At the end of a recent University of Virginia football practice, defensive end Kam Butler stood up and introduced Antonio Rice to his teammates.
Nearly 40 years separate Butler and Rice, but who’s counting? Their commonalities outweigh any generation gap. Each has taken classes on Grounds and earned a UVA degree. Each has sweated through innumerable offseason workouts with teammates, and each has suited up for the Cavaliers at Scott Stadium. Each is a natural leader.
“We hit it off immediately,” said Rice, a 1987 graduate of UVA who played running back for head coach George Welsh.
Rice, who lives in Charlottesville, is paired with Butler in the Cavalier Circle mentorship program that UVA head coach Tony Elliott launched this year. The program matches current players with alumni of the football program. The goal is to have 128 mentors, and as of mid-August 106 had signed up, said Tim Conway, a former UVA player who’s taken on a leading role in the program.
Conway, who lives in Centreville, is on Cavalier Circle’s board of directors, along with two other former players, Barry Word and Doug Duenkel, and Heidi VandeHoef-Gunn, director of career development for UVA Athletics. Others who help administer the program include Carroll McCray, director of player development for the football team.
Elliott, who’s in his second year at Virginia, said the Cavalier Circle’s goal is to connect the football program’s past and present.
“A circle never ends,” Elliott said. “A big thing for me is, I want everyone in this program to know what they’re playing for, and it’s the collection of the people that they see every single day, and it’s the ones that came before them, that made the path better for them to experience what they’re experiencing. And then for the guys individually, I want them to have somebody that they can reach out to that’s walked where they walk, lived where they live, been through the Virginia experience. And then hopefully it’ll manifest into a mentorship program that can help them post-college as they transition into the real world.”
More than a hundred alumni, many of whom have volunteered as mentors, attended the Wahoos’ first intrasquad scrimmage this month at Scott Stadium. Afterward, they gathered inside the George Welsh Indoor Practice Facility, where Elliott addressed the group.
“Your blood, sweat and tears helped build the program, and I’m very grateful,” Elliott said.
After showering and changing, the current Cavaliers joined the alumni for a cookout, and the mentors in attendance ate with their mentees. The mentors span multiple generations.
“That’s part of the beauty of it,” Conway said. “I think some of the younger guys relate to [the current players] better, because it’s easier. Some of the older guys have a wealth of knowledge and relationships.”
Mentors include alumni from the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s and 2010s. One of them is Bill Curry Jr. (Class of 1993), who has advised numerous UVA players over the years and helped Quin Blanding and Zane Zandier land jobs with Boston Scientific. Blanding (Class of 2018) is now a mentor as well.
“That’s what we want to model the program after,” Conway said. “Quin is a perfect example.”
Other mentors include Dean Hackemer, Keith Mattioli and Tim Morris, who also have helped UVA players find internships and jobs over the years.
“Everybody wants to be a part of helping these kids succeed,” Conway said, “and we feel a passion for it.”
Elliott said: “Football is a brotherhood, and when you look at a place like the University of Virginia and all of the great players and great teammates that have come through here and the passion that they have for this place, it never dies. As a football player, your love for the game, it never goes away. So this is a great way for the former guys to be able to stay connected to the program and then also understand the challenges that the young men here currently have to go through, and then maybe there’s something that they experienced in their days on Grounds that can help these young men through a difficult time.”
The program started with a pilot group of 25 mentors. Gerry Capone, an associate athletics director at UVA who’s worked with the football program for decades, helped supply contact information of alumni, and Conway started making calls.
“It’s amazing the receptivity when you talk to the players about giving back,” said Conway, who graduated from UVA in 1988 with a degree in electrical engineering.
“It’s caught on like wildfire,” Elliott said. “I think that the former players want to be embraced. I want them back, and I don’t want anything from them but their relationship with the players and a connection to the program.
“As I tell them, I’m not asking for a dime. I’m just asking for your investment of time and experience and knowledge with these young men. When you think about young people nowadays, they have so many sources of information. But how many of those sources are the right sources with accurate information? What better than a living, breathing human being that’s lived, eaten, played and done all the things that you do as a college student, but then has also [been in the working world] and can say, ‘All right, here’s what I experienced, this is what I was feeling when it was time for me to transition.’ “
Almost every player dreams of an NFL career, Conway noted, but “the reality is, you’re one injury away from the rest of your life. So it’s important to help these kids develop into members of the community who are successful and prepared.”
Junior safety Jonas Sanker’s mentor is William Frazier Jr., who played cornerback for the Hoos in the 1980s. Frazier, who lives in Reston, is a vice president with JPMorgan Chase & Co.
“I think what I enjoy most about him is he’s a really good listener,” Sanker, a foreign affairs major, said. “He gives his own feedback, but it feels like I’m having a personal conversation. It doesn’t feel like I’m just talking to someone who’s old or can’t really relate to me. I feel like there’s a lot we can relate to with each other.”
Frazier, who graduated from UVA’s McIntire School of Commerce, learned of the mentorship program from Capone. “He’s really the glue,” Frazier said.
For today’s players, the college football landscape includes name, image and likeness endorsement opportunities; social media; and the transfer portal, none of which existed when Frazier was on Grounds. Nor were football players expected to train virtually year-round.
“That’s an enormous difference,” Frazier said. “That part really interests me, Jonas’ experience.”
The mentorship program benefits current players, Sanker said, who have “someone to ask questions of and someone you can learn from. But also for the mentors, it’s good for them to be able to have an opportunity to come back and find a way to be involved. Sometimes it can be hard to know where to be involved or how to be involved, but I think this is a good opportunity to make it easy for people to meet each other.”
Most of UVA’s current players were on Grounds in November when three teammates were shot and killed after returning from a class field trip to D.C.
“If I think about all the craziness that’s gone on with this program over the past year, the loss of lives, those are things that are out of their control,” said Rice, who’s president and CEO of the nonprofit organization Jobs for Virginia Graduates. “I don’t know how the other mentors take it, but how I take it is, there’s weight that these kids don’t need to be carrying. Give that to me. I’ll carry that.”
And so Butler, a graduate student who’s in his second year at UVA, has an open invitation at the Rice family’s home in Charlottesville.
“He tells me all the time, whenever I’m bored or just want to get a home-cooked meal, I can just call him up and go over to his house,” said Butler, who began his college career at Miami University in Ohio.
“He’s a good dude. We connected on a bunch of different things. We don’t really talk about anything specific whenever I’m over there. We just talk about football, life, career, girlfriend. We’ll eat dinner and just hang out, really.”
Butler, who received a master’s degree in higher education from UVA in May, is interested in a career in college athletics administration when his football career ends. He’s a fan of the mentor program.
“I think it’s a great idea, especially for young guys to just kind of look up to someone that’s been in their shoes or is in the area, or has done what they aspiring to do,” Butler said. “I think it’s really beneficial for those guys. I think it’s beneficial for everyone, really, even the older guys and sixth-year, fifth-year seniors. I think it’s cool that you learn about some of the history of this football program and this university through former players as well.”
As the list of mentors has grown, Elliott has worked with Conway and McCray to pair them with current players.
“We have roster of interests from all of our players, what they’re interested in, what they’re studying, what they would like to be,” McCray said. “So if somebody wants to be a lawyer, we match them up with somebody in law, or if somebody wants to go into an engineering program, somebody wants to be in public relations or finance, we match them up [with appropriate alumni].”
Conway, who retired last year from NTT Data and now runs a consulting firm, is excited to see the mentor program continue to grow. For graduating players, Conway said, “our goal is to make sure that we can help place them in the workplace with multiple opportunities. We’re not one person strong, where you have one mentor; it’s the network. It’s the entire network available to the mentor and to the student-athlete.”