By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
HAMPTON — More than 30 years have passed since Mike London donned helmet and pads for Bethel High and played football at Darling Stadium.
“Nothing’s changed,” London said Saturday when asked about the municipal stadium shared by this city’s four high schools: Bethel, Hampton, Kecoughtan and Phoebus.
That wasn’t exactly true on this sunny, breezy afternoon. At midfield, the city had painted, in honor of favorite son London and his team, a huge V-Sabre.
UVa’s second-year coach appreciated the gesture, and so did his players.
“Just like back at home,” London said.
The Cavaliers are less than a week into spring practice. They practiced Wednesday and Friday in Charlottesville, starting around 6 a.m. each day. On Friday afternoon, they met at the McCue Center and boarded buses bound for the state’s Tidewater region: the “7-5-7.”
The team stayed at a Hampton hotel on Friday night. On Saturday, the Wahoos made the short trip to Darling Stadium to practice in full pads for the first time this spring. The public was invited to attend, free of charge, and the practice drew an appreciative crowd that included friends and family members of such UVa players as safety LoVanté Battle (Phoebus), cornerback Rijo Walker (Bethel), linebacker Daquan “Da-Da” Romero (Phoebus) and quarterback David Watford (Hampton).
“It was great being back in my hometown where I used to play high school ball and seeing some familiar faces,” said Walker, who has been working with the first-team defense.
UVa’s coaching staff includes three men who as high school seniors played their home games at Darling Stadium: London, cornerbacks coach Chip West (Kecoughtan) and graduate assistant Marques Hagans (Hampton).
“It was a surreal experience just kind of walking on the field here, knowing that a long time ago that I played on this field,” London said.
At the start of the practice, London stood at midfield with a microphone and asked the crowd, “Hampton, Virginia, how you doing?”
The response wasn’t as boisterous as London wanted, so he repeated the question. This time the fans roared, and London smiled before continuing. He invited the crowd to come see the team play in Scott Stadium and closed by saying, “The hometown guy thanks you very much.”
In addition to the current Cavaliers, there were future ‘Hoos at Darling Stadium, including Clifton Richardson, linebacker Caleb Taylor, cornerback Demetrious Nicholson and defensive tackle David Dean, members of the highly regarded recruiting class that signed with UVa in February.
Former UVa players abounded as well, from Joe Torchia to Almondo Curry to Josh Zidenberg to Elton Brown to Paul London (the head coach’s younger brother) to Raymond Mann to Monsanto Pope to Isaac Cain.
Nobody at Darling Stadium appeared to be having more fun than the group of ‘Hoos that had played for George Welsh (and in some cases, also for Dick Bestwick) in the 1980s. These former players included Antonio Rice, Billy Griggs, Derek Jenkins, Ed Reynolds, Kevin Riccio, Kevin Gould and Gary Phelps, whose son, Brandon, signed with UVa in February.
The younger Phelps, a senior at Damascus High in Maryland, wasn’t at Darling, but his father said they’re planning to attend the Cavaliers’ open practice at Episcopal High in Alexandria next weekend.
A year ago, Virginia held a spring practice at Old Dominion University in Norfolk.
“It’s good,” Gary Phelps said of London’s desire to take his program around the state. “It gets people out. It gets the community out to see what you’ve got.”
“I think this is a brilliant, brilliant idea: a wonderful outreach opportunity and a showcase opportunity,” he said. “We have a great product. Why not show it off? I think you do stuff like this to grow your fan base.”
London was delighted to see so many generations of UVa football represented in Hampton.
“It’s important that [the current players] need to re-connect with our football alums from all eras, from the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s,” London said. “A lot of them were here from the ’80s. I want our guys to know these guys, because the players that have played before them have kind of set the tone or know some of the things that have gone on around here before.
“So the more our [alumni] are around our players, the better off I think we’ll be.”
By the time spring practice ends next month, London has said, the coaching staff plans to settle on, if not a starting quarterback, at least the top two at that position. For now, UVa’s four quarterbacks continue to split time in practice.
In Hampton, Michael Rocco was the first quarterback to take a snap during the 11-on-11 portion of the practice, but London said not to read anything into that.
Rocco is competing with Watford, Ross Metheny and Michael Strauss. Rocco and Metheny will be sophomores in the fall; Strauss, a redshirt freshman. Watford is a freshman who, along with Romero, enrolled at UVa in January.
Back in his hometown Saturday, “David threw some nice balls out there and threw a couple that probably he shouldn’t have,” London said.
Both Watford and Romero are “going to be good players,” London said. “They just have to continue to learn the college system, continue to learn the tempo of how we want things done.”
Watford, a cousin of Hagans, UVa’s starting quarterback in 2004 and ’05, loved the experience Saturday.
“It was great to come out here and play in front of my home fans, play in the stadium where I grew up,” Watford said. “I watched Marques out here, I watched Ronald Curry, I watched Tyrod [Taylor], and I played here too. So to come back and play out here myself one last time, it was just like a big celebration for me.”