Through the Groundskeepers, Virginia team aims for lasting change in Charlottesville


Charles Snowden steeled himself for the walk he helped map out with a group of his Virginia teammates, feeling its gravity the moment he looked up at the street sign that read, “Heather Heyer Way.”

The walk had to start here, where Heyer was killed three years earlier while protesting a white supremacist rally that descended upon Charlottesville, Virginia. Snowden and two teammates followed the 3-mile route down Main Street toward campus, in silence. His mind raced, asking, “How could an innocent person lose their life protesting in the city where I go to school?” while grappling with the fear, pain and anguish that remains today, in this town and in so many others across the country.

A little more than a mile in, they stopped exactly as planned at the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers, constructed to address the untold history of the slaves who built, worked and lived at the University of Virginia. Snowden walked along the inside of the memorial, shaped like a ring that slopes up 8 feet at its highest point. He stared at the granite, looking at the names.

Almost immediately, he read “Charles.” He turned to his left. “Charles.” To his right. “Charles.”

“When I saw that, it hit home,” said Snowden, a starting linebacker for the Virginia Cavaliers. “I’m a Division I athlete at a great institution, but had it been a different draw, that could have been me building the school, not allowed to go there. It added motivation to do whatever I could to bring change for the people behind me.”

Snowden is doing that as part of a group of Virginia football players known as “The Groundskeepers,” formed after the racial and social justice movements over this past year. Its goal is simple: to work toward actionable goals in their collective fight for change. Twelve players — four white, seven Black and one biracial — joined wide receivers coach Marques Hagans and two assistant coaches in leading the charge. The walk became their first big objective, but the Groundskeepers have brainstormed other outreach ideas, including working with local police to build better relationships and mentoring programs.

Those ideas might have taken longer to surface had it not been for the personal and highly emotional team Zoom meetings held months earlier.

Shortly after George Floyd was killed on May 25, Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall scheduled daily virtual team meetings for players and coaches to speak openly, and sometimes bluntly, about their life experiences. Hagans knew he had an opportunity to make a powerful statement as a Black coach, not only for himself but also for the players staring back at him on his screen.

He spoke about the ways race divided his hometown, about all the times he was racially profiled, about police pulling him over at one of the busiest intersections in Hampton, Virginia, after he was drafted into the NFL — making him get out of his car and handcuffing him for everyone to see.

He kept going, telling white players and coaches how much it hurts when they sit in silence, imploring them to stand alongside people of color in the fight for racial and social justice. Hagans had never told Mendenhall or any of his fellow assistants about his personal experiences, but as one of the first people of color to address the entire team, he knew he had to. Coaches and players cried as Hagans spoke, listening in silence. But when he finished, Hagans said he realized, “There was a lot of love spread that day. A lot of pain, a lot of hurt but also a lot of healing.”

“I tried to tell the guys, being a Black man, you don’t want anyone to feel sorry for you. That’s not what we’re trying to get across,” Hagans said. “But me being a Black man, my days are different, my routine police stops are different, my presence in certain areas is different.

“I had to let my colleagues, who I consider my brothers, know if you aren’t speaking up and checking on other coaches of color saying, ‘We’ve got you, we’re in the fight with you,’ that’s pretty hurtful. They never really thought about that, and once we had the conversation, we were able to grow and have a better understanding. Now everybody’s really engaged on the fight for change.”

Hagans opened a door to more frank conversations, as Mendenhall kept the daily Zoom meetings going for three weeks, giving players a platform to speak up. When it was over, everyone agreed they had to do more than just talk to each other or offer statements of solidarity on social media. They had to take action. Mendenhall approached Hagans about leading a group that would work toward creating change. The Groundskeepers name itself is their way of recognizing one event that made them uniquely positioned to be leaders in the fight for equality, racial and social justice.

Three years earlier, on Aug. 11, 2017, white supremacists and neo-Nazis held a rally in Charlottesville, marching on campus — known as “The Grounds” — with torches, shouting hateful messages and inciting violence. A day later, a Unite The Right rallygoer willingly drove his car into a group of counterprotesters, killing Heyer and injuring several others.

At the time, the Virginia football team had just started preseason practice. Players were placed on lockdown in their rooms after the governor declared a state of emergency. Seniors on the 2020 team were freshmen back then, and though they remember the campus coming together in a unified response, what happened after Floyd’s death presented a larger opportunity to act.

“I don’t think the conversations on what took place in Charlottesville were as raw,” Hagans said. “We were more shocked, like, ‘How could people do this in here?’ After George Floyd, we were on Zoom, and we weren’t around each other to console each other. Some of our players were protesting, and you had different perceptions of the situation because of how they related to it, and that’s what made it different.

“Each person of color all had stories where they had been racially profiled or experienced racism, as opposed to the alt group — that was an attack on the total team, the total university, the total community. This was not necessarily experienced as a whole team.”

Though the circumstances were different, both events exposed the deep-seated hatred, bigotry and injustice that minority groups feel on a daily basis, all on display in videos streamed all over the world.

“The main thing was finding a way not only to stand up against it and to make a verbal statement but what are we doing, what steps are we taking?” said receiver Terrell Jana, a member of the Groundskeepers. “People want to promote change. People want to be a part of making the community stronger, which I think is one of the vast differences from now compared to back in 2017. Community leaders, community organizers have been doing it all along. They’re who we looked at and said, ‘We need to do something like that.'”

“I’m a Division I athlete at a great institution, but had it been a different draw, that could have been me building the school, not allowed to go there. It added motivation to do whatever I could to bring change for the people behind me.”

Virginia linebacker Charles Snowden

The idea behind the Groundskeepers’ name is to protect the campus from what they saw firsthand in 2017, and the hatred that continues today. Yet there is irony in the name — The Grounds was built by slaves, and the founder of the university, Thomas Jefferson, was a slave owner.

“My biggest thing is now that I’m here, this school that once used and took advantage of people, how can I use my leverage at the school to help people who were once taken advantage of?” Jana said. “How can we right those wrongs?”

To do that, the Groundskeepers believe the past must be recognized through education, empowerment and understanding to build a better future for future generations. Hagans reiterated that his main message is to create change through positivity, love and empathy. “When you move in that direction, you have the best chance to make sure everyone can be a part of and support what you do or what you’re trying to change.”

Building a broad, diverse coalition also is key, and the way Hagans spoke so emphatically about that on the Zoom meeting really stuck with linebacker Zane Zandier, who joined the group.

“Being a white person on a team filled with so many different races and backgrounds, it’s really educational and helps you get perspective to hear personal stories of how Black people in America have been affected by racial injustices, especially people that you are so close with,” Zandier said. “It helped our team understand what our Black teammates go through on a daily basis that obviously being white we don’t experience, but we can speak up next to them and help them through the racial injustice and everything they experience.”

The group’s first big goal was to create a “Take Back Our Grounds” walk this past August, on the third anniversary of the “Unite the Right” rally. Players and coaches wore masks and walked in small groups on different days, starting at the spot where Heyer was killed, then walked back toward campus with a stop at the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers before ending at the rotunda — the signature landmark on the Grounds designed by Jefferson.

Athletic director Carla Williams invited university president Jim Ryan to walk with her, and as they headed toward the memorial, they spoke in real terms about race and racism, equality and hope, for the first time.

“To talk with him about how I view the world through my lens as a Black woman in this position and trying to support student-athletes who see this as something that’s transformative in their lives, it was meaningful to me,” Williams said. “He is a white male from the Northeast, and I’m a Black female from the Deep South, and we connected immediately when I interviewed for this position, so having the opportunity to talk with him about something that’s so meaningful to our society was something I’ll never forget. I’m thankful to the players for giving people that opportunity that they would not have had otherwise.”

Williams urged athletes and coaches in other sports to participate in the walk. The Groundskeepers decided any Virginia athletic team that completed the walk would earn its own chapter. Once a chapter is earned, that team then has to come up with a cause for change it can make a commitment to throughout the year. In early October, the women’s lacrosse team became the first team to earn its chapter, and it wants to take action in schools by mentoring local girls.

In addition, the Groundskeepers also encouraged people in the Charlottesville community to complete the walk on their own, and many did, posting to social media under the hashtag #Groundskeepers. Those who finish the walk get a wristband, and the football team runs onto the field with a special flag that represents the Groundskeepers as a show of community unity.

When restrictions from the pandemic are lifted, the plan is to make the walk a communitywide event, with everyone marching together toward the rotunda, then hold a huge cookout to bring together the campus and Charlottesville communities. Those completing the walk will get their wristband and an opportunity to sign the flag. The idea is to “take back” their Grounds from the hatred, but also to reflect on the history of their campus and community and vow to bring change. There might not be a better moment for reflection than the stop at the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers, where Snowden could not stop looking at the name “Charles” and noting the places along the memorial where only occupations (not names) are listed, including “gardener” and “painter.”

In other areas, there are only blank lines. In all, the memorial honors 4,000 members of the enslaved community. But only 578 actual names are known and accounted for on its walls. As a tribute to those whose names have been lost to time, Jana is not wearing his name on his jersey this season.

“Those people lived, but they’ll never be remembered,” Hagans said. “It’s hard to keep a dry eye when you see stuff like that. I couldn’t imagine living my life and being relegated to the lowest level of what a person could be — a person without a name. That would destroy me, knowing my life didn’t deserve a name to be remembered. I couldn’t get past that.”

The Groundskeepers have another initiative called, “See Us for Us,” where they bring in police officers from campus, city and county. Everyone is out of uniform as a way to help open dialogue and foster discussion to build better relationships. They have other ideas they want to implement that must wait until after the pandemic, including a mentoring program.

“We talked about how if we do it the right way and do it effectively, it’s something that can be carried on for years and years and create some sort of legacy to show future teammates that we may never meet they can use their voice and they have the power to make a difference for positive change,” Zandier said. “If we’re able to come back in 10 years and see what they’re doing, that is something to be really proud of.”

What everyone inside the group wants is for the Groundskeepers to bring about lasting change that continues forward beyond this football season.

“Do I have hope? The hope is we can do it if we want to,” Jana said. “If you don’t do anything, there is no hope. But I truly believe what my peers, my teammates, my coaches, what they believe in is a powerful thing, and the people of Charlottesville, what they’ve continually been doing, it makes me proud to be at UVa.”

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