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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
Classmates at Jefferson High created a memorial at school to honor Cedric "C.J." Mills, 17, a linebacker who was gunned down Wednesday evening in front of his father's Tampa home. No suspects have been arrested yet.
[Times photo: Daniel Wallace]
Cedric "C.J." Mills' grandfather Ernest Mills, top left, his grandmother, Lucy Mills, center in black, and cousin Zaza Mills, 11, sitting, receive condolences Thursday during a special service at St. Matthew Missionary Baptist Church.
TAMPA - On Wednesday afternoon, Sam Green honked the horn of his mom's burgundy crossover SUV and waved. Neighbor C.J. Mills, standing outside the T&S Grocery Store - a short post pattern from the buddies' front yards - waved back.
On Thursday, Green's insides were being whipped by gusts of despair, anguish and rage.
"It's really hard. It's like, shocking," said Green, a Jefferson High senior, of the shooting death of Mills, his Dragons football teammate.
On Wednesday, Dragons assistant Lane McLaughlin was having lunch in the school cafeteria when Mills approached him in those unmistakable red-and-white plaid shorts about a University of Miami football camp the player was hoping to attend this summer.
On Thursday, McLaughlin spoke somberly about school flags flying at half-staff and Mills' No. 8 jersey being retired by the school.
"I try not to think about it," McLaughlin said. "I just get angry."
If you've come here today in search of consolation or profound explanation for the murder of an enterprising, engaging 17-year-old who loved the Miami Hurricanes, rap music and those little white snack cakes with the chocolate icing, forget it.
You simply can't make sense of the senseless. Sure, some will rage against the nation's gun laws or articulate a diatribe against the response time of emergency personnel, which some in Mills' neighborhood decried Thursday. Maybe such dialogue will save lives in the future.
But it won't change the mindless nature of this horrible crime.
Or the mind-numbing fragility of human existence.
One day, you're raving about a kid's fleetness. The next, about life's fleeting nature.
Late Wednesday afternoon, Dragons coach Mike Fenton was laughing with Mills in the school's weight room. Minutes later, Mills was struggling for his final breaths a few steps from his front door.
"We talked every day, and he was always in a great mood," Fenton said of his standout linebacker, named the team's defensive MVP as a sophomore last season. "He was one of those great kids. He had that something special, that leadership quality."
On Wednesday, Lucy Mills got a call from her grandson - just to say hi and let her know he loved her - at the diagnostic testing lab where she works.
On Thursday, she was being consoled by dozens of others over his passing at an impromptu love service at Saint Matthew Missionary Baptist Church.
"He had a big, big heart," Lucy said. "He didn't make differences out of people. Everybody was on the same plane with him."
All the crying and counseling never will reconcile the hard-shell truth that the life we possess this moment can be vanquished the next. We simply can't wrap our proverbial arms around it the way Mills wrapped up ballcarriers.
All that's left is to embrace - and nurture - the things that won't die in an instant.
Like the spirit of a goofy sophomore who charmed classmates with his goofiness, endeared himself to elderly neighbors by helping take out their garbage and commanded respect of older teammates by the power of his personality and upper body.
"C.J. had such a love of life and we're going to try to remember and honor that," Fenton said.
On Wednesday, Mills' spirit was alive in the Jefferson community.