The best pass rusher in the 2011 draft class, Texas A&M linebacker Von Miller has the tools to dominate in the NFL—and he's suing for the chance to use them
A late March afternoon in suburban Dallas finds Von Miller at home trying to light his mother on fire. She's at the kitchen table, working on a laptop, and he's just over her shoulder flicking a lighter a few inches beneath her bare forearm, a large grin creasing his face. That the flying sparks don't immediately send Gloria running suggests that this isn't the first time her 22-year-old son has played Dennis the Menace. There was the time he stuffed a dead snake under his brother's bed just to see if she'd scream, and the time he put a turtle in a high school teammate's helmet. Miller's explanation of his pranks—"They just happen," he shrugs—is enough to keep the house on alert 24/7. "As soon as you think you're safe," Gloria says, "he'll come up with something else."
Anyway, provoking Miller, a two-time All-America linebacker out of Texas A&M who's projected to be a top five pick in the April 28--30 NFL draft, is a bad idea. Dave Kennedy learned that the hard way during the Aggies' summer retreat two years ago. He had reason to feel safe from the team prankster given that 1) he is A&M's strength and conditioning coach, and 2) the retreat was taking place at coach Mike Sherman's house, partly so the players could have the run of the pool. Kennedy's mistake was doubting that Miller would have the temerity to throw him in. "I'd grab him, but he was just like, You're not gonna do it," Miller recalls.
So Miller employed a little misdirection: He made up a frantic story about losing his phone and asked Kennedy to call him so they could track it down. The moment Kennedy whipped out his own cell, he was toast. An accomplice (Miller will only say it was "a trustworthy teammate") swiped it, then Miller picked Kennedy up and hurled him into the drink. "Looking back, I was a dumbass," says Kennedy, adding that Miller should expect payback the next time he's on the College Station campus. "He'll be around—especially if there's a lockout."
There, too, Miller is at the center of the action. This time, though, it's no joking matter. He's suing the NFL.
NOW, BEFORE you conclude that Miller is going rogue, consider that it wasn't entirely his idea. He was drawn into the lawsuit, which counts superstars Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees among its 10 plaintiffs, by the outfit formerly known as the NFL Players Association, which believed that a high-profile rookie litigant would strengthen its antitrust claims against the league. In essence, Miller is standing for all prospective 2011 draft picks who, the lawsuit asserts, will be harmed by the lockout and by restrictions on rookie wages, which the suit characterizes as a "price-fixing agreement." It claims more broadly that the draft is "one of the longest-running restraints on competition for player services in the NFL."
Miller's MVP performance in the Senior Bowl in January got him on the NFLPA's radar, and he says that at the Super Bowl in Dallas he met with veteran running back LaDainian Tomlinson, who persuaded him to sign on to the suit when it was filed in March. (Also of note, one of Miller's agents, Andrew Kessler, is the son of Jeffrey Kessler, a lead attorney for the players.) For Miller, joining the legal action is less about taking a stand on principle than receiving a seal of approval from his future colleagues. "The PA could've picked any rookie coming out this year," he says. "It's a blessing that fell into my lap."
So Miller is in the unusual position of suing his potential employers, something NFL teams might hold against him if he weren't the best pass rusher coming out of college this year. Early in his Aggies career the 6'3", 246-pound Miller excelled against a procession of future franchise tackles that includes the Redskins' Trent Williams (Oklahoma), the Seahawks' Russell Okung (Oklahoma State) and the Vikings' Phil Loadholt (Oklahoma). Last fall Miller fought through an early-season right ankle injury to lead the Big 12 in sacks (10½) and the team in tackles for loss (17½) on the way to winning the Butkus Award as the nation's top linebacker. At the Senior Bowl, Miller proved his versatility, dominating in the trenches and in coverage. He killed at the combine with a mix of speed (his 4.53 seconds in the 40 was second among linebackers), strength (21 reps of 225 pounds) and hops (a 37-inch vertical). For every talent evaluator inclined to dismiss him as a mere workout wonder √† la Vernon Gholston, five herald Miller as the second coming of Hall of Famer Derrick Thomas. Miller's trainer Dan Brandenburg, a former NFL linebacker, worked with first-round picks Sean Weatherspoon and Clay Matthews leading up to the last two drafts and thinks Miller is the best athlete of the three.
Miller can't believe he's even being talked about in the first place. "I never dreamed of being in this spot," he says.
Miller's football career began with a series of end arounds. His father, Von, didn't want him to play until his body matured, but Gloria caved to her son's wishes and secretly enrolled the boy in fifth-grade Pee Wee ball. To ensure that her husband stayed in the dark, she stashed Von's pads inside her Chevy Suburban and washed his jerseys in the garage late at night. Dad finally caught on about a year later, when he was making a rare bid to clean the SUV and football gear spilled out the back. "By then, quite honestly, he was entrenched," the elder Miller says. "I wasn't gonna take football away from him."
At DeSoto High, just south of Dallas, Miller emerged as one of the best defensive end prospects in Texas as well as a standout hurdler. He signed with A&M after falling hard for College Station's famed 12th Man as a junior. "I had never been to a game where the fans were so into it," says Miller, who gave them plenty to cheer about as a true freshman. Although he arrived weighing just 211 pounds, he bulked up and had 22 tackles and two sacks in a part-time role.
Then came a regime change, from the laissez-faire Dennis Francione to Sherman, a former Packers coach, who was less than enamored with Miller's work ethic—particularly his habits of skipping class and coasting through practice. To send a message, Sherman suspended Miller indefinitely in the spring of 2008. "I didn't feel what he was doing was necessarily going to lead him to the NFL," Sherman says. Miller packed his bags and considered transferring, but there was no way his father was going to release him from his letter of intent. ("We committed to the school," his dad reminded him.) Chastened, Miller returned to College Station with a newfound seriousness and an open mind to Sherman's advice. One of the coach's mantras stands above the rest. "He kept telling me, 'You can't live double lives,' " Miller says. "Once I cleaned up off the field, football became a lot easier."
Not that A&M coaches made Miller's job simple as they moved him along the defensive front, from standup end as a freshman to weakside linebacker as a sophomore (he still led the team in sacks, with 3½) and then to a hybrid defensive end--outside linebacker—a position coaches later dubbed Joker—as a junior in 2009. It was in that role that he became a dominant force, leading the country in sacks (17) and finishing fifth in tackles for loss (21½) on the way to the first of his two All-America honors.
Miller considered turning pro after that season ahead of a potential 2011 work stoppage but thought better of it. The money wouldn't have been great (he was projected as a second-rounder), and his parents, who own a power supply business, weren't in need of it. Moreover, he was just starting to take an interest in school. A blow-off class in chicken farming turned into a minor in poultry science. "I visited farms and hatcheries," says Miller, who is taking classes online this semester toward his degree in university studies. "I wanted to understand the whole business."
He also became a serious film student after then Aggies defensive coordinator Joe Kines compared him with Derrick Thomas. To get a feel for the compliment, Miller screened three seasons' worth of film of the late Chiefs great, and not just footage from on the field. "I watched Derrick's interviews, too," Miller says. "It was just crazy to see a guy who played 20 years before me doing the same stuff."
Like Thomas, Miller is a speed merchant. He has tremendous burst off the line and a sprinter's rolling acceleration, a vestige of his days as a track star. His talent as a contortionist, though, is what really sets him apart. Where most rushers go through or around blocks, Miller is flexible enough to go under and even over them. In practices, Sherman jokes, Miller "destroyed the confidence of our left tackles."
But afterward he'd give them pointers on how to beat him the next time. Now, with the NFL on the horizon, he's been helping his teammates in other ways. Miller ran at Texas A&M's pro day against the advice of his representatives so that three lightly scouted seniors—quarterback Jerrod Johnson, offensive lineman Matt Allen and defensive tackle Lucas Patterson—could get some of his shine. Miller sent junior defensive tackle Tony Jerod-Eddie videos of his private workouts, and he infected junior running back Cyrus Gray with his unrelenting spirit. "Von's whole career, guys have always been saying he's too small to play defensive end, but he always found a way to make something happen," says Gray, who struggled to make the transition from high school quarterback to Aggies tailback. "He's more than just a leader; he's a big brother to me."
The gravity of Miller's decision to join the players' lawsuit didn't hit him until April 6, when he walked into the U.S. courthouse in St. Paul, Minn., for its first hearing. Though he seemed the picture of cool in a gray pinstriped blazer, black tie and horn-rimmed glasses, inside he was a jangle of nerves. He had never before been inside a courtroom, let alone a federal district court. He hadn't done anything wrong, of course, but he couldn't quite shake a guilty feeling. Ominous warnings against cellphone use added to his sense of unease. The whole morning, he says, "was just overwhelming. I've never sued anybody. I've never been sued. I felt like I was in trouble."
Eventually Miller found ways to relax. He listened closely as one of his lawyers, James Quinn, stressed the "irreparable harm" his clients risked if the lockout continued. Miller focused on Judge Susan Richard Nelson, who promised a decision "in a couple of weeks" on whether to grant a preliminary injunction to end the lockout. (The actual antitrust claims will be heard later.) He marveled at the veteran players who were there—wideout Vincent Jackson and linebackers Ben Leber and Mike Vrabel—and even struck up a hushed conversation with another plaintiff, Vikings defensive end Brian Robison, a former Texas schoolboy star and a high school idol of Miller's. ("I didn't expect to see that Brian Robison," Miller says.)
Outside the courtroom, though, Miller prefers to keep quiet about the suit and his role in it. He won't articulate his position in the labor debate beyond stating his desire to play NFL football in 2011. In fact, he has agreed to be in New York City for the league's draft festivities.
Miller won't even talk about the lawsuit with his friends. "My boys ask me about it," he says, "but I don't think they realize how serious it is." That Miller does hardly means he's through starting fires. He's just learning what it takes to carry the torch.
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FOR MILLER, JOINING THE LEGAL ACTION IS LESS ABOUT TAKING A STAND ON PRINCIPLE THAN RECEIVING A SEAL OF APPROVAL FROM HIS FUTURE COLLEAGUES.
Photograph by ROBERT SEALE
SHOWS OF STRENGTH Before he joined the players' antitrust lawsuit and began wearing a unity bracelet, Miller donned combine garb and wowed scouts in February.
[See caption above]
PATRICK GREEN/ICON SMI
GONE WILD In a hybrid linebacker-end role called the Joker, Miller went through, under and even over blockers for 27½ sacks in his final two seasons at A&M.