CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Eric Sherry’s worst nightmare was about 200 steps away.
McIntire Park was just through his office door and down the stairs. A short walk between the tennis courts, over the old wooden bridge and past the English Ivy stood the displaced attendees of Unite the Right, a rally that brought neo-Nazi idealists and other racially motivated protesters to the same cut-through space his football team used to walk to practice.
It was August 12—the 50th birthday for Sherry, football coach at Charlottesville High—when a civil rights activist named Heather Hayer was murdered by a white supremacist who rammed counter-protestors with his Dodge Challenger downtown. People were fighting in the streets and lighting off flares aimed at other humans. They were screaming racial slurs and waving Confederate flags. Sherry said he saw men carrying guns and other weapons and thought about his players, some white, some black, some Muslim, some Hindu, one refugee from Syria just learning to speak English. How the hell would we get them all to a scrimmage in Fredericksburg? What would we say when we did?
Along with his principal, Eric Irizarry, and athletic director Rodney Redd, Sherry mobilized a transportation caravan to ship all the players and their gear to their nearby stadium. An eight-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force, Sherry found himself partitioning off a safe loading zone at the school and deploying his assistants to the Melbourne subdivision—a row of homes that juts up against the park’s northeast corner—to pick off kids unaware of what was going on. He had one overriding thought:
Forty-eight on the bus, 48 back.
He remembered taking a job here almost a decade ago because of Charlottesville’s reputation as a diverse, inclusive city.
“Most of these people we’re told weren’t from Charlottesville, and I’d like to believe that,” Sherry said, looking back on the afternoon in his office a few weeks ago. “But who knows? Who knows really? You hope a majority of the people here wouldn’t think like that.”
One year later, it’s easy to watch the Knights practice and say football heals all. Under overcast skies on a Monday morning, Sherry stood about 20 yards from a huddle of kids with his hands on his knees, a whistle dangling from his neck. The team runs a triple-option offense that, over the past few seasons, has helped the them develop a punishing identity. Winning things. Accomplishing things. It’s the best distraction.
The truth about an aftershock from Charlottesville is complicated. High school coaches like Sherry are often more than just coaches. The Black Knights offer some of their kids a first and last meal of the day. They are mentors with the cell phone numbers of most kids on the team. They are a reliable safety net.
Unlike the NFL, where coaches and executives parse their words to avoid backlash from two raging sides of an exploding political landscape, people like Sherry have no choice. They need to address these issues head on.
“Let’s be frank, they’re never going to forget that day,” Sherry said. “That’s something that’s just—‘Oh where were you?’ ‘I had a football scrimmage.’ All the kids who were here last year will tell you we came back from a football scrimmage and saw tiki torches.
“That’s something that’s going to be in their minds forever. You can’t take that away. So my best thinking is you talk about it. Unfortunately, there are just some evil people. People that believe in hate.”
A husband and wife watched the Knights from a golf cart before hopping out to prepare water bottles for the next break. They’ve been assisting the team for decades and watched both of their children graduate. They keep saying this year will be their last, but inevitably one of them gets attached to an incoming freshman and has to see him through. The promise is always “After this one, we’ll retire.”
She is proud of the direction the program has taken under Sherry and noted how all the kids seem to fall in line when they’re on the practice field. It’s a good place to live, she says, especially in the summer before the college kids get back into town.
The riots left a bad stench in Charlottesville, which lingered on a late July morning thanks to plans for an anniversary rally by the same tapestry of right-wing groups. It instead was scheduled take place in Washington D.C.
“They’re talking about the anniversary,” the woman said. “They’re talking about coming back. We don’t want them back.”
She and her husband like that Sherry commands respect from his kids, evident after his final practice whistle breaks the team into four grueling conditioning stations. At one corner of the field they run hills. Another corner, burpees. Bear crawls in the back near the sleds, and squat shuffles in the front.
Eventually the players all waddle toward the water station and gasp through the large Gatorade bottles filled to the brim. Between heavy breaths, one player looks around at the rest of his teammates, unsatisfied.
“Y’ALL!” he screams, gesturing toward the couple that prepared the drinks. “SAY THANK YOU!”
A reminder that Coach is watching.
Maybe, Sherry said, he had his head in the sand just like so many of us.
While he was taken aback by Donald Trump’s election in 2016, he thought it was more of an electoral fluke and not symptomatic of the times we lived in.
“But when Charlottesville happened, it opened my eyes,” Sherry said. “There’s a lot of people who just come crawling out from under these rocks, if you will, and show their true colors. Hate. If you’re that concerned about skin color or gender or a person’s sexuality, whatever—it kind of broke my heart.
“It was a good day because my kids came back and handled it well. They dealt with it. But it was a sad day. It’s never going to go away. It’s always going to be there with them. Hopefully, we as a country can do a little bit better.
“Of course, I’m a little skeptical right now.”
Still, he seeks out encouraging moments. He’s happy about the parents in the community, even though, he says, his district is generalized as a group of city kids without positive role models. He dives into a manic training camp schedule that has him zeroed in from six in the morning until well into the afternoon. Almost every minute he’s gladly interrupted by a kid walking into his office for a muffin or banana, or new cleats and shoulder pads.
Resiliency is required to play the game but is also produced in unlimited quantities by children. And maybe that is the best part about coaching football right now, at this time in American history. For kids, and for coaches, it’s seven hours outside, away from the cell phones that serve as a window to the world.
“It doesn’t feel as helpless,” Sherry said of the atmosphere when the kids are around. “It gives you a base to stand on.”
After practice and before a classroom session, the walk back down the hallway and out the door is quiet. Between the tennis courts, over the bridge and past the ivy sits a safe, quiet park where a pair of children near the mulched playground talk about a particularly challenging video game level.
On this windless morning, the American flags over the baseball fields hang limp against the poles.
At least this year they won’t be coming back.
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