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‘He is a superhero’: Virginia’s Mike Hollins is set to play again after shooting

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — Each time Virginia’s Mike Hollins takes a handoff, tucks the ball under his arm and squeezes it tight to his surgically repaired midsection, the running back can’t help but remember the three teammates he lost during an on-campus shooting in November.

Hollins was one of two students wounded in the tragedy that claimed the lives of Lavel Davis Jr., Devin Chandler and D’Sean Perry, his closest friend on the team. Scars from procedures that helped save Hollins’s life after he was shot in the abdomen are constant reminders of the harrowing episode.

“When times get hard, everyone thinks of them and finds a way to push through,” Hollins said. “That’s where you get your motivation, your drive from, and if you don’t, then your mind is in the wrong place because that’s the perfect source. There is no better source to drive you forward than three people you love so deeply who were taken.”

In the months after the shooting, Hollins endured a grueling recovery, psychologically as well as physically, before he returned to the Cavaliers for spring practice and preseason camp. During the spring game, he had a one-yard touchdown run and immediately placed his hand in the back of the end zone in tribute to his slain teammates.

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The next step in the healing process comes Saturday, when the Cavaliers play No. 12 Tennessee at Nissan Stadium in Nashville, their first game since the shooting after they elected to cancel their final two last season. Hollins is second on the depth chart at running back behind senior Perris Jones.

“I have the privilege of living with Mike as well as working with him day in and day out,” said Jones, Hollins’s roommate. “He is a superhero. That’s the best way I can describe it. Experiencing what he experienced and carrying himself with as much grace and perseverance as he does is inspirational to see. His spirit is truly unbroken, and he embodies that day in and day out. The guy is amazing.”

As soon as he heard the first round of gunshots from the back of the charter bus, Hollins began making his way to the exit. Once he was out of harm’s way, however, his first instinct was to re-board and try to help his teammates and other students. That’s when he came face-to-face with the shooter, who had accompanied the group to a play in D.C. about the life of Emmett Till and opened fire after the bus returned to campus.

The suspected gunman, a former Virginia football player who was charged with six counts related to the shootings, did not speak to Hollins as they stared at each other. Hollins then turned to run. Before he was able to escape, Hollins fell to the ground with a gunshot wound in the area of his small intestine and kidney; the bullet narrowly missed his spine. He remained lucid enough to connect with a pre-med student who assisted in monitoring his breathing until an ambulance arrived.

Another student, Marlee Morgan, was shot but also survived. Law enforcement officials have not released a motive for the shootings.

“I definitely won’t ever return to my old self,” Hollins said. “I’ll always be carrying something with me. It’s just learning how to carry it in the way it best fits you and your circumstances, if that makes any sense. You’ll never find the proper way to carry such a traumatic experience. It will always weigh on you. There never won’t be a day you won’t remember it or feel something missing from your heart when thinking about it.”

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Two days after his first surgery, Hollins was able to speak with his family at University of Virginia Medical Center as soon as he was removed from a ventilator. The first question he asked after thanking his doctors was regarding the condition of Perry, a junior linebacker.

When the room went silent, Hollins knew the worst had unfolded. He cried with such force that it made his mother, Brenda, feel helpless. These days, Hollins has learned to manage the grief, he said, but he makes certain to keep the memory of Davis, Chandler and Perry in the forefront.

Hollins, for instance, wears rubber wristbands in orange, blue and white — Virginia’s primary colors — inscribed with the jersey numbers of all three players. He keeps them on his arms at all times as one of the many ways he and the Cavaliers chose to memorialize their fallen teammates.

Hollins also adopted a Rottweiler puppy, naming her Emi in honor of Perry, whose middle name was Emir. She has contributed emotional support with a calming presence, much like Perry would when he and Hollins would talk about life off the field and their plans for when their playing days were over.

Getting back to the classroom has been therapeutic as well. Hollins is on track to receive his master’s degree in higher education in December. As an undergraduate, he was a double major in American studies and African American and African studies.

“It was exciting because I was getting a piece of my normalcy back,” Hollins said of returning to class. “But as you can expect, you’d get the people staring and the obvious questions and the nosy ones who want to know a little bit too much. Navigating that was — it took some time, and I had to talk to some people here around the facility on how should I respond if I wasn’t feeling up to it one day or if I wasn’t in the mood one day. How do I be respectful — because in those moments I never wanted to disrespect anyone, no matter what I went through.”

When Hollins burst through the line of scrimmage during the spring game and landed in the end zone, among the first to rush to greet him was his younger brother, Deuce, who was wearing the same blue No. 7 Cavaliers jersey as Hollins. Teammates mobbed Hollins, too, in a moment of jubilation at Scott Stadium four months after the shootings.

That Hollins managed to participate in spring practice, albeit in a limited capacity, was a testament to his determination to get back on the field, coaches and teammates said, given he spent approximately a week in the hospital. A significant step in his recovery was being able to walk just days following surgery.

While on the mend, Hollins considered transferring from Virginia. He ultimately decided to stay in Charlottesville because it afforded him the broadest opportunity to help himself, his team and the community he has adopted as a second home heal.

“The way that you get through it is together, and that’s the beauty of football,” Virginia Coach Tony Elliott said. “It’s an ultimate team sport, and it forces you to sacrifice and rely on somebody else. It forces you to do hard things that you may not want to because you have a connection and a bond and a love for your teammates.”

Hollins lost roughly 30 pounds but regained much of the weight thanks to hours of strength and conditioning work with the athletic training staff, which suggested he practice carrying the ball snug against the site of his incisions to grow accustomed to the feeling. He is officially listed at 204 pounds, only four shy of his weight from last season.

Coaches continue to marvel at his energy during practice. He often leads the way in sprints or in encouraging teammates to provide additional effort in drills. Running backs coach Keith Gaither went so far as to say Hollins has become a more complete version of himself.

“It’s so much bigger than me now,” Hollins said. “Football is kind of — football as a whole has kind of shrunk, and when I say that, it’s like football is a vehicle to so many other avenues in my eyes now. It’s not the end-all and be-all, and it can’t be. …

“I feel like we’ve all been through something very traumatic, and I made it out the other end, and people are inevitably looking at me just to see how I turn out. I would say I’m doing better. Not great yet but better.”



POST AUTHOR: Gene Wang

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