So often in college football the individual that fan bases usually associate their teams most with are either the head coach or the quarterback.
That wasn’t the case this past fall at Virginia, though.
For good reason, running back Mike Hollins was rightfully viewed as the heart and soul of the Hoos, having willingly handled the role of inspirer and leader without anyone asking if he wanted the responsibility in the aftermath of his life’s toughest moment.
“I would have to say, honestly, before I left the hospital,” Hollins said while reflecting on the past 13 months, “and I didn’t know if I was coming back to football then, but I knew if I did, I would have every burden to carry.”
During the Nov. 13, 2022, shooting at UVa, Hollins suffered severe gunshot wounds to his stomach, but survived. The tragedy killed three of his teammates: Lavel Davis Jr., D’Sean Perry and Devin Chandler.
Hollins needed emergency surgery to save his life, and he had to heal and regain strength in his core muscles, but he made an undeniably incredible recovery.
“When I got out of the hospital, whenever I could get up and walk,” he said, “I went to the weight room and [the team was] having a workout. And when I saw the team and they saw me, that’s when I knew I was coming back.”
Doctors had told Hollins it would be four to six months before he would be able to complete simple tasks, things as mundane as putting on socks, but he defied every expectation. Enabled by his athleticism and determination, he excelled through rehabilitation, rejoined the Cavaliers for their winter workouts and was back on the practice field for spring football.
Then and throughout the fall, UVa coach Tony Elliott referred to Hollins on multiple occasions as “a walking miracle,” and Hollins made it his mission to play in honor of Davis, Perry and Chandler. In doing so, and because of his comeback story, he became the face of the Cavaliers and their return to football after they lost three of their own.
When UVa opened its season against nationally ranked Tennessee in Nashville, Hollins led the Cavaliers out of the tunnel, sprinting onto the field while proudly waving the program’s 4th-Side flag.
“Even though I knew the burden I was carrying,” Hollins said, “each game that I went into, I was content, I was ready and I knew that I was going to give it my all. I just had a bigger reason why and a bigger determination this entire season, and that trickled through the team.”
He played well, too, throughout the campaign.
Hollins’ seven rushing touchdowns paced the Cavaliers. He scored two rushing touchdowns on Sept. 9 against James Madison University at the first game at Scott Stadium since the 2022 tragedy. And then, he became the first UVa player in four seasons to rush for three touchdowns in a game when he did it during UVa’s upset win at then-No. 10 North Carolina in October. It was the Cavaliers’ first-ever road victory over a team ranked in the top 10 of the AP’s top 25.
“He’s one of those transformational type of individuals that we’ll look back years from now and be like, ‘Wow, we were around somebody that’s truly, truly special,” Elliott said ahead of Hollins’ senior day last month.
Hollins said that ever since the shooting he has leaned on his faith and those closest to him, including Elliott and other coaches, Perris Jones and other teammates and his younger brother Deuce Hollins, who has become a fixture at practices and on the sidelines while Hollins reacclimates to football. Deuce Hollins was there to hug his older brother when he scored in the Cavaliers’ spring game last March.
“It was very comforting,” Mike Hollins said. “He’s a piece of home and a piece of my heart, but he’s also a comedian. He’s kind. He’s friendly. And it was good for everyone to have him around, especially in times like the JMU game.
“When things were hard, he was up tapping people on the shoulder, on the back and giving people water or whatever they needed. So, just having him there and seeing him, because he feels these emotions as well because he almost lost his brother, and just to see that helps you push forward.”
Their mother, Brenda Hollins, was at every game, too, and Mike Hollins said she’s part of his inspiration for a coming venture of his.
“I want to start a nonprofit that helps single moms get to their son’s games or daughter’s games at least once or twice a year,” Hollins said. “Paid for with hotel, food and seats at the game if they don’t offer it, and that’s a start, and that’s in the near future.
“Obviously, it has a piece of my mom in that, because she’s never missed a game,” Hollins said of his mother, who on travel days this past fall could be spotted in various airports wearing her son’s jersey. “But more so, it’s for the people who don’t have that, because I know how blessed I am to have had that. I have a lot of friends whose mom only made it to a few games in their whole careers or never made it to a game at all.”
Mike Hollins has two undergraduate degrees from UVa — one in American studies and another in African American studies — and he spent the fall working on his master’s in higher education with a concentration on intercollegiate athletics.
“And I don’t want to let my major or undergrad degrees dictate the magnitude of the impact I can make,” he said, “and with the network and resources at my reach that I’ve gained through the adversity, I found so many networks and resources lending hands to me outside of football. So, I plan on taking advantage of all those opportunities and making as many impacts [on people] as possible.”
He said he’s still working out and, come springtime, he will go through the Cavaliers’ NFL pro day, when NFL scouts visit Charlottesville to get an up-close look at UVa’s draft-eligible prospects.
For now, though, he can look back admirably on how hard he and the Hoos played this past season. They went 3-9 overall, but five of their nine losses were by seven points or fewer, and on top of beating North Carolina, the Cavaliers also knocked off Duke during the week of the one-year anniversary of the shooting.
“This entire season was challenging, and there was a lot of adversity,” Mike Hollins said, “and I’d say I grew more this season than I have — I wouldn’t say in my entire life — but I’d say more than I have in a very long time. It changed me a lot for the better and in so many ways with the adversity we faced in finding the silver lining every week, even if it was a tiny sliver of a silver lining, just to get to the next week or next game.
“There was time to sulk or be mad,” he said, “because you only live once and a lot of people were depending on you, so you have to move forward.”
Mike Hollins is now the recipient of the ACC’s Brian Piccolo Award, given annually to the league’s most courageous football player; the winner of the Orange Bowl’s and FWAA’s Courage Award; and sits among The Daily Progress’ Distinguished Dozen of 2023. But, he said he is most proud this year of how his teammates kept the legacies of Davis, Perry and Chandler at the forefront of their minds.
“Embodying who they were on and off the field was our goal, and we feel like we succeeded at that.”