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Football was teenager's focus

Classmates and family mourn football standout Cedric Mills, who was shot Wednesday.

Published April 27, 2007

Patricia Hines, left, hugs Lucy Mills to offer condolences Thursday on the death of her grandson, Cedric "C.J." Mills. "He touched so many lives," Lucy Mills said.
[Times photo: Daniel Wallace]
[Times photo: Daniel Wallace]
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 - Cedric "C.J." Mills grew up tough, the oldest of nine grandchildren raised together in a small house in West Tampa.

But his grandmother told him that no goal was too big if he focused and worked hard.

By 17, the standout football player for Jefferson High School was well on his way to living his NFL dreams when he was gunned down Wednesday night in front of his father's home.

On Thursday, classmates spoke with grief counselors, banded together at school and posted notes to his page. His family gathered at his grandparents' home on Cypress Street. And members of St. Matthew Missionary Baptist Church filled pews, praying and remembering. No funeral arrangements had been finalized.

"You couldn't believe how big his heart was," said Lucy Mills, his grandmother. "He touched so many lives. He had a goal set in life, and he wouldn't let anything deter that goal."

A day after the slaying, investigators said they had several leads, but no one had been arrested. The gunman and a getaway driver both wore bandanas tied over their faces.

With Mills' death, Jefferson High lost a star athlete and a popular and charismatic leader. Nearly 100 people - family, teammates, classmates and church members - came to St. Joseph's Hospital on Wednesday as doctors tried to save his life.

When Mills' father, Vidal Mills, heard the bad news in the hospital waiting room, he didn't seem to comprehend.

"Vidal said, 'Are you telling me my son is dead?'" Mills' aunt, Sandra Stergan, recalled. Relatives screamed with grief.

Mills' family thinks someone was jealous of the disciplined young man's success and focus.

"This is not the first time he had trouble," said his grandfather, Ernest Mills, 60. "He was just that type of person that people get jealous of."

At 6:25 p.m. Wednesday, two men in a late-model Chrysler pulled up at Mills' father's home on Laurel Street. One man fired at Mills, who fell to the ground.

Mills had just returned home from a walk to the corner store, and the car followed him home, his aunt said. His stepsister was inside the house. She called her father and grandma for help.

When his father arrived, he cradled his son in his arms until the ambulance took him.

"C.J. told him to tell everybody he loved them," Stergan said. "He just knew he was going to pass."

Mills' father declined to speak with a reporter Thursday.

"His dad said he was really calm," Stergan said. "He didn't panic. He was just lying in his arms, talking to him."

Following his father

Born in 1990, Mills grew up in Tampa. Mills' mother gave birth to him when she was still in high school, and his father was working on his football career, so he lived mostly with his grandparents. His earliest memories came in the home on Cypress Street, surrounded by cousins.

He spent his time tossing footballs around the yard, and he made up his mind early to be like his dad. His father played for Jefferson High and nearly made the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1994 after a strong training camp. When he didn't make the team, he joined the Tampa Bay Storm arena football team.

At 7, Mills joined a youth football league, quickly beating out older boys for a starting spot. He also showed a softer, generous side that would endear him to teammates and family.

When he ran hard into another player, he stopped and waited to make sure the other boy was all right, his grandma said. At this, her voice broke with emotion.

He attended St. Matthew. In Sunday school, he was an energetic child who loved to ask questions, recalled his teacher, Rowe Taylor.

By the time he reached high school, Mills was a muscular, strong athlete, playing linebacker.

Jefferson senior Sam Green, a backup safety and Mills' teammate, said the sophomore's youth belied the respect he commanded.

"C.J. was the man that set the tone during the game. He was like, the leader," said Green, who lived on the same street as Mills.

He showed strong promise, said former Jefferson quarterback Stephen Garcia, the county's all-time leader in passing yardage and TD passes. "He had a tremendous amount of talent, he definitely had a chance to be a Division I player," he said.

Jefferson coach Mike Fenton echoed that. "I believe that the stars were the limit for him ... possibly the NFL one day."

On his page, Mills touted his prowess.

"Last year i made all-conf, all-county, and all-state and defensive m.v.p," he wrote. "Yeah i had a good year but ... diz year im 40 lbs more strait muscle a lot more stronger a bit faster and i even grew a lil."

He listed his status as "single," and his income as "$250,000 and higher" and posted photos of a gun, stacks of cash and pictures of football players.

Around school, he was known for his big smile and the gold grille he slipped over his teeth, Stergan said.

His popularity was obvious in the halls of Jefferson.

"This is the quietest day I have ever been in high school," said Braden Bradford, a 16-year-old junior. "Every homeroom had about four or five people crying. At lunch, lines were short because no one wanted to eat."

Inside the school's front door, a tiled shrine to the Dragons became a memorial Thursday. His blue-and-yellow football jersey and school I.D. card sat amid notes, poems and drawings.

"I'm gonna ride hard till the end and live life to its fullest for you," one note said.

Mills faced pressure from kids envious of his talent, his family said. About a year ago, he was attacked as he left a movie theater, accused of hurting another teen on the football field, his grandfather said.

State records show Mills was arrested by police in 2005, accused of misdemeanor battery. No details were available.

He wasn't involved in anything criminal, his aunt said.

"It was really just a tragedy because he didn't like that type of life," Stergan said. "I think it was just jealousy because he really had a future."

His cousin, Darion Davis, 8, said Mills taught him how to stand up for himself. Asked what he would miss most, Darion paused. Then he smiled and replied: "Everything."

Times researcher John Martin and staff writers Michael A. Mohammed, Scott Purks and Joey Knight contributed to this report. Abbie VanSickle can be reached at 813 226-3373 or

[Last modified April 26, 2007, 22:39:19]

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