The new coach summoned the talented sophomore into his office, uncertain of where the conversation – or the kid – would go.
Mike Sherman was, in early 2008, Texas A&M’s new coach, and a young Aggies linebacker named Von Miller kept bedeviling him. He skipped class and didn’t care about his grades. Loafed on the field and caused his coaches headaches. After one season of college football, something had to change.
Sherman remembers what he was thinking: “If I don’t do it now, it’s going to come up later. It’s going to keep coming up.”
Long before Miller donned a Denver Broncos jersey, and years before he would become Super Bowl MVP with a dominating performance against the Carolina Panthers; before current teammate and pass-rushing luminary DeMarcus Ware predicted the 26-year-old Miller could become one of the best sack artists in NFL history; and before he accumulated 60 sacks in his first five seasons as a pro – Miller was a gifted but immature young man at a career crossroads.
“His personality,” Sherman said, pausing to consider how to put it, “you’ve got to keep him under control a little bit because he can get a little crazy.”
Back in 2008, Sherman had decided to suspend Miller for the Aggies’ 2008 spring game, an important event on the program’s calendar. Miller responded by packing his things and leaving the team.
“He was done,” said Sherman, who’s now a high school coach in his native Massachusetts.
Later, Miller told the Dallas Morning News, the confrontation was “probably the best thing that ever happened” to him.
A few weeks earlier, one of the first one-on-one meetings between Miller and his new coach involved Sherman wondering aloud what to make of Miller. He had talent, sure, but he was lazy. He barely recognized plays, and if he did, he didn’t react quickly enough. Sherman told Miller he wasn’t sure he could cut it in the new Aggies defense; no, maybe he should be moved to fullback.
Miller, his confident defiance overpowered by the threat, burst into tears. He had grown up in suburban Dallas with supportive but strict parents, dreaming about playing in the NFL and chasing down quarterbacks in the biggest games. He had played running back as well as defense at DeSoto High School and even returned punts, earning a scholarship to A&M under former Coach Dennis Franchione. He was undersized, but his versatility and athleticism overruled his slight frame and made his NFL goals possible. But nobody dreams of playing fullback, so he begged Sherman for another chance.
The coach relented, reminding the kid he had spent the previous decade coaching in the NFL, including six seasons leading the Green Bay Packers. He knew what it took to reach the top of an unforgiving game, and after one season and a few spring practices, Sherman wasn’t sure Miller had it. He was physical and fast, but his big personality and boundless energy were simultaneously the best and worst parts of him. Those traits were again on display prior to Sherman’s decision to suspend Miller for the Aggies’ spring game. And in some ways they’ve stayed with him in the NFL.
Since joining the Broncos, Miller has acted as the comic relief in the Denver locker room, occasionally discussing a new ambition – someday raising chickens – and reminding skeptics that he had, after all, majored in poultry science in college. After a Colorado reporter asked Denver players whether New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was a “crybaby” whom NFL officials coddle, Miller mimicked a crying baby on the field while the Denver crowd roared an anti-Brady chant during the Broncos’ 20-18 win over New England in the AFC championship game.
Miller’s post-sack celebrations have become as interesting as the takedowns themselves; he was fined $11,567 this season for punctuating a sack of Lions quarterback Matt Stafford with a few pelvic thrusts. After a particularly violent sack of Brady in the AFC title game, he celebrated by waving an arm and gyrating his hips.
“He’s going to push the envelope as much as he can. He’s going to push it, push it, push it – but he’s not going to cross that line,” Sherman said.
Miller did cross the line in 2013, however: He was suspended for the first six games of that season for violating the league’s substance abuse policy and, according to an ESPN report, trying to cover it up. He sometimes arrived late for team meetings or attended the wrong one, and also in 2013 his parents, Gloria and Von Sr., moved in with him in Denver to help keep him on a more mature path.
“They meant business,” Sherman said of Miller’s no-nonsense parents.
Through it all, there has always been an upside to Miller that has so far compelled authority figures to look past his supposed shortcomings. Miller, with his quickness and strong hands, led the nation with 17 sacks in 2009 after Sherman created a hybrid position and built his defense around the talented but occasionally maddening defender. Miller returned for his senior season to add 10 1/2 more sacks, seducing Denver enough to ignore supposed character concerns about Miller and make him the No. 2 overall draft pick in 2011 – one pick behind quarterback Cam Newton, the man Miller and his teammates pounded relentlessly during Denver’s 24-10 Super Bowl win over Carolina.
Now that the season is over the Broncos now have another decision to make, with Miller scheduled to become a free agent and clearly in line for a new contract that should help him fully realize the financial rewards of his NFL dream . . . a dream that could have dissolved when he walked out of Sherman’s office and away from the Aggies in 2008.
Despite granting Miller’s begged-for second chance, Sherman kept hearing his player wasn’t making the most of it. The coach had sources who kept tabs on players, their grades and their study habits. Each report came back frustratingly similar: Miller wasn’t interested in class or his responsibilities.
So Sherman brought Miller in and told him he wouldn’t be in uniform for the spring game. The decision was made; no second chances this time. Sherman told the young man that, if he didn’t like it, he could transfer to another school – Sherman was willing to grant him a release – or return to the Aggies, though only if he was willing to make changes. Whatever came next, Sherman told him, was in his control.
Miller, his mind made up, stormed out and piled his belongings into his 1981 pickup. Certain he was transferring, leaving College Station forever, he pointed the truck toward Dallas; on the way he called his parents to let them know he was coming home. Sorry, Von Sr. told him, but they wouldn’t have room in their home for a quitter.
So what was he going to do?
Halfway between Dallas and College Station, Miller thought about it and made his decision. He turned the truck around and headed back toward campus.
Today, Newton and the Panthers are surely wishing Miller had kept on going.