The University of Virginia's football players didn't need to wade into the shouting, chanting and fighting in downtown Charlottesville last Friday and Saturday to encounter the neo-Nazi, white nationalist protest groups that invaded their community.

They could have found them practically next door.

Communal housing during preseason camp is common in college and pro football, so for most of the past few weeks, many of Virginia's players have called The Cavalier Inn home.

Last weekend, some of the white nationalists also stayed at the hotel. The football players were provided additional security. There were no reported incidents at The Cavalier Inn, and Virginia's players spent the majority of the weekend away from the hotel. But the Cavaliers have spent the past week trying to drown out the impact of a hateful ideology that spawned violence in a usually peaceful town. 

Earlier this week, the players met at The Rotunda and linked arms for a photo that was retweeted and favorited thousands of times on Twitter.

The idea came from senior linebacker Micah Kiser, who wanted his team to send a message to its community.

"[Kiser said] I don't like what's going on, I don't like that it's happening in our city," receiver Ben Hogg told Sports on Earth. "We should do something as a team to show we're united and we won't back down in the face of adversity and terrorists in our city."

Kiser texted team leaders about the idea on Monday morning. By that afternoon, the image went worldwide.

"Micah's idea was they tried to take over our space in Charlottesville, we wanted to take that back," receiver Andre Levrone said in an interview with us this week. "A lot of people say a photo is just a photo, but there's power in symbolism, especially when social media is so powerful. They can get their message across, but we can get our message across, too."

"They" were the thousands of white nationalists and neo-Nazis who invaded Charlottesville from around the country over the weekend. Friday night, they marched through the city shouting racist and anti-Semitic chants like "blood and soil," a rallying cry for Germany's Nazi party in the World War II era.

Saturday, they marched again -- many with guns -- but were met with counter-protesters, and violence erupted. Fists, clubs and mace were the most common weapons of choice, but a 20-year-old white nationalist was charged with ramming a car into a crowd and killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others. By the end of the weekend, 33 people had been injured and two state troopers helping with police response to the protests died when their helicopter crashed outside the city.

"These aren't locals. They're outsiders, and they're intruding on a very special place," Matt Johns, a quarterback who played at Virginia from 2012-16, said. "That's what's so hurtful."

Virginia's players could only mill around in the team facility and watch, trying to stay on task with usual preseason camp meetings while fielding texts and calls from family and friends wondering if they were safe.

At the end of Saturday's scrimmage, coach Bronco Mendenhall told the team the governor had declared a state of emergency in Charlottesville. Virginia added security around the team facility, and players stayed there the rest of the day amid the chaos outside, before breaking for dinner at position coaches' homes.

"We've had hundreds of thousands of soldiers die for the removal of what the Nazi symbols represent. To see them resurface in our community was shocking," Levrone said. "I don't want to say frightening, but it took people by surprise."

Mendenhall's message to the team was two-fold: With a spotlight comes a platform and an opportunity, but when deciding how to respond to that opportunity, it's something to be carefully considered.

"When adversity hits and there are opposing forces and choices to be made, I go to my core beliefs, and those are tied to faith," Mendenhall told reporters on Tuesday. "Those aren't things to be done spur of the moment, they aren't things to be done reactionary. Those things are to be thoughtfully considered and you go as deep as possible to assess, 'What do you believe? What examples of that belief do you have in your life?' And then work to model that as best as possible. Contemplation before action is what I was sharing with our team."

Cavaliers players have coalesced their message around a single word in the week since: Unity.

"When bad people come to the city and try to terrorize it, we come together as one. We push back with positivity," Hogg said. "Our team has been given a platform to give an example for the community on how to come together. It's been awesome to see the rest of the community respond to that."

Thousands of Charlottesville citizens "reclaimed the space" from the weekend protesters at a candlelight vigil on Wednesday night and sang, "We are not afraid," a line from the hymn "We Shall Overcome." They marched the same rout as the protesters from Friday night, but did so holding candles, rather than torches. They organized the event purely from word of mouth in the community, refraining from posting about the event on social media until it was well underway in hopes of avoiding disruption.

The central issue that spawned the protest, a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee, is currently still standing, but that could change soon, and it's ignited a nationwide debate about the place for honoring the history of the Confederacy in today's America.

"An incident like that can happen anywhere, so it's hard to say what Charlottesville can do to improve or if they could have handled things right," Anthony Harris, a safety for the Minnesota Vikings who played for Virginia from 2011-14, told Sports on Earth. "There are issues that are still relevant and need to be addressed. But seeing the diversity among counter-protesters, it shows some growth on the issue. There are people out there and supporting the right thing and the right causes. But last weekend shows we still have a ways to go."