Mills Adams was a seventh-grader at Gregg Middle School in Summerville when he found out.

His science class was preparing for an exam on cell reproduction, and like a lot of seventh-graders, Adams was struggling to figure it all out.

"I has having a hard time comprehending the process, how they divide and about blood cells and all that," he said. "My mom was trying to help me study, and she sat me down and said, 'I have something to tell you.' "

Eppie Adams decided that was a good time to break the news to her son -- the news that he has sickle cell trait.

"She told me about how the blood cells can become shaped like sickles, all the problems it can lead to," Mills Adams said. "It hit me hard."

For a young man with dreams of becoming a college athlete -- Mills Adams is now a freshman football player at Mars Hill College in North Carolina -- it was a double shock.

Sickle cell trait is an inherited condition in which, under duress, normally round red blood cells can become sickle-shaped and sticky and clog the normal flow of blood. It was in the news at the time, linked to the deaths of several college football players.

And since it appears far more often in African-Americans (occurring in about 1 in 12), sickle cell trait is usually associated with blacks.

Mills Adams was surprised to learn it can occur in white people, too, at a rate of about 1 in 100,000.

"Now when I hear people say that it's a black disease, I say, 'Hey, chill for a second,'" said Adams, who attended Fort Dorchester and Ashley Ridge high schools before graduating from Manning High. "White people can have it, too. It's not like a disease knows what color you are."

Pursuing his dream

Since 2000, sickle cell trait has been linked to the deaths of 18 football players, nine in college and nine in high school. The toll includes a former Wando High School player who died on his first day of summer workouts at Western Carolina University in 2009.

After learning of his condition, Adams continued to pursue his dreams of playing college football. As a freshman, he's the starting long-snapper on a Mars Hill team that is 7-2 and ranked No. 25 in Division II.

But even as he carefully monitors his own health and hydration during workouts, the knowledge lurks in the back of his mind.

"Sometimes, I feel like I'm playing with fire," Adams said. "Sometimes I wish I could talk to the dead about it, to have an idea what to look out for.

"But I think as long as I keep a level head, I'm able to live my dream. This is my dream, to be a football player, since I saw my first game on a Friday night as a 5-year-old."

Experts agree that there's no reason athletes with sickle cell trait cannot participate in sports, and that common-sense precautions should prevent crisis.

But at first, that was little comfort to a concerned mother.

"Even though I knew from birth that he had the trait, I was not aware of some of the things that had happened," said Eppie Adams, a dental hygienist and substitute teacher in Manning. "But when a football player died on the field with sickle cell trait, that's when it clicked in.

"I had to learn a lot and get past my own concerns in order to let my child go forward with his own aspirations."

Coming forward

Eppie Adams also had to get past her own surprise that her son, born to two white parents, could have sickle cell trait. When Mills was born, she got a letter from the James R. Clark Sickle Cell Foundation informing her that blood tests had shown he had the trait.

Further tests confirmed that, and revealed the trait had been passed down on his father's side of the family. To this day, she has to convince doctors, trainers and coaches that Mills does have the trait.

"They look at me wide-eyed and ask me, 'Did you know you circled that on the form?' " she said. "If he goes to a new doctor and I fill out the history form, they will question me about it."

When Eppie Adams read a recent story in The Post and Courier about sickle cell trait, she and Mills decided to come forward with their story.

"If it's our mission to alert white athletes that they can have this too, so be it," she said.