CHARLOTTESVILLE — Three weeks ago to the day, members of the Virginia football team watched on television from their practice facility as a protest in this typically tranquil college town turned violent.
Players vowed in the immediate aftermath that they wouldn’t allow the tragic episode to define them or their city and spoke about how their first game could go a long way toward the healing process.
The Cavaliers embraced that opportunity to bring the community together Saturday afternoon on many levels. Beating lower division William & Mary, 28-10, certainly provided positive feelings throughout Scott Stadium despite chilly and soggy conditions for the season opener for both teams.
The victory, though, served as only a small representation of what was a much more meaningful message in front an announced crowd of 38,828 that braved the elements in part to show fellowship amid the recent turmoil.
“It helps just to make people feel better for the moment,” Virginia Coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “I also think just by seeing people compete fiercely and hard for a purpose, for a cause, for an institution, for each, there can be inspiration there, too.
“Yeah, when a result happens, I think it’s easier to acknowledge, but I think you’ve got to be careful with that because sometimes without the result, there’s really phenomenal effort and stories going into people overcoming adversity and still unified for the same purpose.”
Virginia players wore a patch on their jerseys with the hashtag “#Hoostogether” signifying unity not just among the team but also everyone affected in the wake of an alt-right rally to protest the removal of a downtown statue of Robert E. Lee, the Confederacy’s top general.
The demonstration included one fatality, when Heather Heyer was killed after an automobile plowed into a crowd of counter-protestors.
There was a moment of silence before kickoff in remembrance of the 32-year-old Charlottesville resident as well as for those injured during the Unite the Right march that remains a flash point for race relations in the United States.
Others from the area joined nonresidents to continue a 10-day march from Charlottesville to the nation’s capital in protest of white supremacy. That march had moved just beyond Culpeper along Route 29 in the hours before the start of the game.
Back at the stadium, the public address announcer called for thoughts to be with the tens of thousands in Houston and its surrounding suburbs whose lives and homes have been uprooted because of Hurricane Harvey, the remnants of which moved through southwestern Virginia, producing temperatures more in line with late fall than the final weeks of summer.
“I was so thankful that fans showed up and the support they gave us today,” Mendenhall said, “and maybe somewhere there rather than just to see a football game but to heal. When you have an event and there’s something to do and to move forward, I think that helps the process.”
Virginia settled into a rhythm on the field not long after the pregame ceremony, taking a 7-0 lead with 4:27 left in the first quarter on junior running back Jordan Ellis’s touchdown. The one-yard run capped a 13-play, 80-yard drive, delivering the Cavaliers the lead for good.
The margin expanded to 14-0 thanks to a 34-yard completion from quarterback Kurt Benkert to wide receiver Andre Lovrone with 1:31 to go until halftime. The play to the back left corner of the end zone featured Lovrone (Good Counsel) barely getting separation from cornerback Raeshawn Smith and Benkert delivering a flawless throw.
Benkert is one of two returning starters at quarterback in the ACC’s Coastal Division. The Cavaliers are pinning much of their fortunes for a turnaround on the senior who transferred from East Carolina.
Virginia went 2-10 during Mendenhall’s first season in Charlottesville, but Benkert offered stability at the most important position, setting a school record for most passing yards in a game on the way to matching Matt Schaub’s program record for fewest games (eight) to reach 2,000 yards passing.
Benkert finished 27 for 39 with 262 yards passing and three touchdowns without an interception against the Tribe. The Cavaliers did not commit a turnover for the first time in 43 games.
They also limited William & Mary to 92 rushing yards and 1 of 11 third-down conversions.
“It shows that it’s bigger than football,” Benkert said. “That kind of goes with how you’ve seen college football respond, too, with the floods from Harvey. I think it’s enlightening to see all these communities come together and really put it all out there on Saturdays for the game of football, but really there’s things bigger than football.”
The Cavaliers’ in-state opponents also showed their support on this day of solidarity when they sprinted onto the field wearing T-shirts under their uniforms that read: “United We Stand Divided We Fall.”
Tribe players organized the gesture, with the school issuing the following release before kickoff:
“The expression represents our desire to make a positive statement about our shared beliefs in cultivating a society based on respect for people of all ethnicities, cultures and backgrounds and one that embraces unity, civility and loving one another despite our differences.”