'Like he's here but then he isn't'

Seven days after his death, the specter of C.J. Mills envelops Jefferson High's first practice of the season.

Published May 2, 2007

TAMPA - A man wearing a bandana pulled a trigger at about 6:30 p.m., firing two bullets into C.J. Mills, who staggered, fell and began bleeding in his front yard.

When Mills was pronounced dead an hour later at St. Joseph's Hospital, much of his Jefferson High football team was there to hear the screams of agony from his family.

"It was surreal, " Jefferson senior quarterback Zack Grossi said. "I still can't believe it. None of us can.

"Not even today."

"Today" was Tuesday, the first day of spring practice, seven days after Mills, a beloved 17-year-old sophomore linebacker with Division I-A talent, was killed.

"It's like he's here, " Grossi said, "but then he isn't."

At one point, Grossi looked across the line to get his first read of the spring. He locked eyes with senior linebacker Gorby Loreus. Grossi panned left to Mills' position.

"But see, " Grossi said, "no C.J."

Said Loreus, "I expect C.J. to shout out like he always did, 'Show the blitz! Show the blitz!' But he isn't there. ... Nothing.' "

The night before the shooting, Grossi, Loreus and Mills ordered pizza and "played and replayed" Jefferson's final game of last season, a 22-21 last-second playoff loss to Armwood.

"C.J. was sitting there studying every little thing and saying we were going to come back and beat Armwood and go on to win a state championship, " Grossi said. "He kept saying Tuesday is the day we would start getting it done. He had us so fired up for (Tuesday), you wouldn't believe it."

Before practice, the eyes of Jefferson coach Mike Fenton were bloodshot. Hadn't slept much. Trouble concentrating. Counseling kids. Newspapers and television stations calling and calling.

"Questions, " Fenton said. "Questions, questions."

More and more as the days pass, Fenton said the biggest questions are: Who did this? Why? Why haven't they been caught? Is there no justice?

"We sure would like some answers to start bringing at least a little sense to this, " he said. "It's very disturbing that these guys are still out there."

Tuesday, police said they had no firm answers.

And so the first day of spring practice began.

The plan was to proceed without harping on Mills' absence. To focus on the practice. To address the media but not let it overwhelm.

Minutes before in the coaches' portable, Fenton changed into shorts and went over some pre-practice itinerary with assistants. He spent a few minutes fiddling with a blow horn he had gotten to work. Finally, about 3:40, he locked the door behind him.

"Basically, " he said, "we're going to do things the same as we always do. Same schedule. Same routine. ... Uh, wait ... " Shaking his head. "I forgot the blow horn."

The distractions? Mills in the back of the mind?

"No, " Fenton said, scrambling with the keys at the door. "Well, I don't know. I don't think so. I mean, who knows? In a situation like this, it's tough to know what's going on in your head."

He walked out to the field. There were four television stations filming. Waiting. Watching.

"All I know, " Fenton said, "is that we're trying to deal with this the best we can. We're trying to get along. But it's surreal. All of it, surreal."

He blew the horn. He called the players over. It was 3:45. He told the team the day's itinerary. Stretching commenced.

At the top of the stretching lines were six players called "The Leadership Committee." Seven days ago, there were seven on the committee.

Mills' space, a wide gap in the line, will remain throughout the season.

"And that, " Fenton said, "says more than anyone can begin to imagine."

Scott Purks can be reached at purks @sptimes.com or (813) 226-3353.