ORLANDO — The celestial skybox, high above the Citrus Bowl, rocked Friday afternoon.
Jefferson’s players could almost see their guardian Dragon up there, slapping the Plexiglass in unabridged rapture. They could almost make out C.J. Mills’ expansive smile and hear his jubilant yelps when his first cousin picked off two passes in the biggest game of his life.
“Every time I got a pick, I put one hand in the air,” senior Rodney Mills said, pointing to a cloudless sky. “I was like, ‘Thank you.’ …It feels like I’m with C.J. again.”
Indeed, it was as if C.J. —whose dad, Vidal, was among the 1,600 or so Jefferson fans in attendance — tapped fate on the shoulder and asked to put his stamp on the most glorious day in Dragons football lore.
“I can’t explain how exciting it was,” Vidal said.
Of all the subplots in this 44-34 state title game romp of Miami Norland, none was more fitting than Rodney snagging a badly underthrown pass on a wheel route at the Vikings’ 39 and nearly bringing it back all the way — C.J.’s memory snugly in tow.
And late in the third, when Rodney jumped a slant route at his goal line for another pick, well, C.J.’s spirit was palpable enough to tack a gold medal to it.
“My boy’s up there dancing right now,” quarterback and newly-minted Florida Mr. Football Quentin Williams said.
Three and a half years earlier, Rodney, Quentin and the rest of the Dragons were galvanized by a tragedy they’ll never shake.
Rodney was playing basketball that April evening when a buddy told him he had just heard shots fired in the West Tampa neighborhood located a couple of hard spirals from Jefferson’s campus. It took Rodney all of 30 seconds to race to C.J.’s house.
There, he found his cousin — the one who taught him to tie his shoes, to ride his green Mongoose bike — bleeding in the driveway from a fatal gunshot wound. C.J., a Dragons middle linebacker seemingly on a beeline for a major college scholarship, was 17.
“The last thing he told me is that he loved me,” Rodney said Friday. “I just went in the house and lost my mind. I didn’t know what to do.”
None of the current Dragons were old enough to be a teammate of C.J.’s, but soulmate is another story. C.J., whose murderer still hasn’t been caught, was the surrogate sibling, an elder Dragon to emulate — the kid they all wanted to become.
“He was just like my big brother,” senior wideout Andre Davis said.
In August, a plaque attached to a granite monument was set up in C.J.’s honor in the southeast corner of Dr. Sam Horton Stadium.
Carved beneath his name: Respect. Passion. Endurance.
“We went through our walk-through this morning and I noticed a couple of our guys were late for the walk-through but I saw they were over by the monument,” coach Mike Fenton said.
Vidal, who traveled to Orlando with eight other family members, was touched when informed of that gesture. But his message to Rodney before the game — heck, all season — was clear.
Make this about you and your teammates. Don’t let emotion muddle your focus. Absorb the moment.
Easier said than done. “As long as I was up today, I was thinking about (C.J.),” Rodney said.
On Sunday, when the euphoria has subsided, Rodney will do what he does each Sunday. He and some family members will visit C.J.’s grave site. Rodney says he’ll laugh with C.J., joke with him, tell him how he performed on his grandest stage.
At that point, Rodney backtracks: “Well, he already knows how I did.”
C.J., after all, had the best seat in the house.
Photo: Jefferson senior Rodney Mills, a cousin of C.J. Mills, escapes a Norland tackler, finishing the day with two interceptions.