AFTER SUPER BOWL 50, THE PATHS OF THE NFL'S TOP OFFENSIVE AND DEFENSIVE STARS SPLIT IN WILDLY DIFFERENT DIRECTIONS. CAM NEWTON ENTERED A SORT OF HUSHED PURGATORY. VON MILLER? HE WASN'T HUSHED, AND HE HAD WAY MORE FUN
THE KANYE STORY
IN FEBRUARY, early into the busiest, wildest, most jet-lagged off-season in NFL history, Von Miller flies from the NBA All-Star festivities in Toronto to New York City so he can appear on Saturday Night Live. The week before, he had delivered the Broncos' victory in Super Bowl 50, then partied all night with rapper Lil' Wayne.
Backstage at SNL, after assisting with Weekend Update and trolling his title game opponent with a digression on gravitational waves—"these waves are everywhere in the universe, just like I'm everywhere when Cam Newton closes his eyes"—Miller bumps into another rapper, Kanye West. The Denver pass rusher happens to have with him a pair of Adidas sneakers from Kanye's line, the Yeezy 750 Boosts, gray hightops with thick soles and various straps—the kind of shoes that look dreamed up by an astronaut on acid.
Miller asks for an autograph, but Kanye leans back against a wall, ignoring the football star until Kim Kardashian, Kanye's reality-star wife, intervenes. Miller retrieves a Sharpie, Kim hands it to Kanye, and the rapper signs the shoes without saying a word, as if he's welcoming Miller, in the most Kanye way possible, into the world of celebrity.
"His signature was terrible," Miller says. "But still: It was pretty dope."
Here is a partial list of other things Miller considers to be dope: the chickens he raises, private planes, gyrating sack dances, Michael Jackson, the grotto at Drake's home, meeting Kobe Bryant, glasses (yes, eyeglasses), French shoe designer Christian Louboutin, the National Geographic Channel, the basic idea of evolution, Barack Obama, Montblanc pens, hunting, orange soda, fur hats and tattoos of roosters.
Dope was also Miller's word of choice in describing his whirlwind off-season, the six months that vaulted him from elite football star to the pop-culture mainstream. In the afterglow of the Super Bowl he took 61 flights, visited 25-plus cities and accrued more than 71,000 air miles. He noted the 30-foot waterfall in Drake's backyard ("inspiring"), developed a crush on the model Gigi Hadid ("so normal") and stuck up for Johnny Manziel ("I'll be the last guy who stops being his friend").
Miller did 47 television appearances, ranging from The Ellen DeGeneres Show to Live with Kelly and Michael to MTV's Ridiculousness. He presented at the Grammys (wearing a platinum suit jacket), visited the White House, cohosted a title-celebration concert with Rick Ross, purchased a $40,000 diamond grill for his teeth, appeared on Dancing with the Stars (he finished seventh), conducted the Hogwarts Express in Orlando, visited Six Flags Magic Mountain outside L.A. ("good ratio: seven dudes, 23 chicks"), and vacationed in Cancun, Las Vegas and Turks and Caicos. "I really didn't see myself doing all this before," Miller says. "I pictured retiring and raising chickens. Now I want to be like Michael Strahan. On TV."
Yet throughout his summer among the stars, one thing nagged at Miller—one thing that wasn't dope. Despite being the No. 2 pick in the 2011 draft, despite his 60 career sacks and despite a playoff stretch last season that ranks among the most dominant in recent memory, he didn't feel sufficiently respected. His contract negotiations dragged on throughout the spring and into summer, and as Miller threatened to hold out (every other significant player from his draft class had signed an extension), he watched lesser players bank deals that surpassed his best offer. He'd been named Super Bowl MVP, but he did not receive a car (this year's sponsor, Hyundai, opted against it) or the usual trip to Disneyland. (That went to Peyton Manning.)
"Story of my life," Miller says, turning serious ... if only momentarily.
THE FREE REFRIGERATOR STORY
IF WILL FERRELL were ever to make a movie about a cowboy-athlete and he wanted that character's house to look and feel as over-the-top as possible, he could simply replicate Miller's abode in the Denver suburbs, right down to the antler chandeliers. It's April, and Miller is home for a rare 48 hours, grazing among the mounted head of a 2,000-pound buffalo, various animal skulls, a leather saddle, an orange trucker hat that screams make big sexy great again, a silver MVP trophy and, on the wall, an eye chart, gifted by Peyton's older brother, that reads:
Miller is downstairs in his 3,800-square-foot basement, Drake's songs blasting so loud the walls shake. The doorbell rings. Miller bounces up and jogs past the arcade, the framed jerseys, the full bar, the pool and poker tables, and the Pop-A-Shot machine. Soon after, two deliverymen struggle to transport a coffin-sized box down the stairs. Miller rips open the packaging, revealing his very own Miller Lite refrigerator, customized with CLUB 58 printed across the top. That's what Miller calls his basement, after his jersey number. Club 58 is where he and his Broncos teammates party after games.
These are the perks of mainstream stardom, the free packages arriving from admirers and sponsors and neighbors and strangers, all of which Miller stacks outside his house. There must be 30 boxes, arranged in a giant square, a Rubik's Cube of untouched swag. The ones he's opened suggest that his admirers are both well-meaning and, frankly, a little strange. They send shoes, salami, posters, beef jerky, cheese, underwear, fruit....
Von's younger brother, Vinsynzie (Vins, to most), has just turned 25, and after making plans for celebratory drinks, Von abruptly changes the subject. New topic: crabs. Dope, naturally. The deliverymen steal glances at each other; they're not sure what to make of this talk, whether they should leave. "Do you know that crabs have two different-sized claws?" Miller asks no one in particular. "Like, they got one claw for holding things and another claw for crushing stuff.
"The female crabs," he continues, "they're attracted to the biggest claws." Pause. Smile. Laugh. "Pretty typical, huh?"
To spend any time with Miller is to descend into the randomness of his most recent Google searches. His mind works like a Jeopardy! episode, bouncing between unrelated categories, each with its own bizarre facts. "I saw this documentary on the 10 most exotic animals," Miller says. "The dodo bird? Dope!"
There's more. "In 'Billie Jean,' did you know what [Michael Jackson] was talking about? Chicks saying he got them pregnant—and he hadn't even met them!"
On time travel: "Say we create a spaceship that's moving at the speed of light and we fly around for a year. When we get back to Earth, Earth would've aged 10 years, but we've only aged a year. Think about that. If you can slow down time, why can't you speed it up?"
On chickens: "I own about 60. Those are my guys. I figured nobody's going to stop eating chicken anytime soon. I went to this farm in L.A. where they feed them exotic grass. I put love into my birds. I can see the logo for my company: me holding the chickens, big smile. The slogan, Happy birds!"
This was part of Miller's off-season, too, branding himself to wider audiences as less of a football player and more of a personality. He reinforced certain themes: his style (a cowboy-couture mash-up of designer sneakers, 10-gallon hats, ripped jeans and diamond-studded boots), his nerd-dom (oversized glasses, constant shout-outs to science), his widespread appeal (DWTS, for starters).... And it worked. Obama complimented Miller on his fashion choices. Strangers stopped him in airports to gush over his dance moves. He so dominated social media that The Guardian described him as "the closest sports Snapchat has to a house hipster."
Yet all that outside activity also raised the inevitable questions about whether Miller spent enough time focused on football. He did not participate in off-season activities, but he says that he worked out regularly at two gyms in Southern California, recovered inside hyperbaric chambers, and that he cut red meat, junk food and ice cream from his diet. "I never got too far away from football," he says. "The Von Miller you see on the field makes all this go."
Miller being Miller, he believes that his DWTS rehearsals actually helped him prepare for the coming season. Well, that and they cost him $4,000 in fines: $100 for each minute he was late and $100 for every fart he passed without warning, according to the rules established by his dance partner, Witney Carson.
At one fine-free rehearsal this off-season, Carson teaches him how to salsa, how to mimic Elvis's swinging hips and how to rip his shirt open on cue. "Be precise with your feet," says Carson, petite and blonde but still reminiscent of a football coach.
"It's all in the footwork," she says. "We plan. We practice. We execute."
Sweat drips down Miller's face. He smirks and says, "Ask Tom Brady about my footwork."
THE CHAMPAGNE STORY
ON JUNE 12 the Broncos receive their Super Bowl rings, which look like diamond Ring Pops. Miller arrives at the party accompanied by his parents, Von Sr. and Gloria, but without a new contract. He's never seen Peyton Manning "let his hair down" the way the QB does on this night, with adult beverages and the type of dancing that one might expect from a stilted signal-caller who turned 40 in March.
The party continues well into the morning at a club in Denver. Miller springs for 50 bottles of champagne at $200 per cork pop, and the bubbly sprays everywhere, blinding his eyes, soaking his underwear, damaging his cowboy boots. Receiver Demaryius Thomas breaks several bottles on the ground. "It got wilder and wilder," Miller says. "Fifty years from now I'm not going to remember all this contract stuff. It's not going to be about me and [Broncos general manager John] Elway. It's going to be about my relationship with these guys."
The next afternoon Miller is still in a reflective mood, although he's left the ring at home. "Too much champagne on it," he says. The party has him reminiscing, thinking back to 2013, the worst year of his life, and '15, the best one.
Miller missed the first six games of 2013 while on suspension for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy, reportedly for trying to cheat a urine test. That cost him $800,000. He played the next eight games, racking up five sacks, and traveled to Houston in Week 16 feeling better than at any point that season. But the night before the game, out clubbing with a handful of teammates, Miller broke curfew. Coach John Fox found out and screamed at the revelers in a team meeting. Manning, Miller says, suggested that the coach send them home on the next flight. Instead, they stayed and played, and Miller's right knee buckled as he tried to stutter-step between blockers in the first quarter. He missed the remainder of the season.
The Broncos made the Super Bowl without Miller, and some fans suggested that the team look into trading him. Meanwhile, Miller traveled to the championship game not with the team but with players' families, on crutches for his torn ACL, seated in coach. "I'm like, Damn, this s--- is terrible right here," Miller says. "They did me and Chris Harris [who also tore his ACL in the playoffs] like that." Seattle scored 43 points (34 of them against Denver's handicapped defense) as Miller watched from the sideline.
He returned in roughly nine months, smoothing over any lingering animosity with an Adrian Peterson--esque recovery and 14 sacks in his comeback season. But the Broncos again lost in the playoffs, this time to the Colts in the divisional round.
Then in December 2015, with his team playoff-bound again, Miller vowed that this postseason would be different. Taking a cue from LeBron James, he deleted all of his social-media apps from his phone. He visualized how he would play in January: freely, with maximum effort. He had long talks with Von Sr. about what he'd envisioned for himself, that he would intercept Brady, register a strip-sack in the Super Bowl and capture the game's MVP award.
Then the Broncos beat three of the NFL's best offenses—the Steelers, Patriots and Panthers, who scored all of 44 points in three postseason games combined. Before the AFC title game against New England, Von Sr. sent his son a text message: "I need five sacks." It took Von two games, but he did it. He did intercept Brady. He did strip-sack Newton in the Super Bowl, did win MVP—all of this after Von Sr. sent him another text message, in reference to Newton being picked ahead of his son, at No. 1, in 2011. "Remember the draft," Von Sr. wrote.
Miller's postseason highlighted a skill set among the rarest in pro football. "I remember watching him play dodgeball," says Dave Kennedy, Miller's strength coach at Texas A&M. It was "like watching The Matrix. He could bend so far backward that he could limbo under an 18-inch bar.... He had hips that moved like Michael Jackson when he danced. He was 6'3", and in high school he ran hurdles!" What you saw in those playoff games, he says, "was a freak among freaks."
That postseason stretch reinforced for Miller what was possible. Early on in Denver, linebackers coach Richard Smith (who's now with the Falcons) used to ride Miller for not playing hard enough, for taking too many plays off. But last postseason, Miller says, he took no breaks. He wasn't worried about getting hurt or feeling tired. "All I did was bust my ass," he says. "It wasn't even that bad. I realized: I can do that every game.
"I can do that every year."
After the Super Bowl win in Santa Clara, Manning went to Disneyland and rode in a parade, an MVP perk in most seasons. "Typical," Miller says, rushing to add, "I'm not mad about it."
THE NAKED COWBOY STORY
IN PREPARATION for his various summertime photo shoots, Miller steps up his workouts to twice-a-day during one 10-day stretch in May. He counts calories. He eats salads. For the final 48 hours before modeling for ESPN The Magazine's Body Issue, he doesn't even drink water, and he arrives on set with cartoonish muscles. He poses wearing only a cowboy hat, glasses and headphones, which isn't even the weird part.
That would be this: He brings Vins along. The photographer tells Von that she's never seen someone bring a family member to a shoot like this.
That's the Millers, the family that does everything together, goes everywhere together: charity events, football games, amusement parks, dance rehearsals ... nude photo shoots. Von Sr. accompanies his boys to nightclubs and concerts. Gloria still does their laundry. Vins, who trained at La Cordon Bleu in Dallas, cooks everyone elaborate meals.
Gloria is her son's gatekeeper. She says she has missed just one of his events—a DWTS appearance—in his entire life, because she was attending a baby shower. Two weeks before Super Bowl 50, Von switched one of his two cellphones to airplane mode, blocking out the outside world. When he changed the setting back, one month after the game, he had 840-odd unread messages—from his jeweler, from Drake from Odell Beckham Jr.... He didn't bother responding. Those who really needed to get in touch called Gloria. "It's always: 'I'm so-and-so ... Von told me to call you,'" she says. "I'm like, He what?!"
Senior is his son's conscience. He doles out advice interspersed with acronyms like LAF, for Life After Football. He missed many of Von's games growing up while he ran his own business, installing and servicing backup power systems, but he made every outing he could, even postponing surgery when he broke his leg and his collarbone in a motorcycle accident.
The Millers raised their children in DeSoto, a suburb of Dallas. The boys hunted deer, squirrels and rabbits. They loved sports. One cousin, Patrick Lincoln (who Von affectionately refers to as Uncle Potbelly), says he remembers Von grabbing an 80-pound floor jack with one hand and dragging it from the garage to the end of the driveway. He was three.
Another story stands out as the only time the Millers weren't entirely united. Von was entering the fifth grade. His father had forbade him from playing football, but while Senior put half a million miles on the company trucks, traversing the five states in which he conducted business, Gloria snuck her son onto the field. She kept Von's equipment in her Suburban, washing it whenever her husband was away, until one day Senior went to clean the car, opened the trunk and out spilled shoulder pads, a helmet and a jersey. "I didn't do it," Gloria says now, laughing. "It wasn't me."
It was Von's uncle Derrick Lusk who put him at defensive end and told him to do just one thing: Chase quarterbacks. (Von took that directive too literally on his first ever snap, tackling the QB after a handoff.) "Tom Brady should blame me," Lusk says. "I let that tiger out of his cage."
DeSoto High was stacked with future college football players, guys like Tony Jerod-Eddie (now with the 49ers) and Cyrus Gray (Falcons), and at various points they lived with the Millers. Every day felt like a sleepover. Later, they all went to Texas A&M together and lived in the same complex, driving around town, bumping Lil' Wayne. "A&M really wanted me," Miller says. "You know that girlfriend that's really not that attractive but she's going to do everything she can to keep you? That was A&M.... That hot chick that just talks to you on Mondays? That was LSU."
Only Miller hit his first real snag in College Station. His grades dipped, and his coach, Mike Sherman, considered moving him to fullback. Sherman suspended Miller for the spring game before his junior season, and Miller loaded up his 1981 Chevy Silverado pickup and sped toward home. He didn't make it 30 miles before his father called. "Pull that truck over, buddy," Senior said. "That's not how we are as Millers."
Von racked up 17 sacks that next season, in 2009. "Dope," he says. "I had to take the hard way.
"Story of my life."
THE FLETCHER COX STORY
IN LATE June the Millers arrive at Denver Autographs, a memorabilia store inside the Colorado Mills mall. Von has 1,000 items to sign before his private jet leaves for L.A., his base for most of the off-season. He scribbles various inscriptions on helmets, deflated and inflated footballs, posters, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED covers and jerseys. Two Sharpies run out of ink.
While Drake raps over a portable speaker, the store's owner, Ed Emmitt, dishes about athletes and autograph sessions—like the time Newton signed and then accidentally left his Heisman Trophy behind. Or the time Marshawn Lynch came by and consumed an entire plate of chicken wings, dropping the bones onto the floor, his Sharpies covered in buffalo sauce. Or how Elway's gardener had tried to sell him the quarterback's game-worn Super Bowl jersey before admitting it had been stolen.
Miller's session is anticlimactic in comparison. He discusses his image on social media, where fans call him greedy because they don't understand (or care) how NFL contracts work. The Broncos' best offer at this point is roughly $39.8 million guaranteed, or $20 million less than what the Dolphins gave Ndamukong Suh last year ... or $12.7 million less than the Chiefs allotted Justin Houston, who plays the same position as Miller, in the same division. Miller believes Denver is disseminating information to reporters in order to make him look bad. "I got feelings too," he says. "Andrew Luck hasn't signed yet, but the Colts haven't leaked anything. It just feels weird. That's a move they didn't have to make."
As Miller signs, his autograph increasing the value of each item by $100 to $350, Drake continues rapping in the background about ex-girlfriends and about how much fame blows. His words console Miller, who bobs his head along: "We've been living on a high/They've been talking on the low/But it's cool/Know you heard it all before...."
Afterward, on the way to a second signing session, hail the size of golf balls bounces off Miller's ride as his phone pings with a news alert: Fletcher Cox, the Eagles' well-regarded defensive tackle, has completed a six-year, $102.6 million extension, with up to $63.3 million guaranteed. Miller's face drops. He strays from his talking points, shifting away from his perpetual positivity. "He went to, what, one Pro Bowl?" Miller whispers, adding, "I'm not hating." He flips through his phone, stewing as he studies the details of another contract that isn't his. He receives a text message from one of Cox's agents: "You're going to f------ love me." And it's true, Cox's deal has upped the market for the league's best defensive players. "I guess I'm not on that level, huh?" Miller asks. I just won a Super Bowl.... But it's cool."
Asked if he thinks Cox's contract will make Elway nervous, Miller says, "He should be happy, right? It's not coming out of his pocket. [Broncos owner] Pat Bowlen made [John] the highest-paid player in the league. Twice." He says this all while signing pictures of himself sacking Newton, holding the MVP trophy, confetti falling around him.
He's asked about his relationship with Elway, and he shifts back into Von mode, unable to resist a half-serious joke. "We're like Birdman and Lil' Wayne," he says, referencing the feud between the two rappers, the former holding a position of power over the latter at Cash Money Records, which Birdman owns. (Elway, when asked about the comparison, says, "The only Birdman I know played for the Celtics.")
The linebacker pivots again: "I still love Elway. He brought me in. I was his first draft pick."
Bottom line: Miller's stalled negotiations have become a distraction and a source of stress. They've also deepened a complex about the respect he believes he's owed but not granted, the doubts creeping in about how the Broncos actually feel about him. He says he will not, under any circumstance, play this season under the franchise tag. "It's like Jerry Maguire," he says. "I've got a family to feed, Jerry!"
Outside again, the hail subsides and the sun peeks through the clouds. Miller is headed to the airport, and as his SUV speeds away, he can't believe what looms front and center in the distance: a freakin' rainbow.
THE CAMP STORY
THE DAY before the Broncos' first practice of training camp, in late July, Elway summons Miller to his office. A few weeks earlier Miller had called Elway and Broncos CEO Joe Ellis, asking to speak on a more human level, removing his agents, steering clear of numbers. Soon after, on July 14, the linebacker scrawled his most important signature this off-season on a six-year, $114.5 million contract with up to $70 million guaranteed—the highest guarantee for a nonquarterback in NFL history.
This meeting marks the first time the two men have been in the same room since finalizing that agreement. Miller says he hopes to play the rest of his career in Denver. Elway stresses his own experience as the Broncos' highest-paid player, warning Miller of what he should expect in the locker room. "You're one of those happy-go-lucky guys who wants everyone to be positive," Elway says. "But you're going to see different sides of people because of what you make and because of the expectations [in Denver]." Elway then clarifies those expectations. "This is about creating your legacy," Elway says. "You should be a first-ballot Hall of Famer."
"No doubt," says Miller, who now addresses his general manager as "Mr. Elway," six weeks after he drew heat for cropping him out of an Instagram photo at the White House (on accident, he says).
Miller hates comparisons, but he can't avoid them. Elway says Miller reminds him of late Chiefs linebacker Derrick Thomas, a Hall of Famer. Coach Gary Kubiak points to Lawrence Taylor, a pass-rushing force many believe to be the best defensive player ever. "Von can be as good as Von wants to be," Elway says.
One day after the meeting the Broncos open training camp to begin their title defense. Questions remain: uncertainty at quarterback, injuries that have sidelined starters (Aqib Talib, from a gunshot wound; DeMarcus Ware, with a bad back) and a patchwork offensive line. Pundits are picking Kansas City to end Denver's string of five straight division titles.
Miller shrugs. "It's been like that my whole career," he says. He doesn't splurge on anything with the contract—"What am I supposed to buy, a spaceship?"—and he shuts down his schedule as the new campaign approaches. The best off-season in NFL history has come to an abrupt end.
"What could be better than this?" Miller asks, gesturing toward the practice fields, his parents and brother standing 20 feet away. He answers his own question. "O.K. Defensive Player of the Year, another Super Bowl, moonlight at tight end, return some punts, raise some chickens, the next Michael Strahan...."
"I want all that dope stuff."
Miller's admirers are, frankly, a little strange. They send him shoes, salami, beef jerky, cheese, underwear, fruit....