By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — There are good days and bad days for Mike Hollins. With every passing week, the bad days become less frequent, Hollins said. Still, he wasn’t prepared for the emotions that hit him Saturday when University of Virginia football team went to Scott Stadium for its third practice of the spring.
“That was a bad day that I haven’t had in a while,” Hollins recalled Tuesday in the George Welsh Indoor Practice Facility. “I was overwhelmed, like I just can’t think straight. It’s like I’m there, but I’m not. I’m on the field, but I’m not listening to the play calls, I’m not seeing signals, I’m just in my own head, thinking, ‘This is my first time back in the stadium in four months.’
“I was just feeling lonely in that moment, because everybody else can focus and run around, but I’m just a little bit behind everyone else. But it’s OK. I’m just telling myself that it’s OK and showing myself a little grace, because not everyone had the same experience as me, and I have to understand that.”
A tailback from Baton Rouge, La., Hollins was among the UVA students who traveled by bus to Washington, D.C., for a class field trip on Nov. 13. When the bus returned to Grounds that night, tragedy struck.
Three of Hollins’ teammates—Devin Chandler, Lavel Davis Jr. and D’Sean Perry were shot and killed—and Hollins and Marlee Morgan were wounded in the attack. A UVA student has been charged with the murders of the three players.
Hollins, who was shot in the back, spent about a week in the hospital, during which he made remarkable progress.
“My rehab started the day I woke up in the hospital,” Hollins said, “and it didn’t have to be physical rehab. I couldn’t move, so it was all mental, just trying to get myself ready for this transition. The physical part was by far the easiest [part] of this whole experience. Recovering is something I’ve been doing since I was 5 years old playing peewee football. So it’s something that you don’t have to think about. It’s what the body naturally does. But the mental aspect, the mental recovery, is brand new to me. It’s something that I had to learn day by day. I’m still learning day by day. Still taking it slowly.”
By the time the Wahoos reconvened in January to begin their winter strength and conditioning program, Hollins was ready to train with his teammates again.
“I had been back a few days, and I had also been running and doing body-weight stuff,” Hollins said, “So I wasn’t completely out of the loop when I got back. But when I got back, I was literally just jogging. I couldn’t lift anything. I couldn’t even lift a gallon of milk. So I was just day by day. The biggest learning point for me was just patience, because my mind was right, but my body wasn’t. I wanted to go, but I literally couldn’t, and I’ve never been in that position before in my life, where I couldn’t go run as fast as I can or jump as high as I can, and it was a learning process for me coming back to Grounds.”
As the workouts progressed, Hollins grew stronger. Running backs coach Keith Gaither said Tuesday that he marveled at the way Hollins “was leading, the way he was battling and competing amongst his peers … I was just expecting Mike to be out there, be amongst us, but he wasn’t [just] there. He was out there winning races, winning the competition drills. And so it basically let people know, ‘I’m the same old Mike.’ ”
Virginia held its first spring practice on March 14. Afterward, head coach Tony Elliott, running back Perris Jones and safety Antonio Clary spoke about how seeing Hollins back on the field inspired them.
For Hollins, the first practice “was bittersweet,” he said Tuesday. “Sweet, because it was a blessing for me to be here, to be with the team again and the coaches again; bitter, for obvious reasons. But it felt really good just to get back with the team and take my mind off of things for an hour and a half, two hours, and see guys smile once again.”
The 5-foot-9 Hollins, who lost about 20 pounds after the shooting, is close to his target weight of about 208 pounds. “It’s been a lot of grinding, a lot of eating, a lot of lifting,” he said, “but I’m back where I want to be.”
The trauma he endured, not surprisingly, has changed him. Before the shooting, Hollins said, his focus was often “football, football, football.” No longer.
“It inspired me to push harder in everything,” Hollins said. “It inspired me more off the field than on the field. It opened my eyes to a lot of things, that football is such a small part of life, such a small part of my journey. And losing my brothers it was just like, wow, it can be gone at any moment.”
Hollins said he wants to “keep their flame lit, and I didn’t want to just do it through football. It’s broadened to calling my little brother every night and making sure he did his homework, making sure he stretches and drinks water. Calling my mom and making sure she’s drinking her water and making sure she’s OK, my grandmother, my sister, teammates. It spread. And just showing gratitude and appreciation is something I really gained from this experience. It has all around made me more determined to be better everywhere, just for the ones I’ve lost and just so I can be comfortable in saying that I’m caring for their legacy.”
As an undergraduate, Hollins carried a double major: American studies and African-American and African studies. “I’m a big history guy,” he said, smiling.
After earning his bachelor’s degree in December, Hollins considered transferring to another school for his final season of eligibility.
“Of course I thought about leaving,” he said. “It felt natural. I feel like anyone would think about leaving after something like that. But I also thought: What better place to [rediscover] who I am and re-establish my mental than the place that everything took place?’ ”
At another school, Hollins said, he might not have received the same level of support, because players and coaches there “didn’t go through the [same] experience. They didn’t know D’Sean, they didn’t coach Lavel, they didn’t know Devin. So just those little things are what kept me here. And I’m glad I stayed, because the support is what I need right now to get through.”
Hollins, who enrolled at UVA in the summer of 2019, is on track to graduate in December with a master’s in higher education from the School of Education and Human Development.
His coaches watch him closely, Hollins said, and notice when he’s not himself.
“Some days I come in and they can kind of see it in my face or see it in my movements, my mannerism,” he said. “So those days they make sure to check in, make sure I’m OK, and I really appreciate that. Even though there’s not really anything they can do to fix it, and they know that, just them being there and acknowledging that they notice a change in anything about me, it feels good.”
Gaither said the coaching staff has stayed in constant communication with Hollins’ parents.
“Just letting them know, giving them updates on how Mike is doing,” Gaither said. “Like our first day of practice, I sent them a picture of Mike during the drill just to let them know how proud we were of Mike and how well he’s coming along.”
Hollins, who wears jersey No. 7, is an “inspiration to me, his position group, his whole team, the whole coaching staff,” Gaither said. “Every day he’s out there, it just gives us inspiration that no matter what we’re going through, that we can fight through it and do a better job.”
The Cavaliers’ other running backs include Xavier Brown, was a true freshman last season. “Mike’s like a big brother to me,” Brown said Tuesday. “He took me under his wing when I first got here in the summer, and just to see the growth and everything he’s done this far, it makes me go harder each day. It makes me want to me better for myself and be better for him.”
A few days before Christmas, Hollins got a Rottweiler puppy that he named Emi, in honor of Perry, whose middle name was Emir. His slain teammates “don’t leave my mind,” Hollins said. “So it’s a constant motivation, a constant drive, a constant effort to keep their flame lit and keep their legacy going.”
He continues to heal, but it’s “a day-by-day process,” Hollins said. “There is no playbook. There is no plan to how it’s done or no routine. When you through something as tragic and traumatic as I did, it’s something that you feel anxious about … It’s tough and it’s overwhelming, but it comes with it. And I’ve never been one to back down or shy away. So this is just another step in my journey in my path to where I’m going to go.”
Hollins carried 53 times for 215 yards and two touchdowns last season. He caught eight passes for 114 yards and returned five kickoffs for 120 yards. He’s been slowed this week by a minor injury he suffered in practice, but he’s confident he can regain and surpass his 2022 form.
“I don’t really feel like any talent that God has given me is lost,” Hollins said. “I feel like I’ve been given a bigger edge, a lot more to play for. I think I can only gain a lot more from here.”
To receive Jeff White’s articles by email, click the appropriate box in this link to subscribe.