As Virginia prepares for Vols, running back wounded in shooting inspires Cavaliers

AP photo by Mike Caudill / Virginia running back Mike Hollins rushes up the middle during a home game against North Carolina last Nov. 5. Later that month, Hollins was wounded in a shooting attack in which three of his teammates were killed, but he returned in time for some of the Cavaliers' spring practices and is preparing for their Sept. 2 season opener against Tennessee in Nashville.
AP photo by Mike Caudill / Virginia running back Mike Hollins rushes up the middle during a home game against North Carolina last Nov. 5. Later that month, Hollins was wounded in a shooting attack in which three of his teammates were killed, but he returned in time for some of the Cavaliers' spring practices and is preparing for their Sept. 2 season opener against Tennessee in Nashville.

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Virginia running back Mike Hollins knows he will never be the same, and he admits the position of football on his list of his priorities "has shrunk."

He still can't wait to run onto the field with his Cavaliers brothers when they open the season against Tennessee on Sept. 2 in Nashville.

"I can only imagine the emotions that'll be flowing through my body. I just — I literally can't. I have no words, because the spring game hit me like a sack of rocks, and I didn't expect it at all, so I can only imagine," he said. "I'm ready, though. I'm ready for it."

Hollins, a 5-foot-9, 204-pound running back Baton Rouge, Louisiana, was one of two survivors of a shooting last November that left three teammates dead. He was shot in the back, needed several surgeries and spent a week in the hospital before beginning a long rehabilitation.

The shootings, which also left student Marlee Morgan injured, rocked the team and the community, with the Cavaliers canceling their final two games.

Hollins uplifted his teammates when he returned for spring practices four months later, even though he wasn't cleared for full contact yet. That came about midway through the 15 sessions, and he scored on a 1-yard touchdown run in the spring game.

On that day, Hollins said, "I just felt free from my mind," and all the horror planted there that November night.

"I mean, it was a lot easier just to play ball," said Hollins, a graduate student in his fifth year overall at Virginia.

Hollins celebrated the touchdown by placing the ball on the name of D'Sean Perry, painted in the end zone along with those of Lavel Davis Jr. and Devin Chandler, who were killed on a school bus returning from a field trip to Washington, D.C. A former Virginia player, Christopher Jones Jr., is accused of the shootings and awaiting trial.

Throughout his recovery, which he admits is more complete physically than mentally, Hollins "has been a superhero," roommate and fellow running back Perris Jones said.

"Experiencing what he experienced and carrying himself with as much grace and perseverance as he does is inspirational to see day in and day out," Jones said. "His spirit is truly unbroken, and he embodies that every day."

Jones and his teammates aren't the only ones benefiting from Hollins' return.

"He's been a big-time inspiration. He's been an inspiration for me, you know, on the strength of that young man to come back out and play," defensive line coach Chris Slade said. "And he came back in the spring, and that's big."

Hollins knows no one would have questioned him, or any members of last year's team, had they decided not to play again or chosen to transfer to another school. He also knows to keep things in perspective as the Cavaliers play to honor their fallen teammates.

"Us being here and being able to play again and touch the field and just come together as a team is doing that legacy justice in itself. We don't have to go out and try to ... go undefeated or win a championship," he said.

But when he suits up for the opener, Hollins said he will be "carrying something with me."

"It'll always weigh on you," he said. "There will never be a day where you won't remember it or feel something missing from your heart when thinking about it."

Getting back on the field, though, sure might help.

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