This story was reported by Andrea Adelson, David M. Hale and Adam Rittenberg
The photos that have run with nearly every story about the shooting deaths of three Virginia football players this week came from the team’s annual yearbook pictures. Devin Chandler, Lavel Davis Jr. and D’Sean Perry are each dressed in dark suits with white shirts and navy-and-orange ties, all three with bright, beaming smiles.
Former Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall saved those pictures onto his cell phone this week and set them as his screen saver because he wants to remember those smiles — not forced expressions for team photos, but the genuine exuberance and love of life all three players showed every day.
“Those smiles are authentic,” Mendenhall said. “Their futures are genuine and those dreams we’re all talking about are real. And I just feel so lucky to have been around them.”
In the aftermath of Sunday’s shooting, the headlines that ran above those photos almost universally read the same way: “Three Virginia football players killed.” And yet for Mendenhall and all their other coaches, teammates, family and friends, Chandler, Davis and Perry were so much more than football players.
Chandler was a gregarious friend to everyone he met. Davis was passionate about his faith. Perry was an artist.
Their loss is felt most powerfully in Charlottesville, Virginia, but their impact is spread across the country, from South Florida to New England to Idaho and Washington. Their loss goes beyond anything captured by a depth chart or a box score.
“These are good young men who did not deserve this,” Virginia coach Tony Elliott said. “But this is where the healing starts because you get to celebrate life.”
Devin Chandler: ‘Gregarious, joyful, full of light and life’
Devin Chandler soaked in joy and delivered it back out into the world.
Before he transferred to Hough High School, just outside Charlotte, North Carolina, the team had standard touchdown celebrations: a few high-fives, maybe a chest-bump. Chandler changed that when he arrived in 2019. In the opener, Hough running back Evan Pryor, now with Ohio State, raced for an 83-yard touchdown.
Chandler ran after him.
“He sprinted 40 yards, waving his arms,” Hough coach Matt Jenkins said. “The guys still do that. Only my seniors know who he is, but the way guys celebrate touchdowns started with Devin. That sums him up. He was so excited when his teammates scored, maybe more than when he did.”
Chandler typically had a crowd around him. This spring at Virginia, he sat at a front table in an athletics administration course, just to the right of veteran instructor Gerry Starsia.
“He would usually be holding court before class started,” said Starsia, who has taught many Virginia athletes over the years. “Devin would always be in the middle. He was approachable, a sweet kid open to creating a relationship with me as an experienced faculty member, and also open to friendships and people around him. Non-student-athletes would go over, and he would welcome them into the circle.”
Chandler grew up in a military family. His father, Quentin, was a decorated Navy officer and an accomplished pilot, for the Navy and later for FedEx. The family lived in Hawai’i before moving to Memphis, where Devin started high school at Arlington, just outside the city.
Devin clicked with everyone at Arlington — teachers, students and other athletes, like running back Kenneth Walker III, now with the Seattle Seahawks.
“Just a happy person,” Arlington football coach Adam Sykes said. “He always exuded energy. He enjoyed having everybody around him.”
In 2017, Quentin was diagnosed with brain cancer. He died in September 2018, during Devin’s junior season at Arlington.
Arlington’s coaches didn’t think Devin should play in the game after his father passed. But Devin called Sykes. He wanted to be on the field the next night, saying Quentin would have wanted it that way.
“I had a hard time arguing with that,” Sykes said. “We let him go out there. He played with some great emotion. He had a great game. Seeing him after, everybody surrounding him and showing him love, was a very special moment.”
When Chandler transferred to Virginia, he moved into an off-campus apartment with linebacker Hunter Stewart and safety Chayce Chalmers. Chandler struck Stewart as “a goofy guy” with “a contagious smile,” someone who became fast friends with everyone he met.
Stewart, whose parents had served in the military before he was born, quizzed Chandler about all the places he had lived, as well as Quentin’s influence.
“He talked about his dad a lot,” Stewart said. “I always used to say, ‘Why are you like that?’ I would say he’s always on joke time. He would say, ‘I get it from my pops.'”
Chandler’s jovial nature translated to his cooking. Virginia runs a program called “Cooking with the Hoos” to help athletes prepare nutritious food while at home. When Stewart cooked, Chandler was the taste tester, and he loved what Stewart served.
The feeling wasn’t exactly mutual.
“He wasn’t the best cook,” Stewart said. “He would always make a cheeseburger every night, and would pair it with the wildest things. The last meal I remember him having at the crib was a cheeseburger and calamari. One time, he had a cheeseburger with a corn dog, basically anything in the cabinet.
“It was just odd pairings.”
During Virginia’s open week last month, Stewart traveled with Chandler and defensive lineman Lorenz Terry, Chandler’s best friend at Virginia, to Norfolk State University for the school’s homecoming celebration. They attended a music festival featuring old-school R&B music.
“Being around a different crowd of people, you saw Devin easily making friends,” Stewart said. “That was his gift. That may have come from being in so many different places because of the military, but getting friends came very easily to him.”
After Quentin died, Devin and his mother, Dalayna, moved to Charlotte, where Devin’s godfather, Joey, lived. Devin had a big senior season at Hough, scoring 14 touchdowns, as college recruitment picked up. His decision came down to Wisconsin, Virginia and Maryland. Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall remembered sitting on his front porch with Chandler’s family, convinced that Devin would pick Virginia. But on signing day, he went with Wisconsin.
Then, in October 2021, Chandler entered the transfer portal. Mendenhall and Virginia wide receivers coach Marques Hagans flew to Wisconsin and met with Chandler, who decided to join the Cavaliers. Although Mendenhall would soon step down at Virginia, he knew Chandler would fit in perfectly.
“His smile and his personality was larger than life,” Mendenhall said. “This is a gregarious, joyful, full of light and life, vibrant, and just fun person to be around. Someone that, if you’re next to them, you can’t help but [smile and] feel good about yourself.”
When Sykes would text with Chandler, he “would almost feel him smiling as he texted back.” Jenkins described Chandler as “the anti-social media,” because each impression he made was genuine.
“He seemed like every day, he was having the best day,” said Jack Hamilton, an American studies professor at Virginia who taught Chandler this past spring.
On Friday, Hough High has a state playoff game near Winston-Salem. Jenkins and others will continue to grieve Chandler, but they’ll also celebrate him, especially each time Hough crosses the goal line.
“Devin made the world a better place because of who he was,” Jenkins said. “Obviously, he was a talented athlete. But the way he treated people, the way he interacted with people, it’s what this world is sorely missing.
“He was taken too soon, but we need more people like him.” — Adam Rittenberg
Lavel Davis Jr.: ‘You couldn’t find a better kid’
When the FaceTime call came in last Saturday night, nobody on the Woodland High School football team was surprised to see the friendly face smiling on the phone screen.
Even though his own Virginia football team had lost earlier in the day, Lavel Davis Jr. was calling to offer words of praise and encouragement after his alma mater advanced in the South Carolina state playoffs. Woodland athletic director Tydles Sibert recalled Davis’ message to the players: “Keep going, keep pushing.”
It was the last time Sibert spoke to Davis. He has found himself recalling that FaceTime over and over since Monday.
“He had an impact on everybody he met,” Sibert recalled in a phone interview this week. “You couldn’t find a better kid.”
That call was at the essence of what made those who knew Davis describe him as “one of a kind,” “unique,” and “special.” Those who knew him best point to his big smile, encouraging nature, boundless curiosity and determination to change the world around him.
They point to his work ethic and the example he set for others. Simply put: It was hard to miss Davis — not only because of his 6-foot-7 frame.
“Lavel was the first to praise the underdog,” said former Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall, who recruited Davis. “Lavel was looking for the good and progress for all. He always would make sure I or the other coaches would know, ‘You should have seen so-and-so. Man he really did a nice job.’ He didn’t want any improvement from anyone on the team to go unnoticed.”
Known as “Vel,” Davis grew up the oldest of three children with his parents, Simone and Lavel Sr., in Ridgeville, South Carolina, about 40 miles outside Charleston. His younger sister is a freshman in high school; his little brother a fifth-grader “who follows him everywhere.” He played football, basketball and ran track at Woodland High, and excelled at them all. But Davis was determined to succeed on the football field, where four of his cousins — Joe Hamilton, Courtney Brown, Pierson Prioleau and J.J. McKelvey — all made the NFL.
None of them had his size.
“When he would jump up to get a football, it was like a work of art,” said Rodney Mooney, his high school offensive coordinator.
Coaches knew they had a natural matchup advantage, but Woodland coach Eddie Ford also pushed Davis to be more than a big receiver.
“I used to tell him all the time, ‘What are you doing for yourself that God hasn’t physically given you?'” Ford said. “What are you doing to get better? I think he really took that to heart. He didn’t want to be good just because he was taller than everybody else. He wanted to be good because he outworked everybody else.”
His coaches remembered Davis as the first one in the door and the last one to leave. On the field, he certainly was a force. Ford recalled their homecoming game Davis’ senior year. Woodland was down a touchdown late in the game, and Davis had been double-teamed all night. They called a timeout, and Davis approached Ford and said simply, “Throw me the ball.”
“They’re going to double cover you,” Ford told him.
“Coach,” Davis said. “I don’t care. I’ll make a play on the ball. Throw me the ball.”
So they did. Davis outjumped two guys, and scored the game-tying touchdown. Woodland ended up winning.
Despite his athletic ability, in-state schools Clemson and South Carolina never offered him — though first-year Virginia coach Tony Elliott recruited him while he was Clemson offensive coordinator and was well aware of his talents. Davis signed with Virginia in 2020 because he loved Mendenhall and the coaching staff, and grew especially close with receivers coach Marques Hagans.
It was easy to see his talent as a freshman, when he started seven games and averaged 25.8 yards per catch, good for second in the nation. But in the spring of 2021, Davis endured a second torn ACL in the same knee. He approached his rehab the same way he did in high school, determined to come back better than ever.
Even as he rehabbed, his mind was never far away from helping others. In the spring, he went back to Woodland to speak to the team.
“He basically told the kids, ‘This is what you have to do to be successful,'” Ford said. “He helped the wide receivers, worked out with those guys, gave them college tips. I mean, he was a Woodland favorite. Oh my gosh, he was.”
Davis also was a part of a group of Virginia football players known as the Groundskeepers, formed in 2020 to help push for racial and social justice. In an interview with ESPN in the spring, Davis explained why it was important.
“When I leave here, I just want to say, I was a part of the change, and I took a step forward, changing everything in the right direction,” Davis said. “Whatever I can do, even if it’s a small percentage to bring awareness to all the injustice our school has been through, just to shine a light on it and change it in the right direction. It’s a blessing to be a part of it. Because I know these four years are going to go by quick. I for sure want to say I took a step forward for UVA.”
That impact was felt beyond his work with the group. While Mendenhall was coach at Virginia, he established a program known as “Thursday’s heroes,” where the team welcomed in a local resident facing medical challenges each week to tour the football facilities and meet the team. Last year, the team hosted Jack, a 6-year-old boy who had been diagnosed with a rare cancer when he was 3 and spent a year in treatment at both UVA and The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
His grandmother, Julie Callahan, said two players stood out during their time with the team. One was Davis.
“Lavel tossed the ball and, more times than not, Jack dropped it,” Callahan said. “Yet they kept at it. Lavel loping along like a gazelle. Jack trotting more like a kid who had spent a year of his life in bed. What I’ll remember most will be his sweet kindness, his ability to create joy.
“Last week, I visited an art exhibit called the infinity mirrors. This particular one was The Chandelier of Grief – lights reflected into a series of mirrors seemingly forever. It symbolizes the beauty that can exist during times of great sadness. I absolutely understand the concept because we lived it. During the darkest time in our lives, Lavel was one of our pinpricks of light. For this, I will never forget him.”
Davis bonded with Hagans, his wife, Lauren, and two sons, Christopher (10) and Jackson (8). He would attend the boys’ baseball games in the spring while Hagans was out on the road recruiting, and made sure to be there for all their basketball games, too. The boys viewed Davis as their big brother.
On the bus ride back from the class trip, Davis had texted Lauren Hagans to tell her how much he enjoyed it.
“It was like he was one of our own,” Hagans said. “You can see in the pictures, my kids really clung to Lavel. He was so present in their lives. It was such a special relationship. I think that’s what really upset my boys the most is that he won’t get a chance to watch them go to high school, go to college. I just don’t know how it’s possible. I still can’t believe it.”
Davis returned to the field this season, and had 16 catches for 371 yards and two touchdowns, once again leading the team with an average of 23.2 yards per reception. He was under consideration for ACC Comeback Player of the Year.
“I truly believe that Lavel was the next to blossom,” said his cousin, Sean Lampkin, a former receiver and current assistant at Newberry College. “I continued to let him know that while he’s had a great career at such a young age, he had so much more big moments ahead of him if he just continued to give the game his all. He did just that, working his tail off on the field and in the weight room.”
Teammate Chayce Chalmers, also on the Groundskeepers, remembers a moment from a practice before the Georgia Tech game. The two were on the same punt return unit and coaches decide to practice punt block.
Davis got blocked up, freeing Chalmers to make the play. But he missed the ball.
“He came up to me like, ‘Chayce you’ve got this, all you have to do is block the punt,'” Chalmers said. “In the moment I was like laughing, ‘Oh yeah, it’s simple.’ Sure enough, we lined up against Georgia Tech, and I break through, get around the shield and get my hands on the ball and blocked the punt. It’s almost like he predicted it for that week.”
What those close to Davis want people to remember is the impact he had on those around him. Chalmers recalled making an educational video with Davis as part of the Groundskeepers in conjunction with the local police department called “Youth, Blue & U.” Davis took his role incredibly seriously because he knew young people would be watching.
In South Carolina, Woodland plans to wear a decal on its helmets with the initials LD and his high school number, 13, during its state playoff game on Friday night.
“I remember before his graduation, we talked about what kind of legacy did he want to leave at Woodland,” Mooney said. “He wanted to leave one that people could all look back and say Lavel left an impact on this school, whether it was academically or character wise or work ethic wise. The legacy that he left at UVA, the legacy that he left at Woodland High School, the legacy that he left with his family and friends, it’s going to last a lifetime.” — Andrea Adelson
D’Sean Perry: ‘A generational soul’
At his news conference this week, Tony Elliott called D’Sean Perry “possibly the most interesting man on the team,” and that was almost certainly true.
Perry was an accomplished artist. He was fond of drawing anime, but as former high school teammate Gabe Taylor recalled, sometimes a feeling or emotion would pop into Perry’s head, and he’d sit down with his notepad and begin to draw until some beautiful picture emerged to properly express how he felt.
Perry was skilled at pottery. His high school teammate, Anton Hall, Jr., was in the beginner’s pottery class next door to Perry’s advanced class. Perry would always wrap his project early then wander over to the beginner’s class and offer tips or start sketching out new designs. And, invariably, he’d start cracking jokes and have the rest of the class laughing hysterically. Hall is convinced Perry could’ve been a professional comedian.
Perry loved to dance. In high school, he began a tradition at Miami’s Gulliver Prep, that every Thursday after team dinners, the players would gather in the locker room, put on music and dance. Perry was always the first one in the circle.
“And after we’d win games, he’d be the first one to cut the music on and just go crazy getting everyone pumped,” said Westley Neal, who played next to Perry on the defensive line.
Perry was passionate about music. Former Virginia assistant Kelly Poppinga would invite players to his house for the holidays, and he remembered Perry quickly building a rapport with Poppinga’s four daughters, even playing dress-up with them. Then he’d sit down at the family’s piano and start playing.
“He didn’t know how to read music,” Poppinga said, “but he’d just get on the piano and start playing.”
In the wake of Perry’s death, one of Poppinga’s daughters told him that Perry’s piano sessions had always brought her peace.
Music was also at the heart of perhaps Perry’s most popular moment as a member of the Virginia football team. Perry had a gift for freestyle rap. On car rides, he’d always sing along with the music on the radio, and former high school teammate Amin Hassan remembers Perry feigning anger when his phone would ring with a call from his mom or dad, interrupting the rap session. But Perry didn’t need a soundtrack to impress. He had a knack for rhymes, and in the fall of 2019, he was able to showcase his skills for thousands of Virginia fans.
It was Perry’s freshman season at Virginia, and former Cavaliers assistant Mark Atuaia had developed a tradition of celebrating with players after the team’s final walk-through with a rap session. He dubbed it “Freestyle Friday,” and he’d reel off a few verses as players surrounded him, whooping and cheering. Over the course of the season, however, a few Virginia players told Atauia that he should give Perry a shot, too. So on one Friday, with cameras filming the action, Atuaia rapped his intro then turned the reins over to Perry, who delivered an epic freestyle, while his teammates roared their approval.
Virginia shared the video on social media, and the moment quickly went viral.
“It was just an authentic display of his gratitude to be part of the team and this fun side where he’s always smiling and grateful,” Mendenhall said. “I was so grateful to see his moment where he was the star.”
But Perry was never interested in being the star. For all his talents, the thing he did best was make those around him feel important.
In the days following Perry’s death, Ulises Sarria has been scrolling back through old messages and photos, remembering better times with his friend. There’s one video Sarria keeps coming back to. It’s actually a highlight from his first touchdown at Gulliver Prep. In the video, Sarria is streaking down the field, about to score, and in the background is his Perry, running stride for stride down the sideline, leaping into the air in celebration, just as Sarria crosses the goal line.
“I just think that really described D’Sean,” Sarria said. ‘He was so selfless and he was always happy for everybody, even if that meant he wasn’t successful.”
Anton Hall, Jr. was a year younger than Perry at Gulliver, and he remembers his older teammate pulling him aside after a playoff loss Perry’s senior season. It was the end of Perry’s high school career. He could’ve been angry or frustrated or sad. Instead, he put his arm around Hall and offered a message: “It’s your time to shine now.”
“It was like him saying to follow in his footsteps, passing the torch,” Hall said.
Years after they’d last played together, Perry would still send messages encouraging his former Gulliver teammates. His social media channels are filled with videos of his friends’ highlights.
“He’ll always send a little message saying he’s proud of me and he saw it in me from the get-go, even when others doubted me,” said Neal, now a defensive tackle at Rhode Island.
Perry’s optimism and energy were infectious, and he never had a bad moment. Sarria said he has dozens of videos on his phone in which he was filming nothing in particular, but the camera catches Perry, and he’d smile or laugh, and his joy would be immediately palpable.
“He seized every moment, no matter what he was doing,” said Harrison Easton, who was a year ahead of Perry at Gulliver. “We looked up to him because, no matter what was going on, good or bad, you could lean on him. No matter what he was going through, he made others feel supported.”
Perry was an outstanding athlete at Gulliver. He starred on the defensive line, but coaches decided to use him as a hybrid tight end, too. Easton, who played quarterback, remembered his first pass to Perry. They connected on a slant route, and Perry — this massive bowling ball of a player — juked his way downfield with ease.
“His first catch,” Easton said, “and next thing you know he’s making defensive backs look stupid.”
At Virginia, success didn’t come nearly so easily. Perry found himself mired on the depth chart, often working with the scout team. He never complained. Mendenhall remembered working him so hard in practice, Perry could barely stand by the end. And yet, without fail, before he left the field for the day, Perry would find his coach and say thank you.
Easton remembers his old coach at Gulliver, Earl Sims, Jr., had a simple philosophy for keeping players in shape. He told them all to eat healthy and, every day, do 100 push-ups before going to bed.
“We were young high school kids, so not everybody stuck to that,” Easton said. “But I can for damn sure tell you that D’Sean did.”
Perry’s work ethic and personality made him a favorite within the Virginia locker room, but the offensive coaches didn’t always find it so pleasant.
“He was relentless in his approach and treated every day like game day, so many times it would infuriate coaches because he’d be winning in a practice setting against really good players,” Mendenhall said. “And he’d do it day-in and day-out without ever lobbying for more time. There’d be so many times where he’d meet with Coach Poppinga about the depth chart and his future and those pictures weren’t always positive, and yet he just would not relent. He just kept working to the point where he started to contribute on the field.”
Perry got his first career interception against Abilene Christian in 2020. Afterward, he was selected to “break the rock,” a postgame tradition in which Virginia honored its most impactful players.
He played in seven games in 2021, largely on special teams, and he had seven tackles, including one for a loss, this season. But the numbers hardly tell the story of what Perry meant to his team.
Will Bettridge was a freshman at Gulliver when Perry was a senior. He was so inspired by Perry that he eventually followed him to Virginia, where he now is the Cavaliers’ starting kicker. There’s a chicken restaurant back in Miami, and during his recruitment, Bettridge would tease Perry by noting, “I know you miss Chicken Kitchen.” Then when Bettridge was on a visit to Virginia, in the middle of a game, Perry found his old teammate on the sideline and joked, “Where’s my Chicken Kitchen?”
There was a game back at Gulliver when Bettridge shanked a couple kicks. Perry was always the first one to offer support. When Bettridge missed a pair of kicks against Georgia Tech this season, the same scene played out again. Perry was the first teammate to find Bettridge on the sideline.
“He just said, ‘We’ve all got your back, and if no one else does, you know I’ll always be there for you,'” Bettridge said.
Bettridge said Perry would drive him to and from practice, introduced him to new friends on campus, and made sure he felt at home in Charlottesville. But it wasn’t just special treatment for an old friend. Perry did that for all the freshmen.
Sims, a former Virginia player himself, said Perry was “a beautiful soul” and compared him to a flower, plucked too soon.
Easton called him a light in the world.
Hassan and Hall and Neal and Bettridge all called Perry an older brother.
But ask any of those who knew Perry for a favorite memory, and they struggle to decide. There were just so many, most of them small moments — a laugh or a smile or car trip together — because that’s what Perry did best. He took the in-between moments in life and made them something special. He never needed to be the star. He just wanted to see those around him happy.
“That man was always laughing, always smiling, always telling jokes,” Taylor said. “That was a generational soul right there.”
After Perry’s death, his father, Sean, sent around a photo to a host of his son’s current and former teammates. In the picture, Perry is in the weight room, and he’s wearing a t-shirt with the word “Finish” on the back.
“That’s the model to continue this journey and finish,” Hassan said. “Finish for D’Sean.”
It’s a fitting tribute to a friend who inspired so many people to go farther than they might’ve believed they could, Bettridge said, but it’s also not quite enough to describe a man who never stopped working, laughing or inspiring.
“He was always the hardest worker I knew,” Bettridge said. “But I don’t think D’Sean had a finish.” — David M. Hale
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