Hundreds of miles from home, Dedrick Mills sized up his life. He had been kicked off the team at Georgia Tech for violations of the athletic department’s substance-abuse policy. He had been relegated to the fringes of college football at a Kansas junior college. And, only two games into the season there, he had broken his collarbone, a season-ending injury.
From his perspective, the outlook last fall was bleak.
Said Mills, “I really felt like my football was over with.”
Mills had crashed severely. Only weeks before, Mills’ future in the game gleamed. Heading into the 2017 season, he was Tech’s star B-back. Powerful and eager to take on contact, Mills was an unyielding sledgehammer in coach Paul Johnson’s option offense. He held the potential to complete his Tech career as an all-time great. But, by thrice running afoul of Tech’s substance-abuse policy, Mills surrendered that opportunity two weeks before his sophomore season was to start. Now, his Plan B was springing leaks.
Embarrassed, hurt and depressed, Mills told his family that he wanted to come back home.
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“(The conversations) were basically, he just wanted to give up,” said Sharon Mills, Dedrick’s mother. “And I told him he had come too far to give up. He didn’t have a choice to give up, to be honest. He’s got to push his way on through the storm.”
Last Friday, Mills sat in the cozy family room of his family’s red-brick home in Waycross, a southeast Georgia town of about 14,000 near the northern tip of the Okefenokee Swamp. Besides a visitor, he was surrounded by loved ones – his mother, his grandparents Gloria and Leon Williams, his uncle Fred Williams and his girlfriend Zoë Raulerson. Through FaceTime, Sharon patched in Mills’ older brother Kenny, who is serving in the U.S. Navy in Italy.
The wood-paneled walls were decorated with plaques that Mills won as a star at Ware County High. The trophy he won as MVP of the 2016 TaxSlayer Bowl rested under a glass coffee table.
The following day, Mills was to return to Kansas for a second season at Garden City Community College. He shared details of the tumultuous past 12 months and his hope for what lies ahead.
“Now, I’m glad,” he told the AJC. “I’ve got a second opportunity to go somewhere far off, far away from here.”
The first opportunity ended in tears and disbelief. Last August, as Tech neared the end of its second full week of preseason practice, Mills was getting off the bus from the team hotel when director of football operations Mike Huff told him that he needed to see Johnson.
“I’m thinking, like, (expletive), what’s going on?” Mills said. “I know when coach Johnson needs to see you, it’s not good.”
Mills had reason to worry. Johnson informed him that he was off the team, having failed a drug test for a third time, all for marijuana use. By the athletic department’s substance-abuse policy, it meant he was automatically dismissed from the team.
“I just broke down in tears right then and there, like, ‘No,’” Mills said. “He’s, like, ‘Yeah, you’re off the team.’”
The news was no better to deliver than receive.
“I was disappointed for him because I felt like he’d blown a great opportunity,” Johnson said, “and I was disappointed for our team because right at the start of fall camp, we were losing one of our best players, if not the best player. And so I felt bad for him.”
It was a crushing loss in what proved to be a season full of disappointment for Tech.
“I think everyone was kind of devastated because everyone was expecting a big year from him,” former quarterback Matthew Jordan said.
His time on the Flats
Football and education have been Mills’ vehicle for a better life. He is the second of four sons of a single mother, who works at a Waycross hotel as the head housekeeper.
“We didn’t have the best life growing up, but they did what they can do,” Mills said of his family. “And they saw fit that we did get what we needed.”
Mills was an early enrollee at Tech in January 2016, turning down Florida, Florida State, Auburn and others to become a Jacket. He flourished quickly, catching coaches’ attention in spring practice and then winning the starting job in the preseason. He became the second freshman in Johnson’s tenure to start a season opener, and he scored the game-winning touchdown in Tech’s win over Boston College in Dublin. Jordan called him a “perfect fit” for the offense.
“Everybody liked Dedrick,” Jordan said. “He’s just likeable and a funny guy. You could joke around with him and when you hit the ground, he’d flip that switch and it was time to grind, time to work.”
He completed the season by leading the Jackets in rushing and rushing for a career-high 169 yards in Tech’s win over Kentucky in the TaxSlayer Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla., about 80 miles southeast of Waycross. After the game, Johnson raved about Mills’ talent and potential, adding, “We’ve got to try to help him grow up.”
As a freshman, Mills was suspended for the Mercer game after he overslept and was late for practice. He was suspended for the Virginia Tech and Virginia games for his second failed drug test. (Under Tech’s policy, athletes who test positive a first time for any of a list of prohibited substances are required to undergo counseling. A second positive results in a suspension for 20 percent of the season. A third offense results in dismissal from the team.)
Mills knew the consequences of failed drug tests, but said it was difficult to stop. Around the time Mills enrolled at Tech, his youngest brother Derrione went to prison at the age of 16. (Sharon Mills said that Derrione is serving a four-year sentence in a Georgia prison after he was tried and convicted as an adult. She declined to identify the nature of the crime.)
“I was just thinking about that all the time,” Mills said.
Put on a strict testing schedule after the second failed test – “they tested the fool out of him, that’s for sure,” Johnson said – Mills said he stayed clean through the spring. Mills said that, because of his clean tests, his schedule was relaxed. Despite the jeopardy he was putting himself in, he returned to using.
“I would say just being around it,” Mills said, explaining his reasons for using marijuana. “I don’t know – you’ve always got something on your mind, and you feel like you can’t get it off. You use that to forget about stuff.”
He failed a test administered before the start of preseason practice, mistakenly believing he could beat it.
Societal perspective on marijuana has changed. Adult usage is legal in nine states and the District of Columbia. According to the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 118 million Americans 12 and older had used marijuana in their lifetime and 36 million had used it in the past 12 months. Many college athletic departments have lightened their substance-abuse policies toward marijuana. But Mills knew the rules and said he didn’t expect to be treated any differently because of his star status.
“Getting dismissed – it was hard,” he said. “It was painful. I was hurting. But I did it to myself.”
Mills called his mother to come pick him up. Sharon thought he was joking until she heard him sniffle.
“I really couldn’t live with myself at that moment,” Mills said. “Because I messed up a good thing and being a high-profile player. Everything was going so easy and good, and it all got taken away, just like that.”
Finding a new home
Almost as soon as the news broke, Mills said he was deluged with text messages from college coaches interested in having him transfer. But, eager to play, Mills passed on switching to another FBS school, where he would have had to sit out a season. Instead, he headed for Garden City Community College and the unknown.
Mills’ plan was to load up on classes in the fall semester to complete his associate’s degree so he could transfer at the end of the term. However, Mills broke his collarbone in the second game of the season when he was tackled from behind. Already hurting because of the dismissal, not being able to play sank him further. He skipped classes and fell behind in his schoolwork.
That’s when he contemplated giving up. Besides family, Johnson and others from Tech tried to keep him going. Mills, on the urging of his uncle, sought peace through prayer.
“That kind of helped me get through what I was going through,” Mills said.
However, he passed only three of his six classes, meaning he wouldn’t get his associate’s degree at the end of his first semester at Garden City. Further, because he only played in two games, recruiting attention was scant.
Despite his emotional state, he still made an impression on the Garden City coach, Jeff Sims.
“He was on the sideline cheering right after he hurt it, and even when he had a broken collarbone, he would come out and do conditioning with us,” Sims said. “He just loves football and loves being around his teammates.”
Mills returned home to Waycross after the semester. Beyond his own frustration, he said he encountered friends and fans who were less than sympathetic to his failings at Tech.
“But I always told him, as long as you’re up high, when you drop down, people are going to turn on you,” Sharon said. “So he had to experience that on his own. And that was a life lesson for him.”
His mother and the two principal male authority figures in his life, his uncle Fred and older brother Kenny, would have none of the moping. Kenny, a petty officer second class in the Navy, is called “Pops” by Dedrick and his younger brothers. They urged him to keep going forward.
“Because he’s the second oldest of four kids of mine,” Sharon said. “And he had to keep on going for the two younger ones to keep on going. My oldest son, he’s the strength of those three. (Dedrick’s) got to be the strength of the other two. That’s why it’s very, very important to me that he doesn’t give up.”
Mills doesn’t hide his lack of enthusiasm for living in Kansas – summer heat, frigid prairie winds, being apart from family and former teammates, coaches and staff at Tech. Also, no chicken wings.
“Straight grass and dirt,” he said. “And cows.”
But he returned to Kansas with a brighter outlook, clear about his goals.
“I want to play football,” he said. “They told me, ‘Either you can come home and be in the street or play football and be successful and have a successful life and never worry about anything.’ And that’s what I want. I don’t want them to ever have to worry about anything.”
He has a backer in Sims, who called Mills a great kid who he loves coaching. Sims said that he has the same trait shared by all 49 players that he has coached who have gone onto the NFL – despite the drudgery and the contact, he loves to practice.
“If Dedrick’s academics are in order, he’ll be recruited at every school in the country that needs a running back,” Sims said.
Mills received a scholarship offer from Nebraska in the spring and attended the Cornhuskers’ spring game. He considers that his most likely destination. But he said he has been in contact with coaches from Auburn, Kentucky and Arkansas, who are waiting to see how he performs this fall. (A return to play for Tech is not possible under the conditions of the Tech substance-abuse policy.)
Mills wants to rush for 2,000 yards, no small aspiration on a team with a 10-game regular-season schedule, with a possible bowl game.
“I just feel like I’m going to have a breakout season, and a lot of schools are going to come (recruit) besides the ones I’ve already got,” he said.
Preparing for next step
Mills said he has gotten his grades back in order, earning two A’s in summer school. He has two more classes to complete this fall to earn his associate’s degree, at which point he can transfer and have immediate eligibility. While he played two games last season, he can get the season of eligibility back through a medical-hardship waiver, giving him two seasons to play at an NCAA school. He also said that he has not used marijuana since his dismissal.
“I feel good,” Mills said. “Just being out there (in Kansas) more and more, I’ve got the hang of it. Now, I feel everything’s just normal. I feel like myself again.”
His mother said that Dedrick was humble while he was at Tech, but is even more so now. Johnson, whose fondness for Mills is obvious, continues to counsel him.
“My hope is that he doesn’t end up back in Waycross with no degree and nowhere to go,” Johnson said. “I’d like for him to go somewhere and play and get his degree.”
Mills’ goal is the NFL and the six-figure (or more) salary that it could provide. His mother (and Johnson) have stressed that a diploma also be a part of his ambition.
As he prepared to leave Waycross last week, Mills was eager to get the season and another chapter of life started. Determined to chase his dream, lift his family and take care of a second opportunity, he’ll have to prove himself on the field and make better decisions off it. After a swift ascent and a faster plummet, Mills is ready to start climbing again.