City of Stories

The bookstores of Charlottesville and their untold stories.

Words by Dan Goff. Visuals by Chandler Collins.

What is Charlottesville known for?

Ask anyone who doesn’t live in the city, or at least who doesn’t live in Virginia, and they’ll probably respond, “It’s the place where those white nationalist rallies happened.”

Ask a student of the University or a resident of Charlottesville, and the answers will get a little more specific and varied — maybe something about the University sports teams, or something about the Dave Matthews Band. Tina Fey might be mentioned.

But these facts fail to represent the community. Charlottesville’s history is rich, but too often overlooked. And at the center of this neglected history are five independent bookstores, doing their best to survive by selling stories while their own stories remain untold.

It’s time to tell these stories.

When Julia Kudravetz bought New Dominion Bookshop in October 2017, she knew she was purchasing one of the most iconic pieces of property on the Downtown Mall. It’s a responsibility she’s not taking lightly.

“I want for us to be a bookstore which is looking outwards and looking towards the future,” Kudravetz said.

Kudravetz prefaced this by describing the bookstore’s past, a history so vibrant and unusual that it, as Kudravetz suggested, “sounds like something out of Hemingway.”

“It’s the oldest independent bookshop in Virginia — one of the oldest in the country,” Kudravetz said. “The earliest record we can find is from 1924.”

The first owner she mentioned was Christopher Columbus Wells, a “World War I ambulance driver, who moved back to Charlottesville to start this place.”

New Dominion’s original location was where the Mall’s CVS currently is, Kudravetz said — the city’s ultimate social destination.

“From the stories people tell, it was the center of Charlottesville,” Kudravetz said. “People would stroll through for books, but also gossip and conversation.”

This original building housed New Dominion for decades. It wasn’t until the late 1980s that it moved to its current location, which, as Kudravetz explained, “used to be an old shoe store.”

It’s hard to believe that anything as mundane as footwear was ever sold in such a beautiful space. With its sweeping staircases, frosted glass skylights and, most importantly, towering bookcases built into the walls, it seems like a building that has always — and will always — house literature.

Carol Troxell, the owner of New Dominion until her sudden death in January of last year, was responsible for this move when she took over the shop. She and her husband Robert bought and renovated the building to bring it to its current form, Kudravetz said.

Then, Kudravetz jumped to the part of history that included her.

“I had been working here — moonlighting, doing social media and also selling books for New Dominion at a reading series that I founded,” Kudravetz said.

She was also teaching community college at the time of Troxell’s passing, but she said the prospect of owning a bookstore — not to mention, a cultural landmark — was much more appealing.

“I wrote to her husband and said, ‘I love the shop and I would be in a position to buy it — would you hire me as a manager?'” Kudravetz said. “He didn’t know what he was going to do with it … so he hired me.”

Kudravetz officially bought the store at the end of October, bringing it to its current state.

And what state is that? Kudravetz seemed to have mixed feelings about what should be preserved and what must be updated, to preserve — and persevere — in a larger sense.

“I think with anything that’s been around 100 years, there’s some real quirks,” Kudravetz said.

She explained one such quirk that she had already rectified — the absence of cordless phones in the store.

“There are some things that of course I want to change,” Kudravetz said. “But then there are some things that are really part of the texture of the shop, which I love.”

She had a lot to say about the shop’s future, so many plans and upcoming events that visibly excited her.

“We’ve got 13 events during the Book Festival — that’s a lot for our little shop,” Kudravetz said, grinning, name-dropping considerable authors such as Nathan Englander.

On a smaller, more immediate scale, Kudravetz said she is working every day to make New Dominion a more accessible and attractive location for residents of Charlottesville.

“People are not going to just discover us on their own,” Kudravetz said. “We need someone to be reaching out to new communities in Charlottesville.”

Despite her ambitious outlook and palpable happiness, Kudravetz acknowledged the struggles that independent bookstore owners face. She agreed that Charlottesville’s small business community, particularly in the context of literature, was “strangely thriving,” and said later in the interview that New Dominion survives “on sheer force of will.”

But Kudravetz also said that she’s found the “secret of surviving,” or at least one of them — namely, being attuned to customers’ needs, desires and interests.

“What I love about here is that you know a lot of the customers,” Kudravetz said. “You get to know them over time, and if you’re good, you remember the books they bought in the past … I think that’s the tradition of really knowing the customers. I think that’s the secret of surviving.”

This ties in nicely to Kudravetz’s plans for the store’s future. “I want us to be a bookshop for all of Charlottesville … for students, for seniors,” she said.

Kudravetz seems unsure whether New Dominion will thrive or merely survive in the years to come, but her interview made it clear that she is doing everything in her power to achieve the former. If her goals come to fruition, the shop will be a modern reincarnation of its former self — a bookstore that is both a reflection of, and a destination for, its community.

New Dominion isn’t the only shop on the Downtown Mall recently under new management. Read It Again, Sam, located on the same side of the Mall and a few blocks closer to its center, was subjected to similar tragedies and significant events in 2017.

It might be a shock to learn that Dennis Kocik has only owned and managed the store since last December — he speaks of Read It Again, Sam and moves through the space as though it has been his focus for many years. Any old-time customers, however, know that Kocik is filling a suddenly and tragically vacated void.

“Read It Again, Sam was started by Dave Taylor 30 years ago,” Kocik said. “Ten years of it was in Lovingston, where they lived, 20 years right here.”

The “right here” refers to another beautiful building — not quite so grandiose as New Dominion, but remarkable in a quieter way. Marble floors and polished wood paneling abound in the store, remnants of the jewelry shop that once occupied the space that lend a refined but unpretentious mood.

The store is made even more unassuming by the endless figurines, posters and assorted movie memorabilia, all of it starring and celebrating Humphrey Bogart.

“[Taylor] liked the movie ‘Casablanca’ … apparently he was a big Bogart fan,” Kocik said with an understated smirk.

The name of the store itself — done in gold lettering on the front windows, along with a sketch of Bogart’s face — is a play on a classic, though oft-misquoted line from “Casablanca.”

If Read It Again, Sam, is in some ways a shrine dedicated to Bogart, it has recently updated its decor to celebrate the late Taylor. Near the front of the store is a black book nearly full of condolences from long-time customers, and next to that is Taylor’s laminated obituary. A quick flip through this book gives an idea of the impact Taylor had on the community. Dave was a good fellow. Part of the fabric of downtown. Many years — many books.

Kocik’s recent acquisition of the store is still very much on his mind, as evidenced by the amount of time he spent talking about it.

“When I found out Dave had died March of last year, I remember telling Barbara, the manager … if she was looking to sell, I’d be interested,” Kocik said.

Though Kocik has no previous experience running a bookstore, he’s familiar with the sellers of Charlottesville.

“I’ve never owned a bookstore, but I’ve been buying books here 20 years myself,” he said. “I bought books from all of [the bookstores on the Mall], including those that are no longer here.”

When asked about the competition of other bookstores on the Mall, Kocik claimed that it was nonexistent.

“I don’t even look at it as a competition,” he said, though he did admit that “it’s unusual for this small area to have that many bookstores.”

To this phenomenon, he attributed the “bookstore experience” as the main reason.

“Buying from Amazon is one thing because you’re buying something that you can’t touch and feel,” he said. “You just pray that it’ll come in good condition. Here, you can browse, and you actually wind up seeing a book that you weren’t looking for.”

Kocik stressed that “you don’t get that from a Kindle,” becoming visibly more passionate as he continued to discuss the physical element of books and bookstores.

“There’s something personal,” he said. “You get up-close with a book.”

During the interview, customers filtered in and out of the store, sometimes buying books, sometimes just saying hi to Kocik. A few of them referred to him by name, a testament to the impact Kocik has already made on the community in just a few months.

“I always quote the ancient Roman Cicero,” Kocik said. “‘A room without books is like a body without a soul.’ We have soul. We have a lot of soul.”

To call Blue Whale Books a bookstore might be a misnomer. To be sure, the shop is filled with bookshelves packed to the brim — ancient, dusty tomes under glass, a few stacks on the front desk. But owner Scott Fennessey has a novel business plan to diversify the store’s products.

“We’ve started selling prints and maps,” Fennessey said. “People find [them] fascinating. I think part of it is an increase of interest in visual materials. A lot of people have lost interest in older books, just as objects — whereas, for some reason, the picture out of a book is more fascinating.”

Fennessey’s shop has changed its wares to reflect this interest. A good part of the store is devoted to prints — idyllic scenes cut out of illustrated novels, anatomical diagrams from reference books, sprawling, full-color maps taken from atlases.

Fennessey used one of his more picturesque prints to explain how he had gotten the idea.

“This is a printout from a book that I’ve had on the shelf for literally 20 years and just couldn’t sell, because you look at it and the title is in Czech,” he said.

He continued that, despite the “15 color linocuts” within the book, it had no chance of selling.

“I was gonna put it on the dollar shelf, just out of disgust,” Fennessey said. “But I was looking at it and I thought, ‘I’m just gonna try to sell the linocuts.’ And as I was packaging these plates, I sold two of them — for more than the book cost.”

Fennessey attributed what he calls the “antiquey factor” to the success of the print business.

“For people under the age of 35, they want something ‘antiquey,'” he said. “They want the experience of something old, but they don’t want the whole book.”

There’s a peak price for this factor, he added — “under 50 dollars.” But just out of fascination, people may spend “10, 20, 30 bucks” on a print.

Aside from the artistic novelty, Fennessey has another incentive to get customers in the store — a furry, friendly incentive that waddled in and out of sight throughout the entire interview.

“Gizmo is 10,” Fennessey said, laughing as he hoisted his dog into his lap to pose for photos.
“She’s a really sweet dog. She likes kids. She’s good at bringing in customers — she’ll just sit right in the door, and people come in because of that.”

Fennessey seemed sublimely unconcerned as he held the compliant corgi, telling an anecdote about Gizmo’s encounter with a baby rabbit. Missing from Blue Whale was the air of uncertainty, though faint, that permeated every other bookstore featured in this article.

“We’re all sort of fleeing the book market,” Fennessey said at one point. “You gotta make a living.”

Fennessey’s methods shouldn’t necessarily be called a flight from bookselling, but they are a clever — and potentially long-lasting — repurposing of the book.

“In 10 years, I think there will be one bookstore left on the Downtown Mall.”

Strange, perhaps startling words to hear from an independent bookstore owner, but Paul Collinge has been in the business long enough to make a few radical predictions.

Heartwood Books has existed on Elliewood Avenue since 1975, seeing the rise and fall of generations of independent businesses.

“Various independent bookstores existed around the University, until this day,” Collinge said. “I’m the last one. All the rest of them have gone out of business.”

The bookstore shows its age, too — if only through the impressive accumulation of products. Books of all shapes and sizes are stacked, piled or otherwise arranged throughout the tightly packed space.

Collinge set up a folding chair amid the literary maze and reminisced on Heartwood’s origins. He attributed the store’s initial success to the “presence of the University,” but added that this became less and less helpful with each technological advance.

“Suddenly, everyone at the University had high-speed internet, they could order things from Amazon, and we saw a huge shift,” Collinge said. “In 2018, we’re doing about a third of the business we did in 2000.”

A significant part of the interview was devoted to Collinge describing the more profitable days of the shop. He pointed out an ad from 1975 featuring over 20 various shops on Elliewood Avenue — Heartwood among them. According to Collinge, his bookstore is the only one that has survived in its original form those four decades.

Collinge summed up his grievances with the simple, though alarming concept that “a lot of people don’t read books anymore.”

“It’s an educational problem, I think,” Collinge said. “And it needs to be addressed.”

A shop like Heartwood Books may be just the solution needed, with its teetering monuments of knowledge in the forms of stacked paperbacks — knowledge waiting to be discovered. And students can still discover it — Collinge implores them to. All that is required is a short walk from the Corner and a little curiosity.

Tucked into one of the crevices of the Downtown Mall, Daedalus Bookshop is easy to miss — but essential to experience. Its modest storefront isn’t the most promising, lacking the gold-embossed banners of New Dominion or the elegant marble of Read It Again, Sam, but just a glance inside reveals an enchanting labyrinth of literature.

Think Heartwood, but exponentially larger and more intricate. Three rickety, claustrophobic floors of novels and nonfiction boast every subject imaginable. And sitting in the store’s center floor, at the nucleus of his creation and accumulation, is one Sandy McAdams.

An undeniable fixture of the community, McAdams is just as eclectic and full of life as his sprawling bookstore. This liveliness is somewhat kept in check by an advanced age and steadily advancing multiple sclerosis, the combination of which have confined McAdams to a motorized wheelchair, but he is still a sight to behold.

And he had so much to say.

“Right away, I thought, Charlottesville would have a brass band and parade for this great used bookshop,” McAdams said, chuckling. “But it’s gone unnoticed. It’s still unnoticed.”

McAdams was describing a time long past — 44 years, by his estimation — but he made the era come alive with lively stories and facial expressions to match.

The conversation took many unexpected turns. As a result, many questions were left unanswered or only partially so.

For instance, McAdams explained that he started the iconic C&O Restaurant with a man named Phillip Stafford but failed to go into any further detail.

“When I first moved here, they were digging out the Mall to put the bricks down,” McAdams said. “And myself and my partner — one end was the C&O Restaurant, and I had the other [end of the Mall].”

Daedalus Bookshop is a place rich with history, and though unnoticed by many residents, it has not gone entire unsung — even on a national scale. At one point, McAdams dug around in one of his stacks of books, eventually pulling out a brightly colored one called “Footnotes from the World’s Greatest Bookstores.” Daedalus Bookshop was one of the featured stores.

According to the book, McAdams “built all the bookshelves, did all the masonry, shelved three floors of books and mapped the building’s contents.” This incredible fact prompted McAdams to call himself a “hard worker,” a phrase that was repeated multiple times throughout the interview.

“I don’t cook, I don’t know anything about wine, but I’m a hard worker.” This was in reference to the C&O Restaurant, and the hand McAdams had in designing it.

“I never did things so much because of talent, but more because I was a hard worker.” This was a nod to McAdams’s decision to move to Canada to avoid the war draft, as he feared he would “kill a huge number of … people” if he was drafted because of his inherent hard-working traits — just another chapter of the man’s incredibly varied life story.

This hardworking trait of McAdams’ was also displayed when he showed off a newspaper that he helped found, print and publish called “The Times of Charlottesville.” Though it only existed for two years, it serves as another testament to the impressive cultural impact McAdams has had on Charlottesville.

Even to this day, McAdams is a hard worker. Throughout the interview, he was zooming around in his motorized wheelchair — picking up books seemingly at random from stacks, checking for prices, sometimes marking in them with a fat pencil. McAdams doesn’t let his illness or his age slow him down — he’s still constantly in motion.

From speaking to McAdams or just by stepping into his shop, it is clear that he has devoted his life to collecting stories. Of all the tales he has compiled over the decades, undoubtedly the most interesting is his own. The story features a rotating cast of characters, some of them just mentioned — his daughter, his “darling wife,” his business partner Stafford — and some walking into the store by chance.

This latter category was a near-constant interruption to the interview, but provided more insight into McAdams’s character than even the most well-thought-out question could. An “unbelievable mailman who’s become a friend” dropped off some packages, prompting the bookstore owner to question the man about whether or not he’s visited the doctor yet for some unknown ailment.

After their brief interaction, McAdams shouted at the man’s retreating figure, “Keep my love around you!”

Another, younger employee also stopped by — someone McAdams referred to just as “John.”

“We have a book club,” McAdams explained, apparently referring both to an actual club and to his coworkers in the shop. “As I get weaker and weaker, they said they would take turns working one day of the week.”

John was a character himself, encouraging McAdams to tell stories about “sex in the stacks” at Daedalus — “just like in Alderman Library,” he said.

This led McAdams to declare, “I started it!”

The interview never really came to an end. McAdams eventually said to “come in again … [to] talk more.” It seemed clear that the mysterious old man had only relinquished a tiny portion of the illustrious past of the bookstore and his own impressive story — but what little he did share was incredible.

Considering the wealth of stories, knowledge and genuine passion found in McAdams’s character, one can’t help but imagine what similar qualities must have existed in Carol Troxell of New Dominion or Dave Taylor of Read It Again, Sam. But rather than mourn what lives have been lost, their vibrant impacts on the city of Charlottesville should instead be appreciated.

Just as authors’ legacies are preserved in their writings, so are these bookstore owners immortalized by their lives’ work — brick-and-mortar testaments to the power of the written word, and its ability to bring a community together.


Reemerging from Rehab

One student’s all-too-familiar struggle for sobriety

Words by Emily Caron. Visuals by Margaret Kim and Aisha Singh.

The names in this story have been changed to protect the sources’ privacy.

Meet John: a former boarding school valedictorian who graduated cum laude with a 4.0 GPA. He was president of his senior class, captain of both the soccer and crew teams and wanted to row at an Ivy League in college. When his plans to row fell through, he decided to study at the University of Virginia — a ‘Public Ivy,’ as they say. He was on top of it all: smart, social, successful and heading to a great school. Some would say he was the perfect student.

Most students at the University can probably relate to at least part of John’s high school history. Many students can probably also relate to parts of John’s college experience or know someone who can — and that’s the concerning part. His story goes something like this:

John moved into dorms. He met lots of new people — mostly first-years, but some older. He went to Block Party and over-indulged. He liked it. He started going out even more, and soon he was partying pretty often.

He ended up in the hospital within his first few weeks on Grounds with alcohol poisoning. One minute he was taking shots to celebrate a decent passing grade on a psych exam, the next he was staring at a stark white ceiling. Everything smelled sterile. His eyes needed time to adjust to the bright lights above. He didn’t know where he was.

His body was covered in blood and dirt — he could smell his own throw up. He must’ve fallen somewhere along the way. He must’ve puked, too.

Strange faces were buzzing about, he saw nurses checking in on patients, doctors conversing with one another. He was in the hospital. But police officers were there too, all around him. Why? He turned to see his sister by his side, finally a familiar face.

She explained everything.

Friends had called an ambulance for John after a University police officer had found him passed out on the sidewalk outside of a fraternity house just off Rugby Road. That’s how he had ended up here, on a stretcher in the hallway of the U.Va. Emergency Department.

When he got to the hospital, he’d swung at the doctor, hence all the police officers. But he was too wasted to remember. He’d gone through the gamut of emotions — from angry and irritable to sad and emotional — but didn’t recall any of it. It wasn’t until other people told him about his night that he was able to piece it all together after a few days.

“I went home for a week. My parents didn’t know what to do with me — all these guys [at UVA were] telling me it happens to everyone and not to worry — but I was super embarrassed by it,” John said. “So I took a few weeks off, and then football season started and I found myself drinking again at a tailgate.”

The hospital trip was scary for a second, but was soon forgotten. Alcohol poisoning might’ve deterred some, but not him — not here. His family was worried but his friends assured him he was fine. It’s normal. Lots of people end up in the hospital, especially first year.

His drinking escalated as the semester went on. He knew his weekends were wild, and usually a little fuzzy, but they were fun. That is, until Sunday morning hit.

“I started doing all these things that were so far against who I am, what I believe, and what I think is right — the whole nine yards,” John said. “I thought it was what ‘fun’ was or what I was supposed to be doing … There were a lot of blackout nights … and a lot of Sunday-morning-can’t-get-out-of-bed type days.”

He was living for the weekend and just getting by during the week. Sundays sucked and classes were hard, but socializing came easy so he kept going.

No one batted an eye when he would black out or wake up hungover as hell. Sometimes he’d wake up with a girl in his bed that he didn’t remember taking home. Dabbling in drugs? That didn’t faze anyone, either. Cocaine wasn’t something to be worried about — but it all should have been.

“The truth is that, the first week [when] he ended up in the hospital unresponsive from alcohol poisoning, I knew he had a problem,” John’s mother said. “The way that first semester went is just not normal, even though it is to so many [students].”

He pledged a fraternity in the spring, as many first-years do. Cocaine soon became John’s drug of choice — there wasn’t pressure to do it, per se, but its prevalence alone was enough. It was everywhere. And, the more cocaine John did, the less he drank. He’d wake up less hungover and usually with fewer regrets. It was a win-win.

“When you think of drugs as a kid, [cocaine] is this big, scary, hardcore drug. It’s not like smoking weed. But then you get to college and that’s not the case anymore,” John said. “I was so against it when I got to school […] but then I tried it once. And [when] I realized I wasn’t going to blackout as much if I was doing coke, it was like an ‘aha’ moment.”

This cycle of drinking and drugging continued throughout the spring of his first year. By the end of the semester, he was back in the hospital. This time it was because of a fight he’d drunkenly gotten into at a bar that resulted in seven staples in his head.

Summer was calmer. He was working, drinking less and not doing as much cocaine. It was harder to get ahold of when everyone was home. He told his family — and himself — that he was fine.

Come Block Party second year, the blacking out was back. School had started again, and so did the heavy drinking. His grades quickly slipped and his parents presented him with a contract: no more alcohol-related trips to the hospital, no run-ins with the police and no failing grades — “that was it,” John’s mom said. If he didn’t abide, or — what’s more, if he couldn’t abide — they wouldn’t continue to pay for school. Easy enough.

Just four weeks into his second year at the University, John realized he couldn’t keep up his end of the contract.

“At first it was this, ‘Screw you, I don’t have a problem,’ mentality,” John said. “But it planted a seed that I actually might. Every time I’d drink I’d be thinking about [the contract], which was the biggest wakeup call.”

There was no insane incident, no specific night that set him over the edge — there was just the simple realization that John was no longer in control, drugs and alcohol were. He could no longer guarantee those three simple things his family asked of him: he couldn’t guarantee that he wouldn’t go to the hospital or get in trouble with the police. The student who never got lower than an A in high school couldn’t even guarantee that he’d pass all of his classes.

Just a few days later, John packed up and headed back to his rural Virginia home where his parents were waiting. He wouldn’t return to the University that year.

Here’s where John’s story may start to sound less familiar: soon after returning home, he was leaving again — this time to go check into a treatment center for alcohol and drug addiction. He was about to begin his recovery journey.

“There’s a saying that if alcohol is causing a problem in your life, you have a problem with alcohol. It can really be anything, even little things,” John’s mother said. “Our entire culture normalizes so much about alcohol that isn’t normal — it’s like, ‘Oh college kids will be college kids,’ so it’s just not a big deal.”

The reality is that John was just one of the roughly 20 percent of college students who meet the criteria for an Alcohol Use Disorder, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. That means that one out of every five college students fits the bill for having a problem with alcohol.

“College and university campuses are very specific environments where it’s very culturally accepted and expected for people to use substances excessively,” said Dr. Audrey Klein, the executive director of the Butler Center for Research at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. “When you have that kind of culture and everybody is in that same setting — events that happen that are really abnormal, or serious events — it’s easy for people to not think of them as problematic because of [the] culture.”

The behavior that John was engaging with is what researchers are now calling “high-intensity drinking” — or drinking beyond binge parameters. Binge drinking is consuming four or more drinks for females and five or more for males in one sitting. But young people — college students especially — are drinking at even more alarming rates than that. That’s where high-intensity drinking enters the picture. It’s defined as alcohol consumption that is at least two times more than the binge-drinking threshold or 10+ drinks in a single sitting.

Research conducted by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the University of Maryland School of Public Health puts about one in nine college students — 11 percent — in the category of high-intensity drinkers.

This number may sound steep. But think about it. Think about the pregame where you fill your red solo cup halfway with cheap vodka, mixing in a little soda to be able to swallow it and counting that as one drink when it should be three or four, maybe more. Or where you kill a fifth of alcohol with a date before a function, downing the equivalent of 16 shots between the two of you.

Any type of intentional intoxication or aggressive alcohol consumption, whether its binge consumption or high-intensity drinking, comes with enormous risks — ones that are often overlooked in college cultures where the prevalence of alcohol and substance consumption make it easy to forget, or even ignore, the consequences.

“The hardest part was knowing … knowing how traumatized everyone was,” John’s mom said. “But for him, it was not a big deal. He had the mentality that ‘Everybody does it,’ and meanwhile he’d created this trail of wreckage.”

The alcohol wasn’t the only substance wreaking havoc in John’s life. He’s also one of about eight million young adults who were current users of illicit drugs, according to the National Institutes of Health. But how many students actually identify as having an addiction or substance use disorder?

“You will find research and statistics from various studies that will support that there are more [students with alcohol or substance abuse disorders] than those who identify the addiction or receive treatment for it,” Klein said. “A lot of it is because that culture is very much a drinking and drug use culture and so that’s part of the reason that people think it’s okay to engage in these behaviors.”

With addiction in his family history, John’s parents knew that the behavior their son was engaging in was not normal, despite all his reassurances. They knew the risks that came with the behavior John was engaging in, they knew the signs of addiction, and they wanted to help him, before it was too late.

“When a person is engaging in this type of use – your chances of dying based on just ingesting too much of that substance go up astronomically, not to mention the other risks with injury or those things,” Klein said. “You hear cases of people that do this high intensity drinking and they do like 10-12 shots in two hours … the body can’t physically process that much alcohol … In high enough amounts, it will literally shut your heart and your breathing down.”

John is one of thousands of young people engaging in this type of dangerous drinking and drugging, but the users themselves are not the only ones impacted.

“Thousands of college students at low risk for developing alcohol use disorders still suffer from the ramifications of excessive drinking — from DUIs, car crashes and violence to date rape,” Dr. Joseph Lee, medical director at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation Youth Continuum, said in arecent report. “Millions more are affected by the collateral damage.”

The collateral damage was what turned John towards treatment. He wasn’t in it for himself, not this time at least. But he had acknowledged he had a problem, which is more than many college students can say.

After almost a year of treatment — in-patient, outpatient, time at a halfway house and a few months in a sober living environment — John returned to his home in Virginia. Discussion turned to debate within the family as they tried to decide whether or not John should return to the University or if transferring would be a better option. The culture at the University hadn’t changed — it was still the same ‘party school’ that it had always been. But John had changed. He convinced his family that he could handle it this time around.

“The very first weekend he was back, at Block Party, he had a massive relapse,” John’s mom said. “Binge drank all weekend, did lots of drugs, and that was that. Before classes even started, he’d blown a year of being sober.”

Already relapsing, John’s parents told him that he needed to live in a sober house in Charlottesville in order for them to continue paying for school. He got himself in, but got himself out even faster. It wasn’t the cockroaches that prompted his exit, but the curfew. John couldn’t go out if he was living there.

He moved into upperclassman housing on campus where he was free to do whatever he wanted, but John knew he needed something to help him maintain the contract with his parents, which still stood. So he joined the club rugby team. He figured if he had something to keep him busy, he couldn’t get into too much trouble.

“Rugby kept me entertained. We’d travel so I couldn’t go out all the time, couldn’t be too hungover for games,” John said. “It was a very controlled environment, or I thought it would be.”

Even with rugby, John’s substance abuse escalated. He went through periods of sobriety that fall, where he’d abstain from drinking or taking drugs for a little. But he would quickly relapse. It wasn’t real recovery. He was back in the fraternity system, amid more partying than he could handle. Part way through the fall semester, he picked up a job at a bar on the Corner. It was there that cocaine became the center of his world.

“My entire year at that point was based around doing, selling [and] buying drugs,” John said.

“The problem was, as with any addiction, it gets progressively worse,” he said. “I was a ‘frat star’ and a drug dealer — I was so far from that person at [boarding school] who was valedictorian.”

The year progressed, and so did his relationship with drugs — he became increasingly dependent. Drinking was still a prevalent part of his life, too. He was living a lifestyle that was worlds away from his sobriety the year prior. His family relationships were severely strained, as were those with most of his friends. He was already feeling alone with nothing left but his addictions.

Depression plagued John’s days. He struggled through the rest of the spring semester. Then, in May of 2016, exactly a year after he’d come home from treatment, the few remaining walls of John’s world came crumbling down.

He was $100 short on the drug money he owed to a bigger dealer — he was just a little fish in a big pond. But even little fish have to pay what they owe.

Standing in an apartment in downtown Charlottesville, a gun was pulled. John froze. He was going to lose his life over $100 in drug money. His dealer looked serious — he wanted the money John owed him and was willing to take a life for it. Such a price to pay for such a small debt.

“I thought I was going to die in that apartment in Charlottesville,” John said. “And I didn’t. But I woke up the next day and wanted to. My family had basically written me off, so had a ton of friends. Everyone was gone. I had no one. I had nothing. That’s a really lonely place to be — where all you’ve got left are drugs and alcohol.”

He was scared to get sober but more scared to continue on the path that he was on. Ultimately, John’s fear of continuing to drink and do drugs was stronger than his fear of trying something new. The next day, he found himself standing in the doorway of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.

He was going to get sober.

“He reached his bottom … He decided to get involved in AA, get a sponsor, and he’s been sober ever since,” John’s mother said. “The truth is, if [John] had not gotten sober, I was just waiting for the phone call that he had died or been in some horrible accident or something.”

The following fall, John returned to Charlottesville and the University. The same school, the same Grounds. But everything was different.

He disaffiliated from his fraternity to focus on the AA’s 12 steps of recovery, the treatment program they use to help participants achieve and maintain sobriety. He had a sponsor, was getting sober and expending his energy on entirely new things. He had to find an identity outside of drugs and alcohol and reform relationships around his newly sober self. He had to relearn how to live each and every day and find new ways to have fun.

Rugby took on an entirely new meaning.

“It gave me goals,” John said. “Right before I got sober I’d heard that our league was creating an all-conference team and that was the goal — make all-conference. I knew that if I worked for that goal, even if I didn’t make it, something good would come. It was almost selfish to be honest — I didn’t really care about our record, but I had to do it for me. I had to accomplish something sober.”

John not only reached the goals he set for himself, but he surpassed them. He made the Top-50 Forward ranking, the All-Conference team and became a captain the next season.

“I think that being involved in that community can be really helpful for people. In his situation, it was something he needed,” John’s mother said. “And was certainly a saving grace when he was sober. Last year it gave him an extra motivation to stay sober and something to do in his spare time.”

Rugby has become a tool for him to teach others the lessons he learned from his addictions — how to overcome obstacles and how to keep fighting, how to live positively and learn from every experience and how to embrace every day as a gift.

Today, John is finishing up his last semester at the University — and he’s done it soberly since summer of 2016, inching closer to two years of sobriety with each passing month. He hasn’t done or dealt drugs since then, either. His life today is a testament to his recovery, and a testament to the dangers of the excessive drinking and substance abuse that are so routine at U.Va. and universities across the country.

“Coke just gets normalized if you’re around it enough,” John said. “But here’s the scary thing about drugs like that — you don’t get to decide when you’re addicted to it […] you just become addicted to the physical substance. At U.Va., you get to see the glamorous side of drugs. But when I was in rehab, you get to see what this shit can really do to you. Everyone is convinced they’ll never be that person who gets hooked, but here’s the problem: it happens. It happens to kids all the time.”

Excessive use, whether that be drugs or alcohol, are all normalized on college campuses. John’s story highlights the reality of these things — he’s a living example of the dangers of dabbling in substances like these. But his life today is so much more than that.

“I can’t imagine a more difficult environment to get sober in than college, especially at a place like U.Va.,” John’s mother said. “The hardest thing is that you have to be different from everyone else. When everyone is partying and you’re not, you have to have courage and a backbone and come to terms with that, and I thank God [John] had that.”

Sampson versus Bennett

Different era, same values.

Words by Emma D’arpino. Photos courtesy of Virginia Athletics.

Former Virginia men’s basketball legend Ralph Sampson once said, “When you leave a footprint — if it’s your shoe size, if it’s writing your name on the wall or meeting someone and changing their life — you leave your footprint somehow on what you do.”

The footprint Sampson left on the University is definitely bigger than his shoe size. And for someone who stands at 7 feet 4 inches, that’s a pretty big shoe size we’re talking about.

If you walk into John Paul Jones Arena and look at all the banners honoring the great players to have represented the Cavaliers, or scan through the program’s record books, there is no doubt that the name ‘Ralph Sampson’ appears an overwhelming amount of times.

But what the records don’t tell you is the kind of teammate and person Sampson was. The three-time National and ACC Player of the Year is often described as unselfish — almost to a fault — by those who played with him or coached him.

Despite the fact that Sampson’s size is one that automatically draws attention, he was one of the most highly sought-after recruits while in high school and he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated multiple times while still in college, Sampson wasn’t interested in the spotlight — even though the spotlight was certainly interested in him.

Sampson was a team-oriented guy who didn’t prioritize winning the Naismith College Basketball Player of the Year Award over achievements that were attained as a team.

Additionally, even though Sampson’s height alone set him up for making a mark in the basketball world, he still embraced and valued his role as a college student. Not only did Sampson graduate and earn his degree from the University, but he was also chosen to live on the Lawn during his senior year of college, which is one of the highest honors that the school grants its students.

“Here was the best player in the country coming out of high school who was an African-American that grew up 60 miles away and chose U.Va.,” said Craig Littlepage, former Virginia athletics director and assistant coach for the Virginia men’s basketball team in the 1981-82 season. “He became the nation’s top player with opportunities each year to declare for the NBA draft, yet he stayed in school for four years and graduated.”

Although Sampson could have easily made his time with Virginia a quick stop along the way to the NBA, he chose to spend four years in Charlottesville as both a student and a selfless teammate.

Virginia fans today are well acquainted with this kind of archetype — after all, current Coach Tony Bennett’s players consistently have been described as reflecting these Sampson-esque values.

Today’s Virginia fans have also become well acquainted with a level of success that rivals that of the Sampson era.

During Sampson’s junior year, Virginia recorded 30 wins. Those wins stood as the most wins for a Virginia team in a single season for over three decades and seemed to be an untouchable program-high.

Then came Tony Bennett. After building up the program for a few years, Bennett’s 2013-14 squad finished the season with a 30-7 record. The next year, the team went 30-4, and Bennett’s team this year is positioned to grab another 30-win season. Furthermore, this year’s 12-0 start in the ACC was also the first time since 1980-81 that a Virginia team started 12-0 in the conference. Additionally, when the Cavaliers earned a No. 1 ranking in the AP poll this year, it was the first time since 1982 — Sampson’s senior year — that the program was named the best team in the country.

The thing is, even though Bennett is mirroring the success of the Sampson era, the makeup of the teams is almost entirely different. The greatest difference, of course, being that Tony Bennett doesn’t have the uniquely and supremely talented Ralph Sampson. No longer is there Ralph Sampson for fans to idolize, for the media to gush over and for the college basketball world to praise to the highest degree.

What Sampson achieved at Virginia was — and remains — unprecedented. In addition to racking up virtually every national honor possible, Sampson has remained atop the Virginia record books for decades. He currently has posted more career rebounds, field goals made, dunks and blocked shots than any other Cavalier. The blocked shots record is particularly staggering, with Sampson accumulating 462 blocks in his four years. To put this in perspective, Virginia’s second-best blocker, Chris Alexander, only had 148 blocks in his career. If you break it down by season, Sampson holds the four top spots in the record books for blocks in a single season. Similarly, he also holds the top four spots for rebounds in a single season.

This consistent high level of play meant that every time Sampson stepped on the court, there was more than a chance that something amazing would occur. Thus, it’s no surprise that every game attracted all sorts of attention.

“Everyone wanted to see U.Va. and Ralph Sampson play, whether it was in person or on TV,” Littlepage said. “Having Ralph Sampson meant that every game was an event, the players were rock stars, the media sought interviews, the pro scouts followed every practice and game.”

Sampson’s supernatural abilities seemed to have no bounds in who he could leave in awe, and even his teammates — who, keep in mind, are Division I athletes themselves — marveled at what he was capable of.

“For those of us that were more normal athlete types, once every third practice, or so, [Sampson] would … do something that was so ridiculous, and you would think, ‘Did I really just see what I think I saw?'” said Tim Mullen, former Virginia basketball player from 1981-85 .

But Sampson wasn’t just out there building his own resume with his impressive play. Each year, as he turned down millions of dollars by returning for another season of college basketball rather than going to the NBA, he was also building up the entire Virginia men’s basketball program.

“He allowed us to recruit other nationally ranked prospects because so many other good players wanted to play alongside of ‘Stick’,” Littlepage said. “U.Va. quickly became the focus of the college basketball world and as a result, gave the basketball program and the University, generally, incredible exposure on an international level. Everyone knew who Ralph Sampson was and knew that he attended and played for the University of Virginia.”

Simply put, Sampson changed Virginia basketball in a way no one else had, and he performed at a level that is virtually impossible to replicate. In other words, there will never be another Ralph Sampson.

What Tony Bennett has done with the program shows that that doesn’t mean Virginia basketball will never have another era of success like the Sampson era, though.

In the 10 years prior to Bennett’s arrival in Charlottesville, Virginia had only gone to the NCAA Tournament twice and struggled to make it beyond the second round in any of its NIT Tournament appearances. In the 2008-09 season, which was just before Bennett took over, the Cavaliers had a 10-18 overall record and were 4-12 in the ACC.

After spending a few years rebuilding the program, by his fifth season with Virginia, Bennett guided the team to an impressive 30-7 record, had a mere two losses in conference play, claimed an ACC regular season title, picked up an ACC tournament championship and made a Sweet 16 appearance. When the team was ranked No. 2 that year, it marked the first time since 1982-83 that Virginia had climbed that high in the national rankings.

Since that 2012-13 season, Virginia has performed at a consistently high level. The Cavaliers have advanced to the NCAA Tournament in each of the last four seasons and, in 2016, they made their first NCAA Elite Eight appearance since 1995.

Like Sampson, Bennett gave the program a new life. And, like Sampson, he has been picking up accolades that are shaping up to leave a pretty big footprint at Virginia.

Bennett was named the ACC Coach of the Year by the media and his peers in 2014 and 2015, and he was named the U.S. Basketball Writers Association National Coach of the Year for the 2014-15 season.

But, once again mirroring the college basketball legend, Bennett isn’t interested in making the accolades the subject of conversation or making himself the center of attention. And this has become a trait that his players have replicated as well.

Due to the character of Bennett and the way his players have represented that character, it is fitting that it’s almost impossible to hear anyone talk about Virginia men’s basketball today without the mention of Bennett’s Five Pillars — humility, passion, unity, servanthood and thankfulness. These biblically-based principles comprise Bennett’s coaching philosophy, and were first established by his father.

“Regardless of what your beliefs are, they are wisdoms that have stood the test of time,” Bennett said in a Virginia Athletics video. “If you went around our locker room and the hallways, you’ll see [the Five Pillars] … Each one is specific to certain aspects that we think that make a great team and even a great player.”

Throughout the years, Bennett has preached these values to such a degree that they have become a phenomenon in the college basketball world and have been intrinsically linked to the progress and success of Virginia men’s basketball under Bennett.

“[The Pillars] set a foundation for moving the team forward and building a solid thought process where everyone thinks the same way,” said Akil Mitchell, Virginia forward from 2010-14.

Mitchell further attributed the culture and Bennet’s Pillars as a key factor in the process of going from not even qualifying to the NCAA tournament to making it to the Sweet 16 within Mitchell’s four years at Virginia.

“We all worked really hard,” Mitchell said. “The pillars set a foundation, and we were a brotherhood. We all knew what we wanted to accomplish and we knew how we wanted to get there and we were worked out butts off everyday to make sure that our goals would be accomplished, and we did it together.”

This year’s team has also especially captured that kind of team-wide commitment to having the same beliefs and goals.

When the Cavaliers beat Duke in Cameron Indoor Stadium on Jan. 27 for the first time since 1995, the general response to how such a feat was accomplished was that it was achieved by a selfless team grounded in the idea that although everyone has different roles at different times, they are all united under the team’s values and shared aspirations.

“They’re very clear of who they are as a team,” Bennett said after the Duke win. “I always talk about humility. That’s our first pillar. Just knowing who you are as a team. I like the way they’re doing that and picking each other up … It’s just been different guys at different times stepping up and doing the job.”

The team, and the rest of the college basketball world, has come to understand that embracing these values is not optional if you want to play for Bennett. As a result, some players have transferred from the program because they haven’t bought into the system, and some players have been suspended for not following the team rules. But, for those that take in the lessons Bennett teaches them and mirror those attitudes through their play, success has come.

And that is exactly what this year’s team has shown.

“I think this team reflects their coach,” said Seth Greenberg, ESPN analyst and former Virginia assistant coach. “He very much understands who he is and how he wants to win. He recruits to their system, and everyone buys into it. His non-negotiables, his core beliefs are as solid as any in the country. The kids believe in him, and they believe in each other.”

Bennett’s system is further acknowledged as an exceptional contrast to the current one-and-done college basketball world, in which players are more detached from their school, viewing it as merely a short pit-stop to the NBA.

“In a culture of college basketball today where guys are trying to get out as quickly as they can, the Virginia kids are staying around an extra year, getting a better understanding of the culture,” Greenberg said. “[Bennett’s] leadership is unbelievable, his character is undeniable, but most importantly I think that these kids believe in him, and their core beliefs and non-negotiables are seen each and every day.”

As today’s Virginia men’s basketball team lives out these core beliefs each and every day, they are interestingly mirroring the day-to-day team culture that existed during the Sampson years.

“Seeing Virginia up close, this year in particular, I have had the opportunity to see the five pillars in action,” said Jim Miller, former Virginia basketball forward from 1981-85. “What’s neat is that when I played we shared many of the same values. We might not have called them exactly by the same name but we clearly embodied those same principles. Teamwork was all about making sure everyone was on the same page. We always started each year talking about these principles and what they meant to us.”

After all these years, these two very different Virginia basketball eras are threaded together not just by their success, but by their values, as well.

“Our best teams in the modern era, starting in the late ’70s, relied on intelligent, physical and team-oriented play, particularly on defense,” Littlepage said. “Because Ralph, himself, was such a team-first guy, the DNA of Virginia basketball has been consistent.”

This team-first DNA that is found in both the Sampson era and the Bennett era has shown that for all the differences that exist between these teams, this one commonality can lead them to end up in the same place.

It doesn’t matter that the Sampson team was always expected to go far, but this year’s team wasn’t even in the preseason AP Top 25. It doesn’t matter that when Sampson was on the court, Virginia played an up-tempo game — as evidenced by the 1982-83 team’s 81.9 average points per game — whereas now the team methodically slows down the pace, averaging 67.2 points per game over the previous four seasons. What matters is that both of them share a team culture that has led to tremendous success. Because of that, these two eras have left footprints in Virginia basketball that will remain forever.