I don’t know when the doors to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church opened on Saturday night. I don’t know who opened them, either — maybe one of the Virginia Cavaliers’ more passionate fans who made a certain promise or two in the final minute of the Hoos’ heart-stopping national semifinal win over the Auburn Tigers, and decided to follow through in short order. Maybe someone just wanted to ring the bell to celebrate in the best way they knew how.
But the doors were open, and the bell was ringing. Punctuating each cuss word and song lyric and shout to the heavens, the tolls of that bell affirmed to everyone within earshot that some off-the-wall, near-indescribable miracle had happened again. A few people took turns, myself included, as though every time we pulled down on that thick string of rope, it became a little more real. That yes, this team really would stick together for 48 more hours. Yes, Kyle Guy really did make all three free throws like it was a lazy Sunday afternoon in his Indianapolis driveway. Yes, UVA had secured its biggest basketball win ever and one of the most significant in the history of the University across all sports. Yes, that not-so-dull roar was from the mob a few blocks down the street, a delirious mass of humanity comprised of people that climbed on everywhere it was safe to do so, threw toilet paper in the air in mockery of Auburn fans, hugged and high-fived and just screamed. They came from the Amphitheater by the Lawn, the College Inn, and a lucky few went straight out onto the street from Boylan Heights.
For the second time in a week, they all sprinted down University Avenue to where it meets 14th Street, right in front of Boylan. But this wasn’t a group of people largely self-contained within a half-block or so. From Jefferson Park Avenue to the White Spot, if not further, and from Wertland Street down to the old medical school, it was so fully crammed that police set up detours within minutes, and you were fortunate to fully catch your breath if you were in the middle of it.
One man in an orange t-shirt, probably in his early 20s, crouched down in the middle of it all with his head in his hands. He wasn’t in distress, no; as one of his friends said, “he just needs a moment.” When he stood up, he looked like one of several grown adults within the crowd who had just finished crying. One observer, who has worked on the Corner for decades, did not hesitate when asked if he’d ever seen anything like this: “Nope,” he shook his head.
Unlike last Saturday, this party lingered well into the night past closing time. Bars and sidewalks were still full a few minutes after last call, broken glass littered the aforementioned intersection, and nobody seemed to want to go home quite yet. One guy wore an orange Rob Vozenilek jersey that looked brand new, and another had a Thomas Jones one that was in similarly good shape, but also potentially older than him.
Some 38-and-a-half years ago, the late Frank DeFord penned a feature in Sports Illustrated about the intersection of athletics, party culture, and history at the University of Virginia. In the intervening years, that one everlasting win has eluded this school, this city, and this fanbase. There have been some successes in football and basketball, as well as non-revenue sports, but a national title in a major sport has never been as close as it is now. There were parties in 1990 and 1995 after those big-time football wins, and we’ve seen some celebrations for basketball in the last five years or so.
But let’s leave the last word on what has been and what could be to come all over again in 28 hours to DeFord:
“And good Lord, after all those years of world-class practice, can you imagine The Victory Party they could throw at The University?”