Athlete is killed outside his home

Published April 26, 2007

TAMPA - Cedric "C.J." Mills, a Jefferson High School linebacker one assistant coach called the best player to ever don varsity pads, was gunned down in his front yard Wednesday.

A 17-year-old sophomore, Mills' only dream was playing for the "U," the nickname for the powerful University of Miami Hurricanes, known to churn out NFL stars - especially at his playing position.

Ebony Green, 18, a witness and a close family friend, told police she was pulling into her driveway when she saw Mills standing by his Chevrolet Caprice outside his home at 4219 W Laurel St. about 6:25 p.m. Wednesday.

Two young black men drove up in a late-model Chrysler with tinted windows and got out. They had bandanas over their faces and began crowding Mills, Green said.

"C.J. looked," she said, then paused. "Fear came over his whole being."

One man fired and Mills fell while they drove away, police said.

Green said Mills seemed alert, got up and tried to walk into his house. He aimed for the front door before collapsing.

"He was talking," Green said. "He said he couldn't feel his leg; that his body was on fire."

Green ran to him while his sister, Deandre Johnson, 15, came out of the house and ran to him. Green ran back to her house and called 911.

Mills' sister summoned her father, who showed up in 10 minutes. He cradled his son and said, "I'm here baby, I'm here baby."

"He was just trying to hang on," Green recalled. "He said, 'I love you dad, I love you dad, I love you dad.' "

An ambulance arrived. Mills, shot twice in the torso, died an hour later at St. Joseph's Hospital, Tampa police Lt. Donnie Peters said.

Mills' father, Vidal Mills, 34, was also a Jefferson High School standout who nearly made the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1994 after a strong training camp. When he didn't make the NFL, he cast his lot with the Tampa Bay Storm Arena football team.

Like his son, Vidal Mills played the linebacker and fullback.

To assistant coach Lane McLaughlin, the unthinkable happened. With two years left in high school, McLaughlin said Mills' legend was growing as fast as the young man was bulking up.

He seemed invincible, the coach said, comparing the 5-10, 210-pound teenager to John Wayne, whose mere presence made his teammates fearless.

"You know he's going to make a play and get you out of a situation," McLaughlin said. "Cedric was the best player we ever had."

He ticked off players a notch below Mills' skill level that Jefferson has sent to other colleges.

Last year Mills recorded 13 sacks and more than 100 tackles playing middle linebacker.

He made the varsity team four games into his freshman year and started every game since. He caught an 8-yard touchdown this year against Robinson High.

He was unblockable and hit like a speeding truck, McLaughlin said, recalling one time he slammed into a Sickles High running back, lifting him 3 feet off the ground just as the player got the ball.

During last season, McLaughlin recalled Mills asking the coach if he thought he could play Division 1 college football. McLaughlin chuckled.

"C.J.," the coach replied, "I know you're going to be a D-1 linebacker."

Quiet but confident, the boy smiled often and always looked people in the eye, the coach said.

"He knocked the heck out of you but picked you back up after he hit you," McLaughlin said.

The day he died, coaches found him joking around the cafeteria with fellow Dragon linebacker Gorby Loreus. Mills recently set the school power clean weightlifting record, only to have Loreus beat it by putting up 280 pounds.

At 11:30 p.m., Jefferson High School became a grieving ground for Mills' friends as athletes and others gathered and huddled together, many of them weeping over the loss.

He was nicknamed the "Candy man," Green said, because he would bring some to school and sell it to make extra money. Over Christmas, he wore a blue cumberbund and blue tie at International Plaza working as a Santa's helper.

Times staff writer Joey Knight contributed to this report. Justin George can be reached at 813 226-3368 or jgeorge@sptimes.com.