A look at some of the highlights from the first full Saturday of the 2017 college football season.
USA TODAY Sports
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — What does the pursuit of happiness look like? Students at the University of Virginia regularly bring Thomas Jefferson’s felicitous phrase to life on The Lawn, the central space he designed 200 years ago.
Normally that would be the more so in the hours before home football games, but Saturday afternoon few frolicked on the grassy campus centerpiece, owing to a steady, mournful rain. Clumps of students sampled traditional tailgate fare under the narrow shelter of the colonnade walkways in a waterlogged atmosphere that seemed somehow subdued. Perhaps that was appropriate to the moment.
White supremacists from across the country marched on The Lawn last month, carrying tiki torches and chanting hateful slogans, prelude to the deadly violence at their rally in town the next day. The mood on campus — or Grounds, as they say here — has ranged from anxiety to uncertainty in the weeks since.
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Saturday brought back the familiar rhythms and ritual of college football as UVa, the school Jefferson founded, met the College of William & Mary, the one he attended.
A moment of silence commemorated the three who died three weeks earlier. William & Mary’s players linked arms on their sideline, echoing an arm-in-arm photo of UVa’s players that was taken two days after the deaths. The stadium video board offered a moving message of unity and togetherness during the first quarter. The crowd gave that a full-throated roar.
But normalcy won’t be as easy as that. The wounds here are too raw.
Virginia students gather in the lawn area prior to the Cavaliers game against the William & Mary on Saturday. (Photo: Amber Searls, Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports)
“I don’t know that we should go straight back to normal,” fourth-year student Wes Gobar told USA TODAY Sports. “It can’t just be, ‘This is not us, we’re better than this.’ We have to take strides forward.”
Gobar is president of UVa’s Black Student Alliance, which has presented the school’s administration with a series of demands, from the removal of Confederate symbols to the recruitment of many more African-American students. The student government endorsed the demands and Gobar said he and other students expect to meet with administrators in coming days.
“Tensions are high,” said fourth-year student Evelyn Wang of the Minority Rights Coalition. Wang didn’t plan to attend the football game; she said she’s seen only one half of one game in her first three years. Many students here are cavalier about football. Sometimes it can seem the team is, too: UVa finished 2-10 last season.
But many others do care about their Cavaliers. Gobar planned to be among Saturday’s madding crowd and he said he’s glad that football players have taken it on themselves to repudiate white supremacists. They wore a patch on their uniforms Saturday — “#HoosTogether” — as a follow-up to their celebrated team photo. (Wahoos is a widely embraced nickname that applies beyond sports.)
The photo was taken two days after the racist rally of Nazis and Klansmen shook the campus, the city and the nation. The Cavs sat on the steps of the Rotunda with arms linked. Coach Bronco Mendenhall said the idea was to show diversity and unity all at once. And he said the arm-in-arm concept came from the players themselves.
Jack Hamilton, assistant professor of American studies and media studies, said he is pleased at the initiative shown by UVa students and he hopes the collective gathering offered by football games can confer some respite from their pain.
“There is something restorative about the start of football season,” he said. “The students, particularly the undergraduates, get into it. For a few hours, they can take their minds off” the terror brought to Grounds by hate marchers.
“People are really angry that (the university) was used in this way completely against the will of the people who live and work there,” Hamilton said. “That hasn’t gone away, the sense of anger and pain. I don’t think it will go away soon, and I don’t know that it should go away soon. I think it is important for people to remain outraged.”
The doors of the 54 student rooms that face The Lawn are posted with signs that channel the outrage: NO HOME FOR HATE HERE.
“It’s a statement of solidarity from all of us who live here,” said fourth-year student Hunter Weis as he and friends gathered around a folding table laden with food. He had a football under his arm. The partygoers would toss it around a little, but The Lawn was too soggy for its usual game-day array of Frisbees and beanbag toss.
Evan Wolfe, a graduate student who is a PhD candidate in physics, set up a party table outside his room on The Range, where his next-door-neighbor is Edgar Allan Poe, or at least the room that Poe once lived in. Wolfe said healing began with a candlelight vigil outside the Rotunda last month. “That really helped everyone,” he said.
Hamilton wrote about that vigil in Slate last month, calling UVa a deeply imperfect place, founded by a slaveholder and built by slave labor. “The university,” he wrote, “was a stronghold of Southern white supremacy for much of its history, at times openly virulent, at others insidiously genteel.”
Hamilton said for all the school’s storied history and tradition, its greatest assets are its youngest ones. He said he is pleased that so many students are fully engaged in trying to heal their campus, including the football players who locked arms at the Rotunda, which overlooks the terraced, grassy court of The Lawn.
“The campus is beautiful, almost comically so,” Hamilton wrote, “and if you find yourself here in the right mood at the right time of day, it’s hard not to get caught up in the school’s own grand and deeply romantic view of itself.”
That was true yet again on The Lawn on Saturday — even in the rain — as another football season beckoned like a beacon amid stormy seas.