Last week in Ohio, as the wind hurled snow at the football complex, Braxton Miller took a break from his never-ending season and leaned back in a recliner to talk about his life. He wore a blue-gray Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles T-shirt and held an iPhone that he politely ignored. His muscles ached from running hard and lifting weights, and he probably needed a nap. There was game film to analyze and statistics homework to do, and beyond that the terrible pressure of expectation. A few hundred yards to the south, Lane Avenue had already been renamed "12--0 Row" to commemorate Ohio State's 2012 season, which was left unfinished because of NCAA penalties dating back to a previous regime, and this fall Buckeye Nation will count on Miller, a junior quarterback and a likely Heisman Trophy candidate, to lead the program to its eighth national championship. But Miller forgot about that for a moment and thought instead about his father, Kevin, a proud and stoic man who earlier that day had been working to fix the malfunctioning car that sat in a garage near his modest apartment.
"Count your blessings," Braxton Miller said, remembering the words his father said so many times, "and make your blessings count."
Miller's physical blessings are remarkable. If another player runs faster than he does, that player is probably smaller; and if another player is stronger, that player is probably not as fast. At 6'2", 220 pounds, Miller has run the 40 in 4.36 seconds. He also accelerates and changes direction quickly; his time of 3.96 seconds in the 20-yard shuttle would compare favorably with that of many NFL wide receivers. Meanwhile, with the gruff encouragement of strength coach Mickey Marotti, Miller has increased his maximum bench press to 385 pounds. This is why lineman Jack Mewhort enjoys blocking for Miller: "You know you've got a guy back there who's straight out of a video game."
Downstairs in the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, near tributes to Ohio State's six previous Heisman winners, a digital countdown clock showed 283 days to the Michigan game. Miller got comfortable in the recliner. He would soon leave for a team dinner and then a tutoring session. Tomorrow morning he would rise at five for an exhausting workout. But first, before bed, he would count his blessings and thank God for them, the same way he does every night.
What are you most thankful for, he was asked by his visitor.
"I'd say my parents," he said.
This is not a sob story, because Kevin Miller would not allow such a thing, and don't even think about giving him your condolences, because he would probably give them back. The Millers were a middle-class American family. Kevin and Kelly Miller had three children: Breyon, a hardworking son; Bailey, a fleet-footed daughter; and Braxton, the baby with rare athletic gifts. Kevin recalls that Braxton played baseball from about age six to 10. He threw a fastball with such movement that it looked like a curve. Batters either swung and missed or didn't even bother. "He found it boring," Kevin says, "because nobody could hit 'im."
The Millers lived in Springfield, a city of 60,000 between Dayton and Columbus, in a house on Monaco Drive, where traffic was sparse enough to let the boys play touch football in the street. Although Breyon is about six years older than Braxton, he and his friends let Braxton play in their games. This sped Braxton's development, socially and athletically. Bailey also motivated Braxton to run faster, beating him in races from one stop sign to another until Braxton was 12. Kevin, who played safety for Anderson (Ind.) College, an NAIA school, in the '80s, coached Braxton in football from second to eighth grade. Braxton remembers the way Kevin made time for him, throwing the football with him after work and sometimes missing work to attend Braxton's games.
The family made a hard decision as Braxton finished middle school. Kevin thought his son had a chance at a college education through football, and he wanted to make sure Braxton was well-prepared. The local high school had substandard academic ratings, and Braxton's parents thought he would achieve more at Wayne High in nearby Huber Heights. That meant they would need to move. They put their house on the market, and when it didn't sell right away, they had to pay for housing in both towns. Kelly once had an office job, but after having wrist surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome, she could not find work. Kevin held a good job as assistant superintendent of Springfield's water-treatment plant, but in the new situation he had to take on side jobs to make extra money.
Elite athletes and their parents have been known to develop an attitude of entitlement, but Wayne High varsity football coach Jay Minton says that was never the case with Braxton or his father. In the summer before Braxton's freshman year Kevin basically told the coach, "He's a quarterback, but I really don't care if he plays quarterback his freshman year. I just want him to get his feet wet." And then the coach saw Braxton throw the ball with astonishing speed and accuracy.
Wayne's first game that year was against Colerain High, a team ranked in the USA Today Super 25. After his team gained 21 yards in the first half, Minton replaced his junior starter with a freshman. Braxton threw two interceptions in a 19--7 loss, but he also completed 10 of 15 passes for 149 yards. He made second team all-conference that year. By the following March he had a scholarship offer from Cincinnati.
Around that time life changed for the Millers. Kevin was hospitalized. He doesn't like talking about it and won't provide many details, but he had heart trouble that was serious enough to force him into disability retirement. A financial crisis followed. The house on Monaco Drive went into foreclosure, and companies sued to collect unpaid credit-card debt.
"That's when my brother stepped in," Braxton says.
Breyon took his brother to school in the morning, worked a day job as a maintenance man and picked Braxton up in the afternoons. Because Breyon wore a uniform to work, he felt less need for new clothes; occasionally he spent part of his paycheck on clothes and shoes for Braxton so he would look good in school.
Scholarship offers came in from around the country as Braxton progressed through his sophomore and junior seasons. According to Kevin, Brian Kelly recruited him at Cincinnati and at Notre Dame. Lane Kiffin's interest migrated with the coach from Tennessee to Southern Cal. Urban Meyer tried hard to bring Miller to Florida but had to settle for inheriting him at Ohio State. On June 3, 2010, near the end of his junior year in high school, Braxton held a news conference in the auditorium to announce he'd chosen the Buckeyes. According to the Dayton Daily News, Kelly Miller watched as nearly 20 reporters surrounded her son.
"I just see him as my son, not some superstar," she said.
Later that day Kelly Miller was arrested after an alleged domestic disturbance at the family home. According a police report, Bailey, the daughter, was found with scratches on her arms. She told the police that her mother attacked her. According to witness statements in the report, Kelly later struck and spat on a police officer. A judge would find her guilty of harassment with a bodily substance; she was sentenced to probation. Asked last week about the arrest, Kevin Miller disputed the police account, and said the incident was less serious than the report made it appear. He said his wife preferred not to speak with reporters. Braxton declined last week to talk about the incident. "We're a strong family," Kevin said. "We got through it."
That fall Braxton was a senior, a hardened field general, and one day in practice he ordered a teammate to the sideline for laziness. The Wayne High Warriors were 3--3 then, and they won their next eight games on the way to the state final. Down 27--21 on a snow-covered field in Canton, according to The Plain Dealer, Braxton drove the Warriors 81 yards, converting two fourth downs, for the go-ahead touchdown with 2:34 left in the game. Although Wayne gave up the lead and the championship, Braxton said, "I left it all on the field."
As he reclined in his easy chair on the second floor of the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, Miller was asked how he wanted to be known.
"As a quarterback," he said. "A complete quarterback."
He's on his way. Last season he used that raw athleticism to run for 1,271 yards and 13 touchdowns on 5.6 yards per carry. Sometimes he looked like a brilliant passer too. In a 17--16 win over Michigan State he made a perfect throw, more than 40 yards in the air, hitting Devin Smith in stride for what proved to be the winning touchdown. He has an easy motion and a tight spiral. But he completed only 58.3% of his passes, and he ranked 43rd in passing efficiency, in part because opposing defenses choked off the shorter routes and forced him into long and difficult throws. Tom Herman, Ohio State's offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, says Miller needs to step into his throws more consistently. He needs to protect the ball better when he takes off running. And Herman would like to see that completion percentage at 65 this year. Preferably 70.
Count your blessings, and make your blessings count. In Kevin Miller's old piece of wisdom, the second part is where the work comes in. This winter Braxton Miller is doing that work. He spends hours alone in the film room, learning from last season's mistakes. Over Christmas break he visited George Whitfield Jr., the renowned San Diego--based quarterbacks coach, to sharpen his mechanics. Miller's parents scraped together the money for the trip to California, and he kept costs down by staying with a teammate.
About five times each week Miller holds his own practices at the university's indoor football field. No coaches are allowed, but Miller makes sure his teammates show up. The receivers run the routes they'll run in games next fall, and Miller throws at game speed. The receivers have one-handed catching contests. They try to outrun Miller's deepest throws. Miller has gone through several offensive coordinators in high school and college, and has had to learn several new playbooks. This season will be different. He has the same coaches he had last year, and their goals are aligned. When he takes the snap he will know what to do. The results might just be spectacular. As Herman puts it, "The guy can be as good as there ever was."
The winter sun went down on Columbus. It was 19¬∫ with light snow. Inside the Fawcett Center, Miller waited for a seminar for male athletes on treating women with respect. The walls were decorated with massive black-and-white pictures of Ohio State icons, including its notable football coaches. The lobby was a shrine to athletic greatness. Miller was tired. He'd gotten up at 5 a.m., and this seminar would last until almost 9 p.m. He was asked about his parents.
"Tryin' to do my work up here, get my job done," he said. "So I can support 'em in the long run."
He was asked if he ever worries about them. "Yeah, all the time," he said. "It's my motivation every time I get up.
"I always told 'em, I'm not gonna go back to the same life that we grew up on. I'm not gonna get up in the morning and eat bologna for breakfast. So I'm saying, I'm gonna do my end, be fortunate enough to have a nice career, and we're never gonna see them days again."
Every night at 10:30, Miller completes another part of his daily routine: checking in with his mother and father. It could be as simple as an exchange of text messages. More often he calls, or they call, and they put him on speakerphone so they can all talk at the same time. He tells them about his day. He's just their son, not some superstar. The conversation ends. "Good night," Braxton Miller says. "I love you."
Asked about his parents, Miller says, "Tryin' to get my job done. So I could support 'em in the long run."
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Photograph by SIMON BRUTY
HALO EFFECT Miller's drive to improve has drawn in teammates, as he has been organizing and running off-season practice sessions.
BREAK ON THROUGH Overshadowed last year by a certain other second-year, dual-threat QB, Miller should see the spotlight plenty next fall.
GREG BARTRAM/US PRESSWIRE (MILLER)