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

Charles Snowden started to feel like going for a walk, which he did with a group of teammates from Virginia. He felt his weight when he looked at a street sign that said Heather Heyer Way.

The march would start where Heyer was killed three years earlier during a protest against a meeting of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia. Snowden and his two teammates quietly followed the 3-mile route on the main road to the campus. His mind went crazy and asked how an innocent man could lose his life by demonstrating in the town where I go to school, while he fights against the fear, pain and suffering that still exists today in this town and in many other parts of the country.

Just over a kilometre away they stopped, as planned, at the Slave Workers Memorial, erected to recall the indeterminate history of the slaves who built, worked and lived at the University of Virginia. Snowden walked through the interior of the memorial, which has the shape of a ring and has a slope of 8 feet at its highest point. He looked at the granite, he looked at the names.

Almost immediately, he read Charles. He went left. Charles. To his right. Charles.


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When I saw him, he came home, Snowden said, the linebacker for the Virginia Cavalry. I am a Division I athlete in a big school, but if there was another connection, I could build a school that is not allowed there. It gave me an extra motivation to do everything in my power to make changes for the people behind me.

Snowden does this as part of a group of Virginia footballers known as The Groundskeepers, formed as a result of last year’s racial and social justice movement. Their goal is simple: to work towards real goals in their collective struggle for change. Twelve players – four white, seven black and one bass player – together with coach Mark Hagens and two assistant coaches oversaw the stations. The march was their first major goal, but the army has explored other ideas for the community, including working with the local police to establish closer relationships and mentoring programs.

#GroundsKeepers promises to change through empowerment, voting, education and learning, using our voice to spread love without violence.


– Virginia Cavalers (@VirginiaSports) 31. August 2020.

These ideas might have taken more time if the personal and highly emotional meetings of the Zoom team hadn’t taken place a few months earlier.

Shortly after George Floyd’s murder on the 25th. In May, coach Bronco Mendenhall from Virginia organized daily virtual team meetings so players and coaches could talk openly and sometimes frankly about their life experiences. Hagens knew that as a black coach he had the chance to make a strong statement not only for himself, but also for the players who watched him on screen.

He told how race divided his hometown, how he was racially profiled, how the police stopped him at one of the busiest intersections in the Hamptons, Virginia, after he was summoned by the NFL – they forced him out of the car and tied him up for everyone to see.

Fault! The file name is not specified. Marques Hagens, who also played in Virginia before being hired by his coaching staff, says that creating change starts with empathy: If you go that way, you have the best chance to make sure that everyone can participate and support what you do. Lee Coleman/Icon Sportswire from Getty Images

He went on to tell white players and coaches how painful it is to sit in silence and be forced to stand with people of color in the struggle for racial and social justice. Hagens never told Mendenhall or his assistants about his personal experiences, but as one of the first people of colour to contact the whole team, he knew he had to. The coaches and players cried, as the Haegans said, and listened in silence. But when he was finished, Hagens said he realized there was a lot of love that day. A lot of pain, a lot of suffering, but also a lot of healing.

I tried to tell the boys that if you’re black, you shouldn’t be sorry you’re black. That’s not what we want to enforce, Hagens said. But I’m black, my days are different, my usual police checks are different, my presence in certain areas is different.

I had to let my colleagues, whom I consider to be my brothers, know that it is rather insulting not to talk and not to have control over other colour coaches. They never thought about it and as soon as we talked, we had a chance to grow and understand each other better. Now everyone’s really busy fighting for change.

Hagens opened the door to more open discussions when Mendenhall held daily zooming sessions for three weeks, giving players a platform to show their performance. At the end of the conference, everyone agreed that we should not only talk to each other or show solidarity in social networks. They had to do something. Mendenhall asked Hagensen to lead a team that would work to create change. The name of the Gardeners is their way of honouring an event that has made them unique leaders in the fight for equality, racial and social justice.

Three years ago, on the 11th. In August 2017, white racists and neo-Nazis held a rally in Charlottesville, marching across campus – known as The Grounds – with torches calling out messages of hatred and incitement to violence. A day later, the driver of the Unite The Right-rally voluntarily drove his car in a group of counter-demonstrators, killing Heyer and injuring several others.

At that time, the Virginia soccer team had just started preseason training. The players were isolated in their rooms after the governor declared a state of emergency. The students of the 2020 Team were freshmen at the time, and although they remember that the campus was united in a single response, what happened after Floyd’s death gave them more leeway to act.

I don’t think the conversation about what was going on in Charlottesville was that wet, Hagens said. We were rather shocked: How can you do that here? After George Floyd we were at Zoom’s, and we weren’t there to comfort each other. Some of our players protested, and you had a different view of the situation by the way they dealt with it, and that’s what sets them apart.

All the coloured people had stories that profiled them racistly or confronted them with racism, unlike the old group – it was an attack on the whole team, the whole university, the whole community. It hasn’t necessarily been tested by the whole team.

Although the circumstances were different, both events showed the deep-rooted hatred, intolerance and injustice that minority groups experience on a daily basis, and all this is reflected in the videos broadcast around the world.

The key was to find a way not only to oppose it and make a verbal statement, but also to know what we’re doing and what action we’re taking, said Terrell January, a member of Gardener. People want to encourage change. People want to be part of the process of community building, which I think is one of the big differences with what happened in 2017. The leaders and organizers of the community have always done this. These are the ones we looked at and said: We have to do something like this.

I am a Division I athlete in a big school, but if there was another connection, I could build a school that is not allowed there. It gave me an extra motivation to do everything in my power to make changes for the people behind me.

Virginia linebacker Charles Snowden

The idea behind the name of the gardeners is to protect the campus from what they saw first-hand in 2017 and the hatred that persists to this day. But the title is ironic: The land was built by slaves, and the founder of the university, Thomas Jefferson, was a slave owner.

Now that I’m here, I’m especially interested in this school that has used and used people in the past, how can I use my levers at school to help people who have been used to their advantage? said Jana. How can we correct these errors?

According to landowners, this requires recognition of the past through education, empowerment and mutual understanding in order to build a better future for future generations. Haggans reiterated that his most important message is to bring about change through positivity, love and empathy. If you go in this direction, you have the best chance of ensuring that everyone can participate and support what you are doing or trying to change.

The formation of a broad and diverse coalition is also crucial, and the way in which Hagens spoke so forcefully about it at the Zoom meeting was actually linked to Zane Zandier, a linebacker who joined the group.

A white person in a team with so many different races and backgrounds is really educational and helps you take a step back and hear personal stories about how blacks in America have suffered racial injustice, especially the people you are so close to, Zandier said. It has helped our team to understand what our black teammates, who are clearly not white, go through every day, but we can talk to them on our side and help them to overcome racial injustice and everything they go through.

The first major goal of the group was to create a Let’s take our land back march in August this year, on the third anniversary of the Uniform Law Conference. Players and coaches wore masks and walked in small groups on different days, starting at the place where Heyer was killed, returning to campus with a stop at the Slave Labour Memorial, and ending with a roundabout, a landmark at a place designed by Jefferson.

Fault! The file name is not specified. Walking Take back our land, from the surveyors, starting at Heather Heyer Road. The street known as Fourth Street is named after Heyer, who was killed when the United Right protester drove his car into the crowd. Error Bill Tompkins/Getty Images ! The file name is not specified. Charles Snowden (left), Brenton Nelson (middle) and Nick Grant (right), members of the gardening club, walk on our grounds in August. Thanks to Charles Snowden.

Athletic Director Carla Williams invited university president Jim Ryan for a walk. On the way to the commemoration they spoke for the first time in real life about race and racism, equality and hope.

Talking to her about how I see the world through the lens, what it’s like to be a black woman in that position, and trying to support sports students who see it as something transforming in their lives, made sense to me, said Williams. He’s a white man from the Northeast and I’m a black woman from the Deep South, and we contacted him immediately when I applied for the position. I will never forget the opportunity to talk to him about such an important subject for our society. I’m grateful to the players for giving people a chance they wouldn’t otherwise have had.

Williams invited athletes and coaches from other sports for a walk. The coaches decided that every Virginia sports team that finished the walk deserved its own chapter. Once the chapter is won, this team needs to find a reason for the changes it can make within a year. At the beginning of October, the women’s lacrosse team became the first team to win the head, and it plans to perform in schools and coach local girls.

The Groundskeepers also encouraged Charlottesville residents to walk alone, and many did so by placing the hashtag #Groundskeepers on social networking sites. Those who complete the walk will be given a bracelet and the football team will walk across the field with a special flag representing the flags as a manifestation of the unity of the community.

Once the restrictions linked to the pandemic have been lifted, the aim is to turn this walk into a public event where everyone goes to the Rotunda and then organises a major culinary event to bring communities together on campus and in Charlottesville. Whoever finishes the march gets a bracelet and gets the chance to sign the flag. The idea is to pave the way for hatred, to reflect on the history of their campus and their community, and to promise that they will bring about change. There may be no better time to think than to stop at the Slave Workers Memorial, where Snowden couldn’t resist looking at Charles’ name and marking places along the memorial where only professions (no names) are mentioned, including gardener and artist.

In other areas, there are only empty lines. In total, the monument honours 4,000 members of the slave community. But there are only 578 real names known and engraved on the walls. As a tribute to those whose names have been lost over time, Jana is not wearing her name on her sweater this season.

These people lived, but they will never be remembered, Hagens said. It’s hard to keep your ears open when you see these things. I could not imagine that I would live my life and be relegated to the lowest level as a man without a name. It would destroy me if I knew my life wasn’t worth remembering. I can’t live without it.

Environmentalists have another initiative called Watch Us Where They Bring Police from Campus, City and County. Not everyone feels comfortable promoting open dialogue and stimulating discussion in order to build better relationships. They have other ideas they want to implement and have to wait until the end of the pandemic, such as a mentoring program.

We talked about the fact that if we do it well and effectively, it’s something that can take years and create some kind of legacy to show our future teammates that we may never meet, that they can use their voices and that they have the power to make a difference, Zandier said. If we can go back in 10 years and see what they’re doing, we can be really proud of that.

All members of the group would like to see sustainable changes from the hosts that will take place after this football season.

Do I have any hope? The hope is that we can do it if we want to, Jana said. If you don’t do something, there’s no hope. But I really believe that my colleagues, my teammates, my coaches, what they think is a powerful thing, and the people in Charlotteville, what they do all the time, it makes me proud to be at the UVa.

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