That’s not just something you move on from. He’ll always remember those sounds, that smell, that sight for the rest of his life, and that that’s a heavy burden to carry.”
Brenda had seen her son on the day before the shoot. She attended Virginia’s 37-7 loss to Pittsburgh at Scott Stadium on Nov. 12, in which Mike had eight carries for 23 yards. They had dinner together after the game, and then she flew back to Baton Rouge on Sunday.
During dinner, Mike had talked about how he was excited to go on the field trip to Washington, DC He wasn’t a student in the course on African American playwrights; he had been encouraged to go on the field trip by Perry.
Brenda said Mike had talked about how he’d wished they could have driven their own car to watch the play about Emmett Till, but Perry encouraged him to ride the bus. They were excited to meet other students going on the trip.
Brenda said Mike told her that he didn’t know Jones, 22, who was still enrolled in classes at Virginia. Mike said he interacted with Jones once on the trip, with each of them saying to the other, “What’s up?”
When Brenda’s phone rang around 10:40 pm Sunday night, she recognized a number from the Charlottesville area code and feared the worst. A doctor told her that Mike had been shot and was going into emergency surgery. His father, Mike Hollins, lives in Fairfax, Virginia, and Brenda’s mother is from Portsmouth, Virginia. They were able to get to UVA Medical Center early Monday morning; Brenda arrived later that day.
“I was devastated,” Brenda said. “Just walking into his room, I saw his feet first and they weren’t moving. And then I hear the machines and I just see him lying there. He was on the ventilator. The worst thing that I could have ever imagined to see in the world.”
Doctors have told Brenda that Mike will need months of rehabilitation during his recovery. He won’t be able to lift anything for three months. She said he is determined to return to the football field. He has at least one season of remaining eligibility; he didn’t play in any games during the COVID-19-interrupted season in 2020.
“We believe God’s report,” Brenda said. “The doctors can tell us anything. But Mike, he is driven. He will be back on the field. He will be carrying someone’s ball. He will be back. … Because he knows God and he knows he’s here for a reason . He was spared for a reason.”
Mike is scheduled to graduate with a bachelor’s degree from Virginia in December. His mother said he has to write four papers to fulfill the degree requirements. He is determined to walk across the graduation stage with his classmates.
“That would be a blessing,” Brenda said. “It’s a blessing because he’s walking with his three brothers on his back, and that’s exactly how he’s going to feel because he’s missing them. And so he’s determined and if he will graduate, he will walk.”