by Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE –– As the end of spring break approached in March, Jowon Briggs had
reason to wonder when he’d be able to return to the United States. He was in London with the
Hullabahoos, one of the many student-run a cappella groups at the University of Virginia, and
President Trump had just announced a shutdown, amid concerns about the fast-spreading COVID-19
pandemic, on travel from Europe to the U.S.

“We thought we were going to get stuck,” Briggs recalled.

When questions arose about the new policy, however, the U.S. government quickly clarified its
position, stating that Americans would be allowed to fly home. And so the Hullabahoos returned
without incident.

“We got out right in time,” Briggs said.

His first year at the University was an eventful one, and not only because it included his first
visit to England, where the Hullabahoos performed at the historic St. George the Martyr church and
for the UVA Club of London.

Virginia football fans know Briggs as the massive nose tackle who started seven games as a true
freshman last season. He’s much more than that.

“He’s a renaissance man,” UVA head coach Bronco Mendenhall said.

“If I had to sum him up in a word, I’d say ‘eclectic,’ ” said Clint Sintim, the Cavaliers’ defensive
line coach. “He’s the epitome of why you come to Virginia, so you can do so many different

The 6-1, 315-pound Briggs is from Cincinnati, where he graduated from Walnut Hills High School. He
has four older sisters and one younger brother, and from an early age the six siblings learned the
importance of education from their parents.

“It’s something that’s been ingrained in all of us,” Briggs said.

He came to UVA planning to major in computer science, but Briggs said he’s now leaning toward physics
or astrophysics, subjects that have long fascinated him.

To say he has diverse interests would be an understatement. Briggs, 18, plans to add music as a
second major. He plays numerous instruments, including piano, guitar, bass, drums, saxophone, flute,
cello, violin, viola and harmonica, but he’s best known in musical circles on Grounds for his

“He’s a tenor,” UVA associate professor Michael Slon said, “and if I make one point today, it’s that
he’s not just OK as a singer. He has a gift as a singer, just as he does as an athlete.”

Slon is Director of Choral Music at UVA, where he conducts the University Singers and the UVA Chamber
Singers. The University Singers, with about 90 members, is “the flagship chorus at UVA,” Slon

The ensemble performs “frequently with the Charlottesville Symphony, which I guest-conduct every so
often,” Slon said, “and we produce a lot of different concerts throughout the year, here in town and
on the road. We also sing for official University events, and of course at least once a year we come
sing the national anthem for men’s and women’s basketball at John Paul Jones Arena.”

Slon has been directing the University Singers for nearly 20 years. During that time, other
student-athletes have sung in the ensemble, but Briggs is only the second football player, Slon
said. (Jeff Schrad was the first.)

“We’re very proud to have him,” Slon said.

In an email to Slon last summer, Briggs shared his musical résumé and expressed interest in joining
the University Singers. Briggs also mentioned that, because of his obligations as a football player,
he might be unavailable for some concerts.

Slon encouraged him to audition anyway. “He said basically as long as I showed up to class and came
ready to sing, he wouldn’t really have a problem with it,” Briggs recalled. “So that was that.”

In high school, Briggs starred as the lead in the musical Ragtime and sang in various
choirs. At UVA, he passed his audition and was enrolled in the University Singers class.

“Class time equals rehearsal,” Slon said, “and we rehearse four hours in a typical week: 3:30 to 5:30
[p.m.], Monday and Wednesday. The trickier question for Jowon is working out the concert schedule. Fortunately, our big 2019 fall concert coincided with the team’s November bye week.”

The ACC championship game, in which Virginia played Clemson on Dec. 7 in Charlotte, N.C., conflicted
with a University Singers performance in Charlottesville, but otherwise Briggs was a staple at the
ensemble’s concerts.

On the night before UVA’s Oct. 19 football game against Duke at Scott Stadium, Briggs was on stage at
Old Cabell Hall for the University Singers’ Family Weekend concert. He sang a solo on a spiritual,
“Steal Away,” and his performance received glowing reviews.

“It was a fun experience!” Briggs wrote on Twitter that night.


At the heart of Mendenhall’s coaching philosophy is the concept of AND: his belief that
players should distinguish themselves in multiple endeavors during their UVA careers.

“It is important to me that they’re more than football players,” Mendenhall said.

Briggs is a model in that regard. “He’s getting the full college experience, and thriving,” Slon
said, “and in certain ways I think what he learns in one area will impact his performance in the
other area. It’s a two-way street.”

In June 2018, Briggs chose UVA from a group of finalists that included Alabama, Ohio State, Penn
State, and Tennessee. He based his decision on more than football.

On his visit to UVA, he saw “things I never saw on any other campus,” Briggs told the Cincinnati
Enquirer. “There were things I never did, interactions I never made with any other people at other
campuses, meeting with professors and things like that.”

That wasn’t just a sales pitch on the Wahoos’ part.

“I think one main thing with Coach Mendenhall is, he really appreciates people trying to cultivate
themselves,” Briggs said, “not only as football players but as men in general. Everybody’s process
is different, but my way is being immersed in different things. They’re very supportive of

Briggs laughed. “I don’t really like to say, ‘Yeah, Coach, I sang in the choir,’ or ‘Yeah, Coach, I
did this and did that.’ But he usually finds out before I tell him.”

In Cincinnati, Briggs grew up surrounded by music.

“All four of my sisters, they sing 10 times better than I do,” he said. They also play a variety of
instruments, “and I sort of got the trickle-down effect from everybody,” Briggs said.

The siblings have performed together at their grandparents’ churches, so Briggs is comfortable in
front of audiences, in or out of his football uniform. He’s sung the national anthem at JPJ with
both the University Singers and the Hullabahoos, and in late February, before one of the football
team’s Super Games workouts, he sang it inside the George Welsh Indoor Practice Facility.

“I think it’s really fun showing people another side of me that they don’t see all the time,” Briggs
said. “Based off of what you see when you look at me, you wouldn’t be like, ‘Oh, yeah, he’s a
singer.’ I think it’s fun to open up and show people in an interesting setting what you can do.”


Even before he came to college, Briggs said, “I realized that I wanted to explore as many things as I
could. I wanted to explore what I was good at and what could be profitable, be it monetarily, be it
culturally, be it physically. I wanted to see what I was good at, and then after I figured that out
I would transition into focusing on things that would make me a better man, a better person, a
better brother, a better family member.

“I enjoy singing and I enjoy playing football and I enjoy school, but above all I enjoy being someone
that people can look at and say, ‘Hey, I kind of want to be like that.’ ”

Briggs joined the Hullabahoos for the spring semester, when his football commitments weren’t as
time-consuming. He meshed with the group well and in March was one of 15 members to travel to
England, said Chris Obolensky, the Hullabahoos’ new president.

In London, the Hullabahoos stayed at first at a hostel and then with members of the Technotics, a
renowned a cappella group from Imperial College. In addition to singing at their two paid gigs,
Obolensky said, the Hullabahoos led a workshop for students at the American School of London.

“Even with COVID-19 happening, everybody was nice, everybody was courteous to us,” Briggs said.
“Overall it was a pretty good experience.”

UVA switched to online classes on March 19, and Briggs finished the semester back in Cincinnati. His
break was a short one. The first session of summer school started this week at the University, and
Briggs is taking an online class in calculus.

He’s focused on football, too. He works out daily, lifting weights at home and running on local

The 2019 season, Briggs said, was a learning experience for him. “The main thing with college
football, coming from high school football, is it’s so much faster, in every aspect. You gotta think
faster, you gotta react faster, and people are bigger, more athletic.”

As the season progressed, he found he understood “the game a little bit more, with each game,” Briggs
said. “There were just so many new things coming at you every week that you just have to make sure
that you stay on top of it, no matter what you’re doing.”

Sintim, a former UVA star who coached at the University of Delaware last season, has studied
videotape of his new position group, “just to know who the guys are, and what their strengths and
weaknesses are,” he said.

“For Jowon as a freshman last year, he was just figuring it out. You could say that for any freshman.
His strength and his size gave him the ability to play. Now, the recognition part, the understanding
part, those were things it looked like he was figuring out as the year went on.”

When they break down video together, Sintim said, Briggs is “able to look at himself and see how he
could have been better. I don’t think he could have done that last year, because everything was just
happening so fast. I think the next step for him is continuing to develop and continuing to be a
big-time player for us on our D-line. He’s got huge upside.”

Briggs roomed in 2019-20 with classmate Ben Smiley, a promising defensive end who redshirted last
season. They’re part of a position group led by upperclassmen Richard Burney, Mandy Alonso and Aaron
Faumui, The Cavaliers have to replace Eli Hanback, a four-year starter on the defensive line, but he
believes Briggs is ready for a larger role.

“He’s very, very strong, very athletic, and he’s a real smart kid, too,” Hanback said, “so I think
his upside, his ceiling, is very, very high.”

Even without spring practice, Briggs believes he’s improved “at an exponential rate since last year,
just because I’ve come in with a little bit of experience. I understand the competition I’m going
against, the magnitude of the stage we play on. There are things expected of me, and there are
things I expect of myself. I just have to make sure I live up to what I want to do.”