Atholton senior Jake Mills is upholding his commitment to join the Marines after high school in the wake of the death of his brother Eugene (center, in uniform) in Afghanistan in June. ((Photos courtesy of the Mills family/John McDonnell/The Washington Post))

The game the brothers played was simple. Jake and Eugene Mills would stand in the yard and wait for their father to heave a football high into the air. Then they would go after it, one-on-one, battling for bragging rights.

They fought often, “like they were mortal enemies,” Gene Mills said of his sons, and not just over footballs. But a different dynamic always existed beyond the sibling rivalry: Jake, four years younger, looked up to Eugene, and Eugene, in turn, looked out for Jake.

So when Jake stated his intent to follow his older brother into the U.S. Marine Corps following his senior year at Atholton, Eugene urged him to think twice and “do something better,” perhaps by pursuing his promising hockey career in college. But Jake remained steadfast, even when he received the most devastating news imaginable: On June 22, Lance Cpl. Eugene Mills III was killed in combat in Afghanistan.

When No. 6 Atholton (11-1-1) faces Easton (12-0) in Thursday night’s Maryland Student Hockey League 2A semifinals, the Raiders will be looking to take the penultimate step toward defending their 2012 championship in a season they have dedicated to Eugene’s memory. But the game also could be the last of Jake’s career: He is bound for boot camp at Parris Island, S.C., on May 27.

“It was always ahead, and I never really lost sight of it,” Jake said. “I just kept thinking, ‘I want to serve my country,’ all these things of why I wanted to stay. The whole [Eugene] thing really got me to want to do it even more.”

Atholton senior Jake Mills, an all-Howard County hockey player, will lead the Raiders into Thursday’s Maryland Scholastic Hockey League semifinals, hoping to extend his hockey career one more game. (John McDonnell/THE WASHINGTON POST)

The pride, brotherhood and camaraderie of the military pull at him. For all of the brothers’ differences, it’s a chance to hold tight to a bond they share.

“My brother joined because he wanted to serve his country,” Jake said. “He wasn’t thinking about himself or anything.

“Me and him are alike in some ways, and I think that’s one of them. We don’t really think about ourselves. We think about other people.”

A two-way defenseman at Atholton, Jake Mills sports a scorer’s touch and an enforcer’s physical presence. The 18-year-old team captain exudes a maturity hastened by tragedy and his own military commitment.

He already carries the close-cropped hair, thick arms and steely demeanor of a Marine, and he spends three afternoons a week working out at their recruiting center in Columbia. Atholton Coach Bud Michels calls Jake “by far the toughest kid, mentally and physically, in all high school hockey in Maryland,” describing him as a leader with great composure, who never says anything without a purpose.

A natural leader

In a Dec. 14 game against Glenelg, the Raiders were playing without starting goalie Tommy Pappas and trailed entering the third period. Jake got after his teammates, exhorting them to dig down and pull together.

Atholton scored the final three goals, the last with two seconds left in regulation, and won, 5-4.

Eugene Mills in Afghanistan, April 2012. (Courtesy of the Mills Family) (Courtesy of the Mills Family/COURTESY OF THE MILLS FAMILY)

“I can’t say the exact words, but it wasn’t in a negative manner,” Michels said. “He wasn’t chastising them. He was motivating them. He’ll make a good Marine.”

His parents agree, but struggle to cope with his impending departure.

Gene and Theresa Mills, who are divorced, once signed release papers for Eugene’s admittance to the Marine Corps’ delayed entry program. Soon after his death, they were forced to put pen to paper again, this time for their youngest son, who would not turn 18 until Feb. 2.

Gene called it the “hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”

Theresa sat at her kitchen table on a recent evening, a portrait of Eugene in his formal uniform on the wall behind her, Jake still there in front. She told him again she doesn’t want him to leave, then reached over to squeeze his arm and added, “But it’s what you want, and I’ll support you all the way.”

“You have to let your kids grow up and do what they want to do,” Theresa said. “I’m not going to hold them back, even though it hurts sometimes. I’ve just got to pray that it goes well.”

Jake’s family is grateful he didn’t pass up his senior season and cut short his high school hockey career. That was a distinct possibility, as Jake made training with the Marines a priority and stepped away from his longtime club team. He didn’t decide to play for Atholton until the Raiders started practice in the fall, after he experienced a dream about being on the ice.

A Howard County all-conference pick, Jake tallied two goals in a Feb. 8 win over Glenelg that secured the conference championship. A victory Thursday would put the Raiders in Monday’s final.

“I guess I’d say [Eugene] is looking down on me or something,” Jake said. “I mean, if we don’t win, we don’t win. But I think we’ve got a really good chance. That’d be awesome, winning back to back. It’d be incredible.”

‘Freedom isn’t free’

Eugene’s memory never strays far from Jake. His Purple Heart sits on a table in an upstairs room at Theresa’s house, behind the brightly colored card she picked out for Nov. 19, which would have been his 22nd birthday. His father wears his dog tags around his neck at all times, except for when he sleeps. The Raiders wear patches on their jackets or jerseys, bearing the fallen Marine’s name and platoon number.

“There probably won’t be a day that goes by that I won’t think about him,” Jake said. “But there’s days that are easier than others.”

Eight months later, Gene still finds the emotions overtaking him.

He remembers a 10-year-old Eugene pledging to defend his country after watching the World Trade Center towers crumble on Sept. 11, 2001. He thinks of their last conversation, during which Eugene said he had one mission left in his second tour, and they made plans to share National Bohemian beers and crabs upon his return.

As difficult as it was, he’s glad Eugene’s fellow Marines told him about the circumstances of June 22, when the squad his son was leading became embroiled in a firefight. Eugene was shot, and his last words were to reassure his men that he was fine, reminding his team to stay low and return fire.

“Because he still continued to lead his Marines, it was one hellacious act of valor,” Gene said, wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Freedom isn’t free.”

He has seen that same sort of fire and fortitude in Jake — on the ice, in his Marine Corps training and in his response to losing his brother and protector.

“Jake was crushed,” Gene said. “But he’s strong. He’s really strong.”

On the day Jake opened Theresa’s front door to the sight of her in tears and in the company of two Marines carrying bad news, he dealt with shock, anger and sadness. Then he thought of his younger cousins looking up to him, and his focus shifted, as usual, away from himself.

“Everyone’s vulnerable, so I thought I needed to be strong,” he said. “I thought, ‘What would my brother do?’ ”