On the field, former Virginia football player Chris Long took pride in his never-say-die attitude even in the most daunting of circumstances. But when faced with the possibility of another first-round NCAA Tournament exit by the UVa men’s basketball team at the hands of a No. 16 seed, that strong will quickly crumbled.
“I’m just the weakest-minded fan,” Long said on Wednesday. “When it came to an 8-point deficit in the first round after last year, I was freaking out. I’m pacing around the kitchen island and my wife is looking at me like I’ve lost my mind.”
Long, who, in May, announced his retirement after 11 NFL seasons, was in Los Angeles to present Virginia with the men’s Capital One Cup Award during Wednesday night’s ESPY Awards ceremony. The Capital One Cup is given annually to the nation’s top overall men’s and women’s athletic programs.
It’s the second time Long has presented the award and the second time Virginia’s men’s teams have won it. They also earned it in 2014-15 with a school-record three NCAA championships by the baseball, men’s soccer and men’s tennis teams and a top-10 ranking by the men’s basketball team. Points are awarded for top-10 finishes in Division I championships and in final coaches’ polls.
“At Virginia, the Olympic sports have always been good, but for casual fans, the measuring stick is football and basketball,” Long said. “[Football coach] Bronco [Mendenhall] is growing this program, and a dominant win in the Belk Bowl is a great marker for where we are. [Men’s basketball coach] Tony [Bennett] has taken us to heights people wondered if we could ever get to, but at Virginia all the sports are good enough and fun enough to watch, and I think it’s really cool Capital One recognizes these guys and girls who don’t get the same recognition during the season.”
National championships by the men’s basketball and lacrosse teams, a top-five ranking by the men’s tennis team and a bowl victory by the football team helped Virginia capture this year’s title with 127 points. Stanford was second with 88 and Texas Tech finished third with 79.
Stanford won the women’s cup with 183 points. UCLA was second with 122, and North Carolina finished third with 96. Both winning athletic programs also receive $200,000 to put toward scholarships.
Long will also be watching Wednesday night to see if Virginia’s men’s basketball team adds another trophy to its case. In July, the Cavaliers were nominated for the “best team” ESPY Award.
Other nominees include World Series champion Boston Red Sox, Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, NCAA champion Clemson football team, NBA champion Toronto Raptors, NCAA champion Baylor women's basketball team and the U.S. Women's National Soccer Team, which won its second-straight World Cup title on Sunday.
The category is stacked, but Long said few, if any, of the finalists put together a more adrenaline-inducing few weeks than the Cavaliers’ run to a national championship, which included overtime wins against Purdue in the Elite Eight and Texas Tech in the national title game and game-clinching free throws in the final seconds of a Final Four game against Auburn.
“We knew Oregon was going to be dicey, and the way Purdue shot the ball and the way they played that night, they would have beaten anybody else in the country. I really believe that,” Long said. “A lot of people complained about the matchup in the finals, but it was a great show.”
Long was joined at the national championship in Minneapolis by former UVa teammates Heath Miller, Tom Santi and John Phillips. The group stays in pretty constant contact. They all live in the Charlottesville area, with Phillips the latest to return. Long even went as far as to say he and Santi speak pretty much every 48 hours.
“It was a special place to play, and the guys really do stay tight,” Long said. “They call Charlottesville the hook for a reason. Everybody comes back.”
When he got home from Minneapolis, Long made sure to grab a copy or two of the Sports Illustrated covers commemorating the Cavaliers’ run. One day, his wife told him to look a little closer at a cover, which captured De’Andre Hunter’s and Braxton Key’s reactions in the seconds after the final horn sounded in U.S. Bank Stadium. Long looked and sure enough there he was in the background right below the A in “WAHOOWA.” He’s standing next to Santi, Phillips and Miller and his arms are extended toward the ceiling.
“That was the highlight of my athletic career,” joked Long, who won Super Bowls with the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles.
Muhammad Ali Humanitarian of the Year
Long was also in Los Angeles on Wednesday to receive the 2019 Muhammad Ali Humanitarian of the Year Award. He was honored because of "his commitment to giving back through strategic, multifaceted efforts," which attack larger systemic issues, according to ESPN.
Long donated six weeks of his 2017 salary to fund scholarships in Charlottesville, and the remaining 10 weeks went to educational initiatives in St. Louis, Boston and Philadelphia. He also donated a quarter of his 2018 salary to a literacy initiative and has long supported the Waterboys program, which builds wells in East Africa.
In 2018, Long was named the Walter Payton Man of the Year.