He won on the football field and mourned off it. Now NC State’s Armstrong returns to UVA

Buzz. Buzz. Buzz.

Brennan Armstrong was getting ready for bed on Sunday, Nov. 13, 2022, when his phone began vibrating. He ignored it. The University of Virginia football team would begin preparations for Coastal Carolina the next day. He needed sleep.

Buzz. Buzz. Buzz.

Armstrong asked his girlfriend, Alexa, to see what was happening. Multiple text messages from the university campus alert system popped up about a potential shooter. He brushed it off.

They’d lived in Charlottesville for five years. It wasn’t the first time UVA students received notifications about possible gun violence in the area.

Buzz. Buzz. Buzz.

They checked the phone again. This time, it was more serious.

“One of the messages I remember said, ‘Run, hide, fight.’ That’s what all it said,” Armstrong recalled. “We’d both been there five years. We’d never seen anything like that one, so we were looking at each other, like, ‘What’s going on?’”

Garett Tujague received orders around the same time to verify the location of his players — and do it without leaving his home. The roll call request on its own usually means something bad happened. Sheltering in place added to the concern. The now-N.C. State offensive line coach led the Cavaliers’ O-line and recruiting efforts.

Tujague called Armstrong in search of one of Armstrong’s roommates. Something was wrong.

The fifth-year senior opened Twitter in search of information. A shooting. At UVA.

Armstrong pulled an all-nighter, for the first time since high school, with his roommates and girlfriend. They spent hours refreshing social media and waiting for more information.

“I won’t ever forget that night. It was crazy,” Armstrong said last week. “All of us were up, sitting in our living room just hanging out. It was an interesting feeling, because you didn’t know until you knew exactly. You heard all these things. Your thoughts, they were flying around.”

Rumors said a student shot five people, including four football players, after returning from a class trip to see a play in Washington D.C. Armstrong couldn’t believe it.

“We had no clue they went to that,” Armstrong said. “We were like, ‘This isn’t even a thing. Why were they on that bus? It’s Sunday, we’re getting ready to wake up and practice.’”

Full details didn’t come until the next day. Linebacker D’Sean Perry, and wide receivers Lavel Davis Jr. and Devin Chandler died. Running back Mike Hollins needed emergency surgery.

UVA canceled the remainder of the season. Armstrong returns to Scott Stadium this weekend for the first game since last November, but he’ll be in the visitor locker room. He wants to wear something in honor of the victims.

Armstrong experienced the grief and trauma of losing teammates last November. Now he’s doing so from afar, while playing for an opposing team after transferring to N.C. State. The ones that remained deal with daily reminders of their loss.

“It’s gonna be wild. It’s gonna be weird, seeing all the guys on the other side,” Armstrong said.

“I look at the friendships I had. I miss those guys now. I’m building great relationships here, but you look back and you miss the good old times — when you were younger in college — and you’re just having a good time. It was just fun.”

N.C. State cornerback Shyheim Battle (25) sacks Virginia quarterback Brennan Armstrong (5) for a ten-yard loss during the first half of N.C. State’s game against Virginia at Scott Stadium in Charlottesville, Va., Saturday, Oct. 10, 2020. Armstrong has transferred to N.C. State for the 2023 season.

Some might see Armstrong’s experience as a one-time leader of the Cavaliers leaving and now returning to finish the rest of the group. A group that’s already struggling on the field, no less. Others may see it solely as a young man who experienced tragedy and gained perspective.

Neither of those things tell the full story, though. They’re too black and white, one or the other. His experience is about both and all the in between. About the gray. And, about his three teammates’ legacy: one that recognizes the nuance of life and football.

Learning from loss

Virginia painted the numbers 1, 15 and 41 on its field and displays them at the top of the athletic website, in a nod to the three victims.

Those who remain after tragedies look for silver linings and lessons. It’s to ensure those lost aren’t forgotten, a way to honor them. This season for UVA is all about remembering.

Armstrong is lucky. He can compartmentalize that. It’s not at the forefront of his mind every practice, though he’s able to talk about the experience freely. The pain and shock isn’t raw anymore.

One thing he refuses to put away, though, is the growth and maturity he brought to N.C. State. His approach to life and football is directly tied to the way last season ended.

Chandler, Davis and Perry were shining examples of how to bring fun and positivity to a team while balancing the high expectations. Even on the difficult days, Armstrong remembers how they tried to lift others up. That’s how they live in his memory.

Football wasn’t their identity, either. He said the trio never let a game determine their self worth. It was a great example of not getting too high or too low; seeing intrinsic value within themselves.

“It’s so hard to talk not about football,” Armstrong said, trying to articulate the lessons he’s learned. “You know, they talk about, ‘It’s what you do. It’s not who you are,’ but, my goodness, you do it all day long.”

That’s something he’s working on. A lesson from them.

N.C. State quarterback Brennan Armstrong (5) looks to the scoreboard as he walks off the field after throwing an interception during the first half of N.C. State’s game against Notre Dame at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh, N.C., Saturday, Sept. 9, 2023.

He celebrates little victories, while seeking improvement. Armstrong called his performance against Notre Dame terrible but didn’t let those negative feelings spiral. The QB from Ohio fueled that disappointment into focused preparation and a commanding win over VMI.

“You want to put your best foot forward and perform, but when I think about the experiences I’ve had in the past year, it’s been hard to find my footing in football,” he said. “I’ve been trying to be more proud of myself, and just give myself more grace. There’s more to life than football. That helps me balance my head – have perspective on life – because I can really be hard on myself.”

Armstrong and Tujague both said the shooting reminded them to value every moment. It’s easy to get lost in the daily grind until devastation strikes. Tujague and the rest of the UVA program got that painful reminder 10 months ago. Neither life nor college football are guaranteed.

“Every moment I get to spend with my guys here I cherish. I get frustrated that I don’t get to coach certain guys for more years here; the guys that are seniors,” Tujague said tearfully. “There’s great kids here, and I value those relationships.

“With my wife, I’ll tell her, ‘Man, I really wish I could get one more year with this kid.’ She’s like, ‘Well, you don’t, so you better make this one count.’”

A Wolfpack work trip

It’s just business, another game. That’s how the Pack, notably those with UVA ties, are viewing the upcoming game.

They’re prepping like normal, and using it as one more step toward the coveted ACC championship.

It doesn’t matter, N.C. State head coach Dave Doeren said, that Armstrong used to attend school at UVA or assistants used to work there. That’s not the point.

“What matters is: Can we execute? Can we win the ball security battle? Can we strain harder than them? Can we finish plays better than them? That’s what matters,” Doeren said on Monday. “We want to go win a football game, so we’re going to focus on the things that matter.”

N.C. State quarterback Brennan Armstrong (5) talks with offensive lineman Anthony Belton (74) and Matt McCabe (66) during the second half of the Wolfpack’s 45-7 victory over VMI at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh, N.C., Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023.

Except the background stuff does matter. It might not be the focus of the game, but where people come from and their prior experiences inform what they do and the kind of character they possess.

Everything Armstrong — and Tujague, to a large extent — does for the Wolfpack is because he wants to play for his dead teammates. He wants to experience the games they didn’t.

It might seem heartless to want to pause the emotions for a few hours to play a game, but the desire to win comes because of — not in spite of — the grief they experienced as Cavaliers.

Their loss motivates them to make the most of the new opportunity they have. The same can be said about the current group on the UVA sideline; trying to beat each other to recognize the fallen.

“We have everything in front of us. All of our goals are still there,” Armstrong said. “These games go by fast, so we’ve got to keep our eyes peeled for the next game. One game at a time and just keep working.”

Starting fresh

Armstrong chose to play for Virginia due to its strong academics and the people in the program. He left Charlottesville as one of the best players in school history, but his ending was marred by a tragedy and a disappointing season.

Before the shooting, UVA’s record stood at 3-7 overall and 1-6 in ACC play in the first year with Tony Elliott as head coach. It came one year after Armstrong and now-N.C. State offensive coordinator Robert Anae lit up the stat sheets, moving Armstrong into the top spot for 15 different program records, including career passing yards.

Had last season ended normally, a departure was likely anyway. Armstrong sought a program with a defined culture and expectations for his final year. The Wolfpack looked like it could provide that.

“I just felt like things were already set in stone, like the defense, the culture and everything,” Armstrong said. “The offense was where it was at — and we’re still looking to build what we’re trying to do here — but I felt like there were great things around me.”

N.C. State quarterback Brennan Armstrong (5) scrambles for yards during the first half of N.C. State’s game against VMI at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh, N.C., Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023.

Tujague made his way to State in the offseason, as well. He didn’t expect to leave UVA, at least not for another year. He planned to stick around during the team’s healing process, turning down four Power Five jobs to do it.

Then, Doeren called. Tujague had always been intrigued by State’s program, so making the change was a professional no-brainer. That doesn’t mean it was easy. He still holds Elliott and the program in high regard. He misses his players, with whom he can’t communicate due to NCAA tampering rules. At the same time, he loves the college football culture in North Carolina. It’s a tough dichotomy.

That’s the thing: multiple things can be true at once. Armstrong, specifically, will experience that when he steps onto the field Friday. He’ll feel the adrenaline to play the sport he loves to the best of his abilities, regardless of the opponent.

Feelings will then emerge when the game ends. It’s hard to know exactly how Armstrong will feel at the final horn, but the final score won’t matter for just a few minutes.

He’ll reminisce and reconnect with people he cares about. He’ll do it in the place that’s a part of him. A place where grief and joy reside together. A place that’s become a stranger but somehow feels like home.