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The Joy, the Love, the Light

Lavel Davis Jr. (Col ’24) grew up in small-town South Carolina, D’Sean Perry (Col ’23) in cosmopolitan Miami, and Devin Chandler (Col ’24) wherever the career of his father, a Navy pilot, took their family.

Football brought them together at the University of Virginia, where they are forever linked. Their lives, full and vibrant and brimming with promise, were cut short when they were fatally shot upon returning from a school field trip the night of Nov. 13. Students Mike Hollins (Col ’23), also a football player, and Marlee Morgan (Col ’25) were wounded in the shootings and were treated and released from UVA Medical Center. Authorities charged then-UVA student Christopher Darnell Jones Jr. (Col ’22) with three counts of second-degree murder, two counts of malicious bodily injury and five counts of using a firearm in the commission of a felony in the shootings.

At a memorial service at UVA, at funerals in their hometowns, in news accounts and social media tributes, teammates, friends, coaches and family members celebrated their lives. Through the tears and out of tragedy, their stories emerged, and their impact resonates.

“These were boys of joy. These were boys of love. These were boys of light,” said former UVA receivers coach Marques Hagans (Col ’05, Educ ’08), who took a job at Penn State in January. “And no crime and no violence can ever take that away from them.”

“Sometimes life is short,” former Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “That doesn’t mean the memories aren’t powerful.”

Devin Chandler

Chandler arrived at Arlington High in Arlington, Tennessee, as a high school freshman, former Arlington High football coach Adam Sykes said.

Chandler didn’t play the first half of the season because he was hurt, “but we could tell he was going to be special,” Sykes said.

Chandler quickly lived up to expectations. Arlington teammate Kenneth Walker, now a running back with the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks, was so impressed that he saved Chandler’s number on his phone under the name “Future NFL star.”

Chandler made just as big an impression off the field, with his energy. Nicknamed “Devin the Dancing Machine” by his family, he was quick with a joke and a smile and lit up any room he entered.

“Devin was just inspirational to everyone around him,” Walker said.

Chandler’s father, Quentin Keith Chandler Sr., died in September 2018, during Devin’s junior year, after a battle with cancer.

“It obviously hit Devin very hard,” Sykes said. “Devin never wanted to let anybody know he was down. He put on that brave face.

“He actually played in a game the next day. He told me he wanted to. He did, and it was very emotional.”

Chandler and his family moved to North Carolina the next year. Heavily recruited, he signed with the University of Wisconsin and played a season and a half as a wide receiver and kick returner before transferring to UVA.

UVA media studies professor Jack Hamilton remembered Chandler as a curious and engaged student. Hamilton taught Chandler in a large lecture class in the spring of 2022. Chandler came to Hamilton’s office hours repeatedly, “often just to ask questions about how things worked around uva,” Hamilton wrote on Twitter.

Hamilton later helped Chandler declare his American Studies major.

“He was just an unbelievably nice person, always a huge smile, really gregarious and funny. One of those people who is just impossible not to like. It is so sad and enraging that he is gone,” he wrote.

Chandler was an electric presence around the football team as well, quick to dance after even the most grueling practice. He brought “light and joy to everybody,” teammate Lorenz Terry (Col ’25) said.

“You felt and heard Devin before you ever saw him,” coach Tony Elliott said.

Lavel Davis Jr.

At 6-foot-7, with an infectious smile, Davis also filled and lit up a room. He was known to most as Lavel, and to some as Vel. But he was called Tyler, his middle name, by his family, which came to include coach Hagans and his wife, Lauren Hagans (Col ’00, Educ ’06) and their two sons. The boys looked up to him as a big brother and role model.

“Tyler was a part of our family from the moment we met him,” Lauren Hagans said.

Marques Hagans recruited Davis from Ridgeville, South Carolina, a town of 1,600 that Davis was proud to represent and never tired of talking about. He had the number 187, Ridgeville’s exit off Interstate 26, tattooed on his arm.

“Ridgeville—you were going to know about it every single day,” Marques Hagans said.

“He was so proud that he made me proud,” Lauren Hagans said. “I’m a 44-year-old woman from Philadelphia, and I have a tattoo that says, ‘Exit 187, Ridgeville, South Carolina.”

Davis made an immediate splash as a freshman receiver in 2020, leading the ACC and finishing second in the nation in yards per reception. A knee injury caused him to miss the 2021 season. After a long rehabilitation, he was rounding back into form in 2022 but missed the final two games after sustaining a concussion.

Hamilton also taught Davis and said he was struck by how much his classmates liked him and how much Davis liked them. Hamilton said that athletes often gravitated to other athletes, which is understandable given the demands on their time.

“Vel seemed to go out of his way to make friends with nonathletes,” he wrote.

Davis was a member of The Groundskeepers, a group of football players dedicated to racial and social justice. The group formed in 2020, a year of racial reckoning across the nation and three years after white supremacists marched across Grounds and downtown Charlottesville for the Unite the Right rally. One of them rammed a car into a group of counterprotesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer. 

One of the first acts by The Groundskeepers was a “Take Back Our Grounds” march from Heather Heyer Way in downtown Charlottesville to UVA’s Memorial to Enslaved Laborers and then the Rotunda.

 Asked why he joined the group, Davis told ESPN: “When I leave here, I just want to say I was part of the change, and I took a step forward, changing everything in the right direction.”

D’Sean Perry

Perry was as rugged and aggressive as linebackers come, to the point that coaches often had to remind him to stop hitting when the whistle blew.

“There was no quit in him,” Mendenhall said. “In fact, sometimes he would finish plays that were already over.”

Beneath a tough exterior, however, Perry had the soul of an artist. He painted, played the piano, rapped, and loved poetry and all kinds of  music, from hip-hop to classical. Teammate Hunter Stewart (Col ’23) called Perry a “true, modern-day example of a Renaissance man.”

Elliott said Perry, more than any other player, checked on him when he came to coach at UVA from Clemson in December 2021.

“He would walk by my office, look in there and say, ‘Coach, you good?’”

Perry also looked after his teammates, Mendenhall said. Especially if they’d had a rough day at practice.

“Almost every practice, an arm was going around someone,” Mendenhall said. “And it wasn’t someone’s arm around D’Sean, it was D’Sean’s arm around someone else.”

Mandy Alonso (Col ’20, Educ ’21) said whether it was helping to move a 700-pound piano or picking up someone at the airport, Perry would never hesitate to help a teammate who asked.

Ever curious, Perry was exploring a possible study-abroad trip, Elliott said. The coach said Perry, a studio art major, sent him pictures of several works of art he’d created. Elliott has since kept Perry’s creations on his phone. Among the works are a sculpture of a hand, some ceramics and a portrait Elliott plans to study.

“It had a lot of things going on,” he said. “I don’t know quite what it was, but it meant something to him and it was beautiful. I’m going to take some time to figure out what all those pieces of the picture mean.”

Ed Miller is senior editor of Virginia Magazine.