Darryl Reaves glanced at the floor, and there George Welsh was, staring up at him. Reaves, a former Virginia defensive back who graduated in 1985 and played for Welsh, turned to his 12-year-old-son, Dylan.
“Pick that up,” Reaves said, pointing to the memorial pamphlet bearing Welsh’s face. “Bring that in the car with you.”
Reaves was part of a contingent of Welsh’s former players on hand at John Paul Jones Arena on Saturday afternoon for a celebration of Welsh’s life. Welsh, who died Jan. 2 of a stroke at 85 years old, served as the Cavaliers’ football coach from 1982 to 2000, guiding the team to a 134-86-3 record and retiring as the winningest coach in ACC football history.
On Saturday, former colleagues, players and some of Welsh’s family members stepped to a lectern on a makeshift stage in the Charlottesville arena to share stories of his life. The event, which was shepherded by Washington Post columnist John Feinstein, the master of ceremonies, kicked off with remarks from Franco Harris, Lydell Mitchell and Charlie Pitman, who played at Penn State when Welsh was a Nittany Lions assistant in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
“A good man and a great coach,” Harris said of Welsh. “He touched a lot of people’s lives here in this room. A number of us are from different schools, different places. But we have one thing in common, and that’s a connection to George Welsh.”
Reaves looked on from the crowd, his nametag slung around his neck: “Darryl Reaves. DB. 1985.” His relationship with Welsh was complicated. He referred to himself one of the stern coach’s “biggest problem players.”
Recruited and signed by former Virginia coach Dick Bestwick, Welsh’s predecessor, Reaves said he sometimes was overzealous during practice, having felt pressured to prove himself. He routinely hit quarterbacks in practice, prompting Welsh to kick him off the field more than 40 times, Reaves estimated.
Last year, back in Charlottesville to watch the spring football game, Reaves found himself at a table with Welsh. He pulled up a chair next to the then-84-year-old.
“Told him how much I loved and appreciated him being my coach, and that I’m sorry for giving him so many headaches,” Reaves said, folding his arms. “And you know what he asked me? ‘How’s your mother and father?’
“I carry that with me, because rarely in life do we have the opportunity to make amends. I felt good about it. I felt free.”
Saturday’s ceremony was held hours before the start of this year’s spring football game, which allowed current football coach Bronco Mendenhall to offer some words about Welsh. Mendenhall noted how, when he first arrived on Grounds, he’d often have quick conversations with Welsh in the morning. There Welsh would be, sipping his drink and reading a newspaper, offering Mendenhall advice: “You need players!” or “You need facilities!”
The two coaches share some funny similarities, as Mendenhall noted during his time at the lectern. Both took over at Virginia when they were 49. Both were tasked with turning around teams that had suffered five losing seasons in six years. Both won two games in their first season, six games in their second and eight games in their third.
“I feel like I am the steward of his program,” Mendenhall said, before ceding the spotlight to a panel of some of Welsh’s players at UVa, led by former cornerback Ronde Barber.
Welsh’s children, Adam and Kate, had the final words. Kate Welsh said in September 2018 she decided to leave behind her New York home and spend some time with her dad in Charlottesville, bringing along her Labrador retriever. She ended up staying nearly four months. She sat next to him Jan. 1, watching college football bowl games all day. Welsh appeared in good health. Then Jan. 2 happened.
“It was just his time,” Kate Welsh said.
She wiped away a tear minutes later as a pair of military officers performed a tribute for her father, who attended the U.S. Naval Academy. The officers unfurled an American flag and then folded it, handing it off to Kate.
Afterwards, former players and colleagues mingled in the arena, trading Welsh stories and sharing laughs. Reaves was among those who hung back, wrapping his arms around his former teammates as his sons Dylan and 14-year-old Darryl retreated for the car.
In Dylan's hand, he held the pamphlet featuring Welsh’s face.