Charlottesville, Va. — When a gunman began shooting passengers on a charter bus returning from a class field trip to the University of Virginia Sunday night, Cavaliers running back Mike Hollins at first thought the balloons were exploding.
Hollins saw the gunman, former Virginia football player Christopher Darnell Jones Jr., and yelled at the driver to stop the bus. Hollins and two other students got off the bus and ran, but he quickly realized no one else was following them.
Hollins, of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, told the two students to keep running, but he got back on the bus to help the others, said his mother, Brenda Hollins.
“His classmates are grateful to him because they said he saved their lives,” Brenda Hollins told ESPN on Thursday. “He was the first to get off the bus and told two of his classmates to run and he went back.
“He said, ‘Mom, I went back, I’ve got to do something, and I was banging on the windows because nobody else got off the bus.’ He said, ‘I was going to hit the window, I was going to get on the bus, tell them to come, get off’.
But when Mike got on the first step of the bus, he was met by Jones, who said Mike was pointing a handgun at him. Mike said he turned to run and Jones shot him in the back.
“All he remembers is that he tried to turn around, but he saw him raise the gun,” Brenda said. “He felt his back get hot and he ran.”
According to Brenda, Mike said he started running into a parking garage and held up his shirt. He saw a bullet coming out of his stomach.
“He was afraid that if he ran too far into the parking garage, no one would find him and he would die,” Brenda said.
Mike stopped and a medical student on the bus helped him until emergency personnel arrived.
Virginia football players Devin Chandler, LaVall Davis Jr. and DeSean Perry were killed in the shooting. Another student, Marley Morgan, was also shot and is believed to be in stable condition.
Hollins could have escaped being shot if he hadn’t gone back to the bus. His mother was not surprised at his actions that night.
“I’m not surprised,” Brenda said. “It would surprise me if he didn’t. That’s Mike, so it wouldn’t surprise me.”
Cavaliers coach Tony Elliott was also not surprised to learn of Hollins’ prowess.
“That’s his nature,” Elliott said. “You have that work in you before you get to that moment. One of the things we talked about in his program is working to become champions. We talk about heroes and zeros. Guys who set out to be heroes often fail, but the hero is the average guy who does what he has to do in those moments of adversity, and that’s the epitome of who he is.
“He’s the kind of young man who cares about everybody else. There were other teammates on the bus and he was going back for his teammates. One of the things we talk about in this program is love, what is love, what is the highest form of love, the highest form of love is sacrifice, giving your life for someone else, and how would I expect him to be?” Responding correctly, he thought of his teammates, he didn’t care if he got himself back in. Harmful way, but he was going back to check on his teammates.
Jones, a walk-on player on the 2018 Virginia football team, is charged with three counts of second-degree murder and one count of using a firearm in the commission of a felony. Prosecutors have charged him with two counts of malicious wounding and additional firearms-related charges related to the shootings of Hollins and Morgan. He is being held without bail at the Charlottesville Jail.
According to Commonwealth Attorney James Hingley, a passenger on the bus told police that Jones was targeting people and was not shooting randomly. The witness also told police that Jones shot and killed Chandler while he was sleeping.
Brenda said she forgave Jones for what he did.
“I already have,” she said. “I had to get better to help my son. I mean, I don’t have a choice. I have to, and then I have to move on to help my baby.”
Mike had emergency surgery on Sunday night and another on Tuesday for kidney and stomach damage. Brenda said Wednesday was the first time he was taken out of intensive care and off the ventilator.
“He’s getting better,” Brenda said. “He’s going through so much, mentally and physically, why everything happened, why he was shot, why he’s here and not his friends.”
Brenda said the doctors wanted her to wait until after Mike’s second surgery to say Chandler, Davis and Perry were killed. When Mike was intubated and unable to speak, he wrote names on a dry-erase board and asked about teammates.
“We had to tell him we had no information,” Brenda said. “We told him it was confidential and we couldn’t get any information because of the severity of the situation. I don’t think he believed us. He had his hands up and this look on his face and I was like, ‘Why, what do you mean?’
“We couldn’t tell him because he was having surgery and we needed them to stay where they were. They didn’t want any complications.”
Shortly after Mike recovered from his second surgery, his family broke the devastating news that his colleagues had passed.
“He was waiting,” Brenda said. “Right after they removed the ventilator, I heard him say, ‘Thanks, Doc.’ He knew, my daughter was standing next to him, he looked at her, she nodded, she said: he is gone.
“Mike’s cry was so deep, it was like it was coming from his soul. It was like a scream I’ve never heard in my life. It was so deep. His cry was so deep. I couldn’t do anything. I could. Grab him and pull him to me and hug him because he was hurt and I He couldn’t be moved. He was alone at that moment. We were there, but he was alone.”
Mike Hollins and Perry, a junior from Miami, were very close. Brenda said her son said, “Mom, I don’t know how I’m going to live without him.”
“Mike, you’re going to live for them,” Brenda said she told him. “You’re going to live for him.”
Cavaliers coach Marques Hagans, who coached both Chandler and Davis, knows Hollins’ return is as much a mental recovery as a physical one.
“Mike Hollins, I mean very lucky to get away, but what he has to live with is not just a scar, but the pain of knowing he was on the bus when three of his colleagues died,” Hagans said. “It’s not something you move on from. He’ll always remember those sounds, those smells, those sights for the rest of his life, and that’s a huge burden to carry.”
Brenda had seen her son the day before the shooting. She participated in Virginia’s 37–7 loss to Pittsburgh at Scott Stadium on November 12, in which Mike had eight carries for 23 yards. They had dinner together after the game, and then she returned to Baton Rouge on Sunday.
At dinner, Mike talked about how he was excited to go on a field trip to Washington, D.C. He wasn’t just a student in a course on African American playwrights; Perry encouraged him to go on a field trip.
Brenda told how Mike talked about wishing they had driven their own car to see the play about Emmett Till, but Perry encouraged him to take the bus. They were excited to meet other students who were going on the trip.
Brenda said Mike told her he didn’t know Jones, 22, who was still enrolled in classes in Virginia. Mike said he ran into Jones once on the trip and they each said to each other, “What’s up?”
When Brenda’s phone rang around 10:40 Sunday night, she recognized a number from the Charlottesville area code and feared the worst. A doctor told her that Mike had been shot and was going into emergency surgery. His father, Mike Hollins, lives in Fairfax, Virginia, and his mother, Brenda, is from Portsmouth, Virginia. They were able to get to UVA Medical Center early Monday morning; Brenda arrived the same day.
“I was devastated,” Brenda said. “Walking into his room I first saw his legs, they weren’t moving. Then I hear the machines and I see him laying there. He was on a ventilator. I could see the worst thing I could imagine. In the world.”
Doctors have told Brenda that Mike will need months of rehabilitation while he recovers. He can’t lift anything for three months. They said he decided to get back on the football field. At least one season of eligibility remains; He did not play in a game during the 2020 COVID-19 interrupted season.
“We believe God’s report,” Brenda said. “Doctors can tell us anything. But Mike, he drives, he’ll be back on the field. He’ll carry somebody’s ball. He’ll be back. … Because he knows God, he knows he’s here for a reason. He’s got rid of him for a reason.”
Mike is scheduled to graduate from Virginia in December. His mother said he had to write four papers to fulfill degree requirements. He decided to walk across the graduation stage with his classmates.
“That would be a blessing,” Brenda said. “It’s a blessing because he’s walking with all three of his brothers on his back, and he’s going to feel that way because he’s going to miss them. So he decided, once he graduates, he’s going to walk.”