TAMPA — Jefferson football coach Mike Fenton remembers vividly what followed after rain fell during his team's game against Gaither last fall. Not because the precipitation affected the outcome, but because of how his players responded to it in the locker room.
"They," Fenton said, "were like, 'That's C.J. crying … crying from heaven.' "
The players were referring to C.J. Mills, the Dragons' standout linebacker who was shot and killed in his driveway that April. He was 17, a leader on the field in every way, a football star who likely would have played for a Division I-A program. More than that, though, he was the teammate everyone liked.
Dealing with his death and the shock of it was difficult. Bonded by the tragedy, the Dragons tried their best to honor their fallen teammate. At each Jefferson game, Mills' No. 8 jersey was draped over a set of shoulder pads and placed on the team's bench. A flag was made bearing Mills' number. It went everywhere the Dragons did.
But on the field, a program accustomed to winning big struggled — by its standards — to a 5-7 finish.
"There's no doubt in my mind it affected us," Fenton said.
"It was definitely something on everyone's mind," Dragons offensive lineman Jarrod Gant said. "I don't want to use that as an excuse for how we played, but it took its toll. It didn't seem real. Every little thing would remind us of him."
A year later, Mills' locker still sits empty.
The pain of his loss hasn't lessened, but perhaps it has sunk in. Once again the squad is focused on football. And that, Fenton thinks, is a positive step in the healing process.
"He's not coming back," Fenton said. "We're all aware of that. This would have been his senior year, so that makes it difficult. I think everyone's doing better. But because they still haven't caught the people who did it; there's no closure.
"It's kind of a double-edged sword. They're never going to forget — and we don't want them to forget. But the kids have to move on."
At times, that hasn't been easy.
Particularly for those who knew Mills best.
"We're all a little better, but it still hurts," said Jefferson defensive back Rodney Mills, C.J.'s cousin.