The long days shoveling dirt passed slowly. Truthfully, brothers Dedrick and Kenny Mills needed a way to keep their minds off the work they were actually doing.
As a way to help their mother pay the bills, the Mills boys started working in high school at the Miles-Odum Funeral Home in their hometown of Waycross, Georgia. Dedrick Mills had a fear of dead bodies, but he could not afford to be picky. Not when his mother had four boys to support.
"The guy who oversaw things at the funeral home saw me out on the field, and he knew I had a future to go on to play college. So he just said he wanted to give me a job to keep me out of trouble and help out with my family because he knew we were struggling a little bit. So he took care of us," Dedrick Mills said.
Dedrick preferred digging the graves and staying away from the caskets and services. But even doing that made it difficult, not only mentally but physically.
The holes had to be dug just right, and Dedrick and Kenny had to block out all thoughts about the deaths that led to their shoveling. Often, Dedrick would have to jump inside a newly dug-out grave to fix something, and that would bring back unpleasant thoughts.
But the time Dedrick and Kenny spent together also led to long conversations about their futures. Staring down death on a daily basis allowed them to confront their realities even more clearly. Kenny knew he wanted to join the Navy; Dedrick knew he wanted to play college football. But they also knew their dreams could be taken at any moment.
"You see young and old people passing away, and sometimes you know their stories," Kenny Mills said. "Sometimes people didn't live the life they wanted to or didn't enjoy life. Me and him, we had talks while we were working, how we were going to take these steps to reach these goals, and for the most part we are both reaching our goals. You have obstacles in the way, but we're both striving toward those goals day by day."
He imparted this advice to Dedrick: "Always live for the moment you want, rather than waiting on the moment you want to come to you."
In a strange way, holes have become something of a way of life for Dedrick. A star running back in high school, his job was to hit the hole as hard as possible to gain as many yards as he could. In his spare time, he dug holes with Kenny.
All those moments put together have landed Dedrick where he is now: the starting B-back at Georgia Tech, with rising expectations after a standout true freshman season. But leading the team with 771 yards rushing last season only gave him more motivation.
He saw all the opportunities unfolding right in front of him with an emphatic performance in a bowl win over Kentucky.
Mills rushed for 169 yards. He looked into the stands and saw his family all together -- his mother and his three brothers, including Navy yeoman Kenny Mills, based on the U.S.S. Farragut right there in Jacksonville, Florida. He saw close to 100 people from his hometown, many who got tickets to the game thanks to the funeral home where they worked.
He vowed to do better. So when the offseason began, his first priority was to improve his vision on the field so he could see holes better and faster.
To do that, he started using a program that director of player development John Sisk introduced to the athletic department last season. It's called Vizual Edge Performance Trainer, and it allows athletes to put on a pair of glasses and roll through a computer program designed to help their eyes get faster. "You put on these blue and red glasses just like 3-D glasses, and you've got different things on the computer," Mills said. "It's hard to see. You've got to find it and you've got to use the arrows on the keypad to find which way it's going and where it's at. It's basically working to see how fast you can move your eyes and find the image once it pops up."
What it has shown him is all the ways in which he can improve in hitting the hole as he heads into his sophomore season -- and perhaps meet all the goals Mills and his older brother talked about during their long conversations in the cemetery.
"I noticed a big difference this spring," Dedrick Mills said. "I made a couple runs I wouldn't have made in a game last year. There was one, and I ran through the line, but I came back out. Everything closed in on me fast, but I came out, went to the outside and gained at least 20 yards."
Mills was one of the first football players introduced to the vision training last season. The plan was to test players who were redshirted or unable to play. It just so happened Sisk was running evaluations during a week when Mills was suspended for a team rules violation.
"He got ahead of it, so for him to have that experience and really like it, and is something he wants to continue to work on, is huge," Sisk said. "He sees the value in it. I try to encourage our guys to work on your weaknesses first and make them a strength, and if that's something he feels he needs to do individually, then that's something I'm going to continue to work with him on and push him on."
Sisk first began researching vision training when he was at Vanderbilt in the early 2000s. Jay Cutler was the quarterback at the time. "He had real good vision and he said, 'Coach, I'm better than 20-20,' " Sisk said.
Soon, Sisk found the program he uses now. Not only does it measure reaction time, it tests depth perception along with convergence and divergence of the eyes.
After a player undergoes a first screening, a baseline is set. Then the program gets better as the person at the controls gets better, allowing for improvements at the appropriate pace.
"It gives kids some confidence and lets you understand how they process things and see things, and that depends on how they react on the football field," Sisk said. "Your eyes are muscles, and we're trying to train those as well."
Mills already has targeted a 1,000-yard season, keenly aware he could have gotten there had he played in every game in 2016. He has learned from his mistakes as a freshman, when he served multiple suspensions for violations of team rules, and vows to be even better.
"He's not a bad kid," coach Paul Johnson said. "He made a couple bad decisions, and it's part of growing up. Hopefully moving forward he'll stay ahead of that curve because he's fun to be around. He's a good kid, and he works hard in football."
Those loftier goals push Dedrick Mills forward. So do visits back home, where he not only visits family, but still pitches in at the funeral home. Working there feels normal now, and though he doesn't have Kenny beside him anymore, there are still holes that need to be made.