In his black SUV, he rolled through the darkness before dawn. He drove past shuttered buildings and fried fish shacks, toward the housing projects of West Tampa and Robles Park, to a row of subsidized rental duplexes shaded by oak trees and overpasses. He had done this scores of times, scanning the corners for drug dealers and dropouts, for anyone who might know something about the men who murdered his son. On this morning, he looked out his window and saw only empty streets. Just a few old people, stirring early. He felt like a circling shark who had driven everyone inside. He killed the stereo, parked his Suburban in plain sight, rolled down his tinted window, lit a cigar. Then he just sat there. It was a dare. Come out and show yourself. Two years had gone by since CJ died. But time wasn't healing Vidal Mills.
Vidal Mills is a football player. He is comfortable in a world of controlled chaos, with winners and losers and rules and penalties. Where if someone gets in your way, you smash them in the mouth.
He played safety. The last line of defense.
Off the field, his role was less clear. A father couldn't just play safety. He had to be a guide and an example, and Vidal was neither.
Vidal became a father at 17, when he was still at Jefferson High. But from the beginning, he was more of an overprotective big brother than a dad.
When Cedric Jamar was born, Vidal was a prep magazine blue chip recruit, 6 feet tall and thick, the most devastating hitter his coaches had ever seen. He liked to stand in front of a mirror after workouts, making sure he hadn't cheated himself.
His weakness was internal. He had a knack for getting in his own way. He never took school seriously, choosing classes with the most girls. He once showed up in the huddle hung over. He turned down scholarships from big schools because he didn't want to sit out a year and pull up his grades. He picked Bethune-Cookman college, where he could play right away.
His parents, Lucy and Ernest Mills, took in baby CJ so Vidal could go to college. The boy's mother remained involved, but she was in school and already raising a child.
At Bethune-Cookman, Vidal had no curfew. He refused to run sprints for insubordination. He was too important to suspend, so he got his way.
He visited his son on weekends. He would put the baby over his big shoulder and walk up and down the block, calming him. Once, he took the baby back to the dorm with him. But CJ would not stop crying, and Vidal returned him the same night.
Two classes shy of graduating, he left school to join the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But he clashed with his coaches. He jumped to the Jacksonville Jaguars. He clashed with those coaches too. He came back to the Bucs.
Head coach Sam Wyche told him to relax, learn the defense and wait his turn. But Vidal couldn't wait. He persuaded the special teams coach to put him on kickoffs, where he ripped up his ankle.
He was out of the league at 24, having never played a regular season down in the NFL.
From there he spiraled. NFL. NFL Europe. Arena League. Sidelined.
• • •
When Vidal moved back to Tampa, CJ was just beginning to play football. He was 7, a PeeWee nose tackle the kids called "fat butt." On the field, he stood his ground against boys two years older.
CJ still lived with his grandparents. He called them mom and dad.
Vidal was Vidal.
They played rough basketball games and trash-talked like brothers. They butted heads, as though stubbornness was in their DNA.
Vidal worked with kids as a counselor and third-grade teacher. As CJ got older, Vidal couldn't help but yell out suggestions from the sidelines. People began to notice the father behind the son. Mothers would ask him to coach their kids, but he would just nod toward CJ and say, "I'm all about this one right now."
For Vidal, still staggering from his wrecked career and searching for a new purpose, CJ became a second chance.
He told CJ how his temper and attitude had derailed his career. To be a leader, he told CJ, you had to learn to be a follower.
Vidal put a weight set in the yard and counted out bench presses, always asking for just one more. He taught CJ the angles to snare jack-rabbit running backs. He had him run the same hills he had run in high school.
By the time CJ reached Jefferson High, he had transformed into the physical reincarnation of Vidal. He was 6-feet and 240 pounds, the hardest hitting player his coaches had ever seen. CJ studied old photos of Vidal, trying to recreate his sculpted body. Vidal taught him to stand in front of a mirror after practice, making sure he hadn't cheated himself.
While his father had been a loner, CJ's classmates loved him. He was not a bully. He had a cousin and half-brother who had mental or physical problems, and he had learned to keep an eye out for the weaker kids. He held jobs at Wendy's and the mall. He flipped candy and chips at school for a buck, buying supplies with his own Sam's Club card.
He was open where Vidal was shut. He was a hugger.
Vidal had told his college coach he never wanted to be a team leader. CJ couldn't help but be one.
Vidal had been second-team all-state as a senior. CJ was honorable mention all-state as a sophomore.
Vidal made CJ write down his goals. CJ filled three pages and taped them to his bedroom door.
*Make my grandmother happy * Become the best linebacker ever * Win state * Be a All American Football player * Make it to Miami Uni * Get a good degree * Help team to championship * Go to the NFL * First round pick * Buy grandparents a really big house * Buy myself a house * Buy parents a house …
When CJ was 15, he surprised Vidal with one word:
• • •
Vidal tried to teach CJ to avoid confrontations. But it was hollow, hypocritical advice, and CJ knew it.
"What about you?" CJ would say.
Vidal had always had trouble controlling his temper. He knew he became a different person when his fuse was lit. He stifled his feelings, then erupted. Vidal loved football because he considered it "legalized violence."
He saw himself as a protector. When he was a kid, his little brother would hide behind him. When he was 26, police say, Vidal slapped a teenage girl who stuck up for a girl he thought was choking a little boy. Vidal denies it, but agrees that something about an unfair fight always sets him off.
CJ didn't go looking for trouble, but he was popular, flashy, a little spoiled. He attracted lots of attention, good and bad.
He bought new gold grills for his teeth and installed a booming stereo in his Chevy Caprice. Vidal warned him not to show off like that.
He recorded Jook City, a rap track that lives on the Internet.
I talk a mean game, I talk a mean dream, I got ice like a Super Bowl ring …
He made people jealous. He didn't blend in. And he wouldn't back down when challenged. He would point to his body and say, "You sure you want to try me?"
When somebody tried him, Vidal could not help but get involved.
At 14, CJ got in a fight at school over a girl. In retaliation, a young man named Allen Brooks punched CJ at WestShore Mall.
Word got to Vidal. Allen Brooks was 18. To Vidal, that was an unfair fight.
Vidal drove to Brooks' house and asked to speak to his father. The dad called police, who gave Vidal a trespass warning.
A week later, Brooks showed up at one of CJ's youth league games. CJ said he was taunting him.
At least four security guards tried to hold back Vidal, who still managed to punch Brooks at least twice.
Police arrested him for battery. They used two pairs of handcuffs.
Six days later, CJ called Vidal and said he was about to get jumped. Brooks and another man were on bikes, circling.
Minutes later, here came Vidal. Without a word, he jumped out of his SUV and hit Brooks three or four times in the face.
Brooks' eye swelled shut and his nose and lip ballooned. He passed out on his parents' front lawn. When police came, Vidal said he was just leveling the playing field. Brooks was an adult, CJ was a kid. He had no regrets for sticking up for his son.
Police arrested Vidal again. They used three pairs of handcuffs this time.
• • •
CJ hoped he could defuse his father's temper. When he was 15, he surprised his grandparents by telling them he wanted to move in with his dad. He thought he could keep an eye on him.
Vidal couldn't believe it. During prayers, he told God, "everything is going too good."
About the time CJ moved in, Vidal joined a semi-pro football team, the Sarasota Knights, as both player and coach. He wanted CJ to see him play one more time. He wanted to show CJ he could train as hard as he coached CJ to train, that he could keep his attitude in check, and that he could lead.
CJ made him follow through. As much as Vidal was watching out for CJ, CJ was watching out for Vidal.
In late 2006, someone stole CJ's stereo, the one Vidal had warned him about. Vidal found the thief, went to his house, and took the stereo back. He says he did it without violence.
No one knows for sure what happened next. CJ's family said the thief confronted CJ, who knocked out his teeth. Over the next several weeks, grudges grew and so did the tension
• • •
April 25, 2007. CJ usually went with Vidal to football practice, but on this day, he decided to go to Bible study with his grandmother.
Vidal loaded his black Suburban with football equipment and left. He was two minutes from home, when his phone rang.
CJ had been outside in front of Vidal's house. A silver Chrysler Sebring with dark windows circled the neighborhood, then pulled up. Out jumped two black men wearing dreads, bandannas covering their faces.
CJ threw up his hands. The shooter shook his head. He lifted a gun and fired.
Vidal found CJ near the front door. CJ wasn't crying. He kept telling Vidal to calm down.
"Everything will be okay," CJ kept saying.
Vidal held his son. "I'm here baby," he said.
"Daddy, it just burns," CJ told Vidal.
"Who shot you?" Vidal asked. "Who shot you?"
• • •
CJ's funeral was standing-room only. Vidal wore a black suit jacket that fell to his calves like a cape. He hid his eyes behind dark sunglasses.
The choir sang a rollicking chorus, The battle is not yours, it's the Lord's. Vidal didn't sing or sway.
Vidal's parents clapped with the entire church. Vidal didn't clap.
He wanted to leave the fight to God. He believed vengeance belonged to the Lord. But he would be lying to the Almighty if he pretended he didn't want revenge.
When the coffin opened, his wife collapsed in wails. He picked her up and carried her out on his shoulder.
After the funeral, he struggled with where to go with his life. On one hand, he had been changing, trying to show CJ how to be a better man. But with CJ gone, he didn't have to set the same example.
Days after CJ's murder, he kept his commitment to play in a semi-pro game. He felt he would be spitting on his son's grave if he quit, abandoning the lessons he had taught CJ about showing up, about being consistent. He took all his aggression out on the opposing team. Like a shark, he had to move to breathe.
For months afterward, Vidal barely slept.
The police investigation dragged on and on with no arrests.
Parents of slain children held a rally in the neighborhood. Vidal told the crowd to step up, to come forward. He shook his fist at the crowd and called the shooters cowards.
He told the other parents he wasn't afraid of anyone. Hide behind me, he said.
• • •
He listened to the streets for whispers of who shot his son.
Names came in from all over. Vidal tracked down every tip he heard. An 8-year-old told his mother he knew who shot CJ. A father knocked on Vidal's door and said his son had names. He cried, saying he was afraid to put his own family in danger.
Sometimes, people Vidal grew up with said they knew who shot CJ and wanted to take care of it. Just say the word, they told Vidal.
Vidal told them to wait — not to give police more time, but to be sure they had the right men.
He kept hearing about two men who hung out on street corners. In the middle of the night, he would drive to intersections such as Cypress Street and N Boulevard. He never found them. But he believed he was sending a message.
He wasn't going away.
He had heard one of the men was nicknamed "Bobo." He heard that Bobo was bragging about CJ's death. He also heard Bobo had given himself another name lately.
Because he had taken a life.
• • •
The only information police publicly released was that CJ's white LG Chocolate cell phone and gold medallion went missing after the murder.
They described the suspects as black men between 5-feet-9 and 5-feet-10-inches. The driver was light-skinned. He wore a ball cap and red bandanna. He carried a chrome handgun. The passenger was of medium complexion. He wore a black bandanna. He carried a black handgun.
Detectives know the same stories Vidal knows. Police think someone knows something. They might know the suspects and wish to protect them. They might be scared.
Police did more interviews on CJ's case last month. They haven't given up, police Maj. George McNamara said.
"We can't make arrests on rumors," McNamara said. "We have to be correct. We only get one shot.
"Give me everything and anything," he said.
• • •
Oct. 15. 2008. Darrianna Johnson, Vidal's stepdaughter, was working at a N Dale Mabry Highway McDonalds when she recognized a thin man, about 5-foot-8, with dreadlocks tied in a pony tail. He was Fredrick L. Powell, 19. "Bobo."
Darrianna called her mother from the back of the store.
A security camera captured what happened next: Bobo appeared to be on his cell phone, hanging out near the condiments, staring at the front counter.
Vidal and his brother come into the picture. The image is grainy and a little jerky, which only makes the swiftness of what unfolds seem more remarkable. Vidal closes a 20-foot gap between himself and Bobo in two strides. He buries his right fist into Bobo's face. In the follow-through, he wraps the same arm around Bobo's neck like a noose.
Bobo buckles. Vidal drags him backward toward the door.
"You killed my son," Vidal kept saying. "You killed my son!"
• • •
Vidal's arrest for the beating of Fredrick Powell was his sixth.
He was released on bail and returned home. There, in a corner of the living room, is a mound of jail mug shots and booking sheets of local criminals. He says he no longer hunts down drug dealers looking for leads. Then he admits his Suburban sometimes strays. Fredrick Powell denied shooting CJ, but Vidal says he gave him other leads. Vidal's father tells him to get off the street and go home. So does his lawyer.
But when he thinks about CJ, his mind clicks straight to violence.
"The worst thing you can do to a warrior is isolate him," he likes to say.
Vidal is still talking about justice as if he can conjure it with his own hands.
"I know justice will be served one way or another," he says. "They ain't going to run forever. These cowards ain't going to run forever."
He reminds himself that he was trying to raise CJ to be a better man than he is. He has seen a counselor. He prays for control.
He spends as much time as he can on the football field, where rage is part of the game. At 36, he no longer plays, but he coaches a new indoor team, the Florida Scorpions. He gathers his players in the huddle and tells them the same things a father might: the importance of hard work, of taking care of your body, of being there for others. He would like to train underprivileged kids in football and give out a scholarship in CJ's name.
If he believes he made mistakes, or did anything to stoke the violence that swallowed his son, he won't admit it. He says he does not regret beating up Allen Brooks. He doesn't regret retrieving CJ's stereo. His only regret is that he was not there the night CJ died. To protect him.
At his home, he installed a security monitor with cameras that watch the door. Outside, CJ's pit bull, Red, sleeps near the front steps. When the dog hears footsteps, he lunges as far as the chain will allow.
About the story
This story is based on interviews with dozens of people, including the family of Vidal and CJ Mills, and numerous coaches, friends and players. Police reports, surveillance video and news stories support the description of Mills' confrontation with Fredrick Powell. Powell would not be interviewed. Allen Brooks is in prison, but the reporter interviewed his mother.
Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or [email protected] Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.