TAMPA — Ernest Mills was 2 years old when he struck a match and dropped it.
The carpet burst into flames.
Moments later, Ernest was burning alive.
His skin curled from the bone. Hair sizzled into the roots. Ears incinerated. Joints melted. Finger tips fell off in ashes.
No one noticed until the room was engulfed, too hot to enter. Seconds ... minutes ticked away.
Firemen rushed onto the lawn and Ernest's mother, Faye Shorter, screamed that her baby boy was still in there. A fireman ran into the inferno and out with Ernest, limp in his arms. Still alive, but barely. His stomach raised and fell ever so slightly.
He was rushed to the hospital, burned over 70 percent of his body.
Sometimes, Ernest Mills, a 17-year-old junior cornerback at Jefferson High, says he catches the shocked widening of a stranger's eyes at his appearance and thinks of how a life — any life — can be irrevocably changed from one second to the next.
And often after such a moment, he says he thinks of his cousin, former Jefferson linebacker C.J. Mills, his mentor and house mate and best friend, a major Division I recruit who was murdered at age 17 in a sudden, senseless, drive-by shooting on April 25, 2007.
Tears well and roll down Ernest's scarred cheeks.
“I think of how C.J. helped me through so many hard times,” he said. “His smile. His personality, and how he talked to you with so much passion.
“Every time I came home crying after a rough day at school with other kids, C.J. was there for me. He would sit down and talk to me.
“He stayed positive. He made me see that life was good. He made me feel special.”
When asked why he isn't bitter because he had no choice in the fire or in C.J.'s death, Ernest says there is, “Always a choice.”
“You can choose to be bitter, but there is no need to be bitter,” he said. “Being bitter doesn't do anybody any good. I choose the good.”
For Ernest Mills this is beyond a philosophy.
It is ingrained. It is in him. It is him.
“I'd say it comes from love,” said Lucy, Ernest's grandmother. “He is loved so much.”
If love is shown in actions, then Lucy and her husband, Ernest, and the 10 people living in their 4,000-square-foot West Tampa house (built by grandpa Ernest), are among the most loving humans the world has known.
From the moment “Zay” — the nickname given to him by C.J., from his middle name “Xavier” — went into the Shriners hospital in Cincinnati for six months as a 2-year-old, Lucy and Ernest were there for support. They were there through the hundreds of operations that required staples, stitches, screws and the welding of joints.
They were there when they brought little Ernest home and Lucy and Ernest performed physical therapy, requiring the massaging of each finger and limb for five minutes apiece, followed by the changing of dressings that stuck to the skin like glued paper.
Three times a day. As much as five hours a day. Every day. For years. Filled with screams of agony from little Zay.
“He had me in tears all the time,” Lucy said. “I would say, 'I'm so sorry baby. I'm so sorry, but it has to be done.' And I'm still working on him, still working on him. Oh I felt so bad every single day. I would go into the other room afterward and just cry and cry.”
And the whole time, C.J. was there helping any way he could, whether that meant playing with Ernest or hugging his grandparents, who needed plenty of hugs after the therapy sessions.
The years passed and Zay grew, which meant more pain because, though he grew inside, grafted skin does not grow on the outside. His grafted skin tightened like drum covers.
This meant, and continues to mean, more operations: the cutting of healthier skin from one area and sewing it onto a tightened area. After one major skin-graft operation, Ernest had stitches running up his forearms, biceps, across his chest, through his shoulders, down his back and up again to his neck.
After each operation — which he must now get because football workouts expand his muscles and tighten his skin even more — he must lay in bed for a few weeks.
Then, of course, there is the agonizing physical therapy.
As it goes, Zay never complains.
He didn't even complain when the thin layer of skin on his skull tore from the pads inside the standard team helmet. Instead, he purchased with his own money another helmet with softer padding.
When coach Jeremy Earle, whose Jefferson team is in the Class 6A playoffs beginning Nov. 15, noticed Zay's helmet had a different color than Jefferson's standard helmets, Earle said, “No, no Zay, we'll buy you a helmet with those special pads, but one that matches the rest of the team.”
Earle ran out and got the specially padded helmet.
“The truth is that Zay has never complained about anything,” Earle said. “He is the perfect teammate. The perfect kid to coach.
“He is so appreciative to be a part of this that I know that he would do whatever I asked. No questions asked.”
Zay says he is obligated to his whole family, including Lucy and Ernest and his brother, Terrel, and his father, Rodney, and his uncle, Vidal, and, of course, to C.J.
That's why Zay's heart broke April 25, 2007, when he sat with his family in that small hospital room and the doctors said C.J. was dead.
“There were the screams and cries and tears,” and though he was only 11 years old, he worried, “About my grandparents, my uncle, my auntie, everybody.
“I wanted to make them feel better. I would have done anything to make their pain go away. But all I could do was hold onto them.”
That is why he chooses to be the best student, family member and football player he can possibly be — a football player so good, in fact, that a college scholarship could be in his future.
It is why his burned skin, and the pain of the operations, doesn't bother him. It is why others notice his confidence and gravitate toward him and love him (he has no problems getting dates).
It is why he stops every day next to the practice field and places his hand on the marble plaque honoring C.J., and “cries a little inside.” It is also why when he tells of his first varsity interception against Robinson High that he smiles like he just won the lottery, partly because, “I know C.J. would be proud of me.”
It is why coach Earle says, “You want to find some inspiration? I can tell you where you can find him. He's right here on Jefferson High's football team and his name is, “Ernest 'Zay, Zay' Mills.'”
It is why Zay says: “There is never a need to be bitter. There is death every day. Some tragedy happens to somebody. It's life. But there is plenty of good every day. I'm still living. I'm breathing. I'm not sick. I'm healthy. I'm playing football, something I love to do every day. I have a family that supports me. I have good friends. I know that if I have some tough times that these people will be there for me.
“I know that I always have a choice, and that I have to make good choices. C.J. and my family taught me that, and that is a gift, and I will honor that.”
It is why he says, “I am blessed.”