By Zach Berman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 26, 2009
CHARLOTTESVILLE -- Vic Hall tries to avoid speculating how Virginia's football team would have finished last season had it not lost eight players because of disciplinary and academic suspensions. Among the players who missed the Cavaliers' 5-7 season were quarterback Jameel Sewell and cornerback Chris Cook -- Hall's close friends who were starters in 2007 before missing 2008 because of academics.
"I can say what it could have been, but that past is the past," Hall said. "It's all a big 'What if?' or 'What could have happened?' "
He does not need to wonder this season, as Coach Al Groh welcomed back Sewell and Cook, both seniors. Junior linebacker Darnell Carter also returned from academic suspension.
Cook is slated to start at cornerback and was elected captain by his teammates. Sewell is battling for the starting quarterback job with Hall and junior Marc Verica. Their returns have provided a boost for Hall, who has lived with Cook and Sewell throughout much of college. The same long dreadlocks flow from each of their helmets, a shared hairstyle since freshman year.
"It was a tough position, but it would be selfish for me to say it was a tough position for me," Hall said. "I can't imagine how they felt. But I was in a position where I wouldn't bring things up to make it worse, so I kind of fell back a lot to keep as positive as I could."
Ask any Virginia player about the 2009 season and he will quickly explain that the theme is "redemption," that the goal is to bounce back as a team from a disappointing season. For Sewell and Cook, though, such redemption is of a more personal nature.
"Every second of every day of my life I was gone I thought about that," Sewell said. "Because it was football season. I thought, 'That's supposed to be me out there with the guys,' or, 'I can do that.' "
Earlier this summer, Groh read an article in Sports Illustrated about the return of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady from the knee injury that ended his 2008 season in the first game. Groh thought about Sewell, his starting quarterback for most of 2006 and all of 2007.
"All the things he used to wonder: 'Why do we have to do this?' or 'How come we're doing that?' " Groh said. "Now it's like: 'Hey, Coach, what do you want me to do? I'm just glad to be back.' When that kind of a mentality hits a player, then I think it enriches their outlook on the game."
While he was suspended, Sewell lived in Charlottesville with three teammates, including Hall. He tutored middle school students. He worked with a high school football team. He resisted much media exposure and watched with pain when Virginia's quarterback situation deteriorated.
"It was just difficult because I feel like I started all that, basically," Sewell said. "I was the cause of so much instability. I'm not saying it was all me, but I did start at quarterback."
The quarterback who admitted that he was careless in the classroom now has aspirations to graduate. Questions about whether he would emerge eligible from summer courses have been answered. One final season and 20 more credits remain in his college career.
While Sewell kept near campus during the suspension, Cook stayed in his home town of Lynchburg, Va., and worked in a merchandise store factory. He ventured to Charlottesville only after home games to see Sewell and Hall. He watched two games on television, but they left a "sick feeling."
Cook often thought about football and how he would follow a different path if Groh welcomed him back on to the team.
"That's what coaching's about, and particularly what college coaching is about: Developing young people," Groh said. "I've made plenty of mistakes from which people gave me another chance. I'm just trying to give him the same thing that people gave me and that I've seen other people give. And if there's any goodness in a person or a willingness to be successful, then those are the people that you go with. There was never any decision."
Cook changed his number to No. 2, reportedly representing the second chance he received. He has worked with teammates and made more of an effort to remain eligible in class. Those teammates responded by picking Cook as one of the defense's four captains -- a tribute that Groh said speaks to Cook's rededication.
"I was going to be a leader regardless because of my situation," Cook said. "Trying to push everyone to better themselves and not slack off and not follow the same path I went through. Me being a captain, it made me realize what everyone thinks of me."
Sewell and Hall still live together; Cook moved but remains close. They have kept their long hair and their close bond, and disappointment about 2008 has given way to excitement for 2009.
"It might have been different," Hall said. "A couple outcomes may have been different. But they're back this year."