The painting came from a 2007 autograph show, a $99-per-ticket affair in Raritan, N.J., not far from where Miles Austin Jr. still punches in every morning to his job as a truck driver. By the time he saw the canvas, Austin had already shaken hands with NFL legends Jim Brown and Kenny Stabler. He had trembled and cried as he told them about his son, Miles Austin III, an undrafted receiver out of I-AA Monmouth (N.J.) University who had signed with the Cowboys in 2006. Brown and Stabler had never heard of the kid, of course, but no matter. When Austin Jr. found a vendor hawking artwork of Dallas quarterback Tony Romo and running back Marion Barber, he puffed out his chest and asked if there was a painting of his son for sale too.
"The guy told me, 'Uh, we're still making that Miles Austin mural,'" Miles Jr. recalls, laughing. He left the autograph show with a consolation prize, offered gratis: a three-panel piece, roughly three feet by four feet, of Terrell Owens, then one of the many wideouts ahead of Austin on the Cowboys' depth chart.
Part gift, part apology and now mostly a metaphor, the T.O. triptych has remained in Miles III's childhood bedroom in Garfield, N.J. One afternoon this month, when Austin was visiting his parents, the Owens painting sat on the musty green carpet, still encased in protective plastic, surrounded by prom photos of the onetime no-name who last year emerged as the go-to wideout in Dallas that T.O. had been—briefly.
Austin got his first career start in Week 5 in 2009, and from that point on the rangy 6'3" receiver had more catches (76), yards (1,239) and touchdowns (10) than the rest of the Cowboys' wideouts combined. In fact, over the final 12 games of the season the Romo-to-Austin connection produced more yardage than any other quarterback-receiver tandem in the NFL. On Jan. 9, NFC East champion Dallas beat the Eagles in the playoffs 34--14, with Austin piling up 82 yards and a touchdown. It was the Cowboys' first postseason win in 13 years, prompting owner Jerry Jones to enter the locker room afterward and scream, "The demons are gone!"
Austin, as usual, was happier. Whether grinning his way into the end zone while racking up a franchise-record 250 receiving yards in his first start or fist-bumping stadium attendants outside the Cowboys' locker room, Austin has been a one-man repudiation of the NFL's cooler-than-thou trend of success begetting sourness, the playmaker celebrating as if he has chugged spoiled milk. "I guess I just enjoy my life," says Austin, 26, who's known around Garfield as Smiles. "Every day in Dallas I enjoy being with the guys. There's really no reason for me to ever be sad."
But as the Cowboys were set to open training camp this week in San Antonio—the first team to bring its full roster together this summer—even Austin's sunny disposition seemed threatened. In April the Cowboys traded up in the first round to pick the best wideout in the draft, Oklahoma State's talented but trouble-plagued Dez Bryant. And while Jones pledged that locking up Austin long-term was a top off-season priority, he has yet to offer more than the one-year, $3.2 million tender that Austin signed in June. Nine months removed from his NFL breakout, Austin now finds himself in the unexpected role of a star receiver looking over his shoulder, a player who must prove his worth. Again.
Miles Jonathan Austin III was sleeping. He was two weeks into his junior year at Garfield High, and when 8 a.m. turned into 9—school started at 8:20—he awoke in a panic and flew out of his room and down the street. Upon arriving at Garfield's double doors, Austin was greeted by Steve Mucha, the school's head of discipline. When Mucha didn't issue him a detention, Austin knew what his punishment would be. At the end of the day he simply knocked on Mucha's office door and was handed a football jersey.
Mucha was also Garfield High's football coach, and he'd been imploring Austin to suit up for years. The teenager was a supreme athlete—he was an all--Bergen County swingman for the basketball team and an area track star like his older sister, Jennifer—but he hadn't strapped on the pads since middle school. "So I put him in right before the half in his first game, against Passaic County Tech," Mucha recalls. "He caught a 70-yard bomb right down the sideline." A career was born.
Despite a prolific run at Garfield (65 catches, 1,671 yards, 15 TDs over his two seasons), no schools higher than I-AA came calling. Former Monmouth receivers coach Mark Fabish, now the tight ends coach at Penn, only scouted Austin on a tip from a friend of a friend. ("Raw as heck, but worth looking into," he'd heard.) Fabish took it as a good sign that the blue-collar Austin was often asked to moonlight at safety and quarterback at Garfield and "never made a stink." That should have come as no surprise given his background: Austin's mother, Ann, teaches physical education at a school for the autistic; his grandfather was a minister who worked at Rahway State Prison; and √ºberpolite Miles Jr. addresses everyone as "sir."
At Monmouth, Austin proved so good, says Scott Van Zile, then an assistant coach and now the offensive coordinator, that it "may have been a disservice to his development. Miles only needed to know a couple of things on Saturdays to take advantage." Indeed, having come so late to the sport, Austin lacked football knowledge that even remedial Madden players would have: how to run precise routes, how to come out of breaks, how to recognize Cover Two defenses. "I was just running around out there," admits Austin, who spent his summers working the door at a pub in the beach town of Belmar, N.J. Nevertheless he set Monmouth records in career receiving yards (2,867) and touchdown catches (33). Before his junior year, former NFL scout Jim Garrett volunteered to work him out at Garrett's home on the Jersey Shore. At the end of the day Garrett concluded that Austin had pro potential.
It's a blistering June afternoon in Irving, Texas, and Cowboys receivers coach Ray Sherman is sweating on the team's outdoor field after a voluntary practice. In 2006 only two pro scouts had gone to West Long Branch, N.J., for Monmouth's ad hoc pro day: Sherman, then the Titans' receivers coach, and Brian Gaine, then the Cowboys' assistant scouting director (who was in town for a wedding). "Miles was still raw," Sherman recalls. He'd tell Austin to do things like run a stair-step—a fake upfield cut used to gain separation against a defender—and confusion would cloud the prospect's face.
Still, Sherman left impressed. In a way, Austin was Jets receiver Wayne Chrebet (another Garfield High alum) turned inside-out: He had the physical tools and lacked the technique. But in the 2006 draft, in spite of Sherman's urging, Tennessee passed on Austin. So did everyone else. Instead, after the last player had been picked, Austin answered his phone to the baritone of then Cowboys coach Bill Parcells, who extended him a free-agent contract. "'I don't know how much of a chance other teams are going to give you, but I'll give you a fair shot,'" Austin recalls Parcells saying. "And hey, we were both Jersey guys."
Parcells exited Dallas eight months later, but his signee stuck. Though Austin mostly toiled on special teams and had a meager 18 catches over his first three seasons, Fabish's scouting report held true: Austin never made a stink. He became the Cowboys' model gym rat, quietly learning the playbook and becoming known for his voluntary extra practices with Romo. By last October, when veteran receiver Roy Williams's bruised ribs finally opened a seam in the starting lineup, Austin was more than ready. Says offensive coordinator Jason Garrett—Jim's son—"Lots of guys have ability. But Miles is always going 100 miles an hour, and he wants to get better."
For Sherman, this June practice is just one example. As Garrett barks out plays—and Jones looms in a tower—Austin, seven pounds slimmer than his 2009 playing weight of 215, looks quicker and smarter than he was last year, when he pinballed through secondaries. The Cowboys have even been working him out at the slot in multireceiver sets, freeing Austin to maximize his ability to change direction. Defenses, everyone knows, will be game-planning for him this year. "Miles may not have the numbers he had a year ago," Sherman concludes, acknowledging that Bryant and Williams will also battle for catches, "but he'll be as good or better than he was last year."
One day in 2006, when Austin was a seldom-used rookie in Dallas, he came home from an arts-and-crafts store toting a bushel of supplies. As an NFL nobody still new to Texas, he'd spent some free time reading online primers on Painting 101. Abstract, wildly colorful and frankly pretty accomplished, Austin's paintings have recently been listed on eBay by Miles Jr., who cheekily calls the series his son's "blues period."
It's hard to associate the notion of blues with the ever-upbeat Austin, despite skeptics who write off his 2009 season as a fluke. As teammates walk by after practice—everyone from Romo to rookie defensive tackle Junior Aumavae—the receiver offers each a compliment, inevitably sparking grins. He has been present at every organized team activity and minicamp, usually flying in from Los Angeles, where he's been training this off-season (and dating reality-TV star Kim Kardashian). When asked about the Cowboys' trading up three spots to select Bryant, Austin only praises the rookie. And about his contract situation he says, true to form, "I'm not really the holdout type. This is the place I want to be."
Back in Jersey, Miles Jr. has never been too worried about his son. Earlier this spring, after a Garfield High basketball game, he and Ann were leading a visitor out of the school when they stopped to point out the ultimate reassurance. "You have to see this," Dad said, flashing the Austin family smile. Inside the old football stadium, on a wall, was an 8-by-10-foot display celebrating his son's accomplishments. Miles Austin has arrived.
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"I guess I just enjoy life," says Austin. "This is the place I want to be."
Photograph by JAMES D. SMITH/DALLAS COWBOYS
SILVER STREAK At June workouts Austin (center, with ball) fine-tuned the form that saw him outgain all other Dallas wideouts combined over the final 12 games of '09.
JAMES D. SMITH/DALLAS COWBOYS (AUSTIN)
STAR POWER The mild-mannered Jersey kid has been dating a Kardashian.
TONY GUTIERREZ/AP (AUSTIN)
LATE BLOOMER A high school track star, Austin was "raw as heck" and got no serious looks by major colleges.
JAMES D. SMITH/DALLAS COWBOYS (AUSTIN)
HIGHER GROUND Austin (2) now is above first-rounder Williams (left) on the depth chart.
MATTHEW EMMONS/US PRESSWIRE (BRYANT)
NO WORRIES Austin (left) has had nothing but praise for Bryant (above), for whom Dallas traded up in this year's draft to pick at No. 24.
JAMES D. SMITH/DALLAS COWBOYS (AUSTIN)
[See caption above]