Austin's hard work is starting to pay off
IRVING, Texas -- The thought of an NFL career never crossed Miles Austin's mind until he made the 10-minute walk from Monmouth University to the Garrett backyard.
The teaching session with several other players from small colleges in the area took place the summer after Austin's sophomore year, when he scored a school-record 12 touchdowns. Jim Garrett was immediately impressed with Austin's size and speed. Austin's ability to track and adjust to the ball in the air, particularly on deep routes, excited the longtime Dallas Cowboys scout. Garrett had seen enough to tell the kid that he had pro potential after Austin caught the ball on a comeback route and pitter-pattered his feet inside the hedges that serve as a sideline in the backyard of the oceanside Jersey home.
"I was like, 'What's this old guy talking about?'" Austin said, flashing the toothy smile that rarely leaves his face.
How could Austin possibly picture himself as an NFL player? He didn't even see himself as a football player, period, until midway through his junior season at Garfield High School in Bergen County, N. J. Three-and-a-half years later, he's told he's a pro prospect? Please. That's almost as unbelievable as the historic breakout performances the past couple of games by an undrafted guy who spent the first few seasons of his career as a relatively anonymous member of America's Team.
"I actually hadn't heard of him or Monmouth College until I got here," Cowboys coach Wade Phillips said, laughing. "No, I really had heard of Monmouth."
Assistant coach/offensive coordinator Jason Garrett had definitely heard of Austin. Garrett's father had been singing the receiver's praises since the day they met in the backyard, the first of several appearances Austin made to work with the wise, intense old man.
Jason Garrett, Troy Aikman's former backup, returned to Valley Ranch as the offensive coordinator after Austin's rookie season, just before Phillips was hired as head coach. Jim Garrett, who retired in 2004, has lobbied his son to play Austin more often so frequently that it's become a running joke between father and son.
"I'd always kid him: 'You gotta play Austin more! You gotta play Austin more!'" Jim Garrett said over the phone from his Jersey home. "But I'll be honest with you, I never in 100 years could have predicted what he's done."
Yes, it certainly qualifies as a surprise when a guy making his first start sets a team record for receiving yards, especially considering the franchise has two receivers with busts in Canton. But it doesn't appear to be a fluke after Austin followed up his 10-catch, 250-yard, two-touchdown show in Kansas City by catching six passes for 171 yards and two more scores in a win over the Atlanta Falcons the next game.
The 421 receiving yards for Austin during his brief stint as a starter represent the fourth-highest two-game total in NFL history. It's also only 14 fewer yards than Austin had in his first 41 games as a Cowboy.
Well, what took so long?
To begin answering that question, let's go back to Garfield High. Austin focused on basketball and track as a freshman and sophomore despite football coach Steve Mucha's repeated recruiting pitches. Mucha backed off after two years of trying to get Austin to play football, hoping his friends might change his mind. Austin's football career got a late start after Mucha gave him a break for being tardy to school.
"He gave me a pass to go into class and didn't give me detention," Austin said. "I asked him if he had an extra jersey." Austin made a key catch on a deep ball down the sideline in his first game, leading the opposing coach to loudly wonder where that kid came from. But it's not as if Austin was an instant sensation as a receiver. In fact, he made a bigger impact at free safety in high school.
Not that college recruiters noticed. Rutgers was the only major program to show any interest, but never followed up after its initial inquiry. Mucha convinced the coaches at Monmouth to take a look at Austin. A Monmouth assistant, wowed by Austin's physical attributes, asked Mucha what was wrong with the tall, speedy kid.
"There's nothing wrong with him," Mucha responded. "It's just that his best years are way ahead of him."
Perhaps some major programs realized their mistake when Austin, at 6-foot-3 and about 200 pounds, ran the 100 meters in 10.6 seconds that spring.
"Thank God he was already signed with us," Monmouth coach Kevin Callahan. "It was too late for them and great for us."
Austin basically arrived at Monmouth, a Division I-AA program that began playing football in 1993 and had never produced an NFL player, as a starter at receiver. Callahan gave Austin simple instructions as a freshman: "Run deep, go by all those people and go up and get the ball."
As Austin learned more of the intricacies of the passing game, his role expanded. He graduated with most of the program's receiving records and was at least a blip on the radar screen of NFL scouts.
Of course, Austin was already well-known at Valley Ranch, where Jim Garrett made a point of mentioning "this guy from my backyard." The ex-scout recalls some rolling of eyes in the room, but the Cowboys followed up on his recommendation, keeping tabs on Austin throughout his senior season and during the pre-draft process. The Cowboys sent two scouts to Monmouth to see Austin during the season: John Wojciechowski, who replaced Garrett as the Northeast-area scout, and national scout Walter Juliff.
Callahan emphasized Austin's lack of experience to every scout who called or came to campus.
"Here's a kid who has a tremendous amount of upside," Callahan recalled telling scouts. "What you see is only scratching the surface of what he's going to be able to do. He isn't even close to peaking."
There was enough interest in Austin for him to be invited to the scouting combine, where he ran a 4.47 40-yard dash and had a vertical leap of 40 inches. Then came his campus pro day, when a grand total of two NFL types showed up: then-Cowboys assistant director of pro scouting Brian Gaine and Ray Sherman, then the Tennessee Titans' receivers coach.
Gaine happened to be in his native New Jersey for a wedding, and the Cowboys asked him to stay an extra day to get another set of eyes on Austin.
With a Monmouth assistant coach throwing passes, Gaine and Sherman put Austin through a grueling workout. Austin remembers trying to hide how tired he was. Sherman, who has been Austin's position coach the past three seasons, liked what he saw.
"He reminded me of a big, strong Andre Reed," Sherman said, referring to the former Buffalo Bills star. "He was big, he was strong, he was fast, he had good hands and he was a very smooth route-runner."
Sherman recommended Austin to the Titans' front office, but Tennessee took receiver Jonathon Orr (zero career catches) in the sixth round instead. Austin's phone didn't ring on draft day until the Cowboys called midway through the seventh round to gauge his interest in signing as a free agent. The Cowboys had graded him as a sixth-round prospect, making him a priority as a free agent.
"The raw talent was there," Cowboys college scouting coordinator Chris Hall said. "It's just that it's so far from Monmouth to the NFL."
Juliff and Todd Haley, then the Cowboys' receivers coach, made pitches to Austin. Bill Parcells helped close the deal. One factor in Austin's decision was fellow Garfield alum Wayne Chrebet's success with the Jets as an undrafted player under Parcells.
"I knew he was a Jersey guy," Austin said of Parcells. "He knows I was a hard-working type guy. He told me I had a chance to make the team through special teams. That's what I did."
After two seasons, Austin had 17 tackles on special teams and only five receptions. He established himself as an effective kickoff returner (25.8 yards per return), highlighted by a 93-yard touchdown return as a rookie in the playoff loss to the Seattle Seahawks, Parcells' final game on the sideline.
Austin developed from a raw prospect into an NFL-caliber receiver during those two seasons. That process began with slimming down after bulking up to a muscular 230 pounds at Monmouth, prompting at least one scout to ask Callahan if he thought Austin could play H-back or tight end. Now, Austin weighs 212 pounds. He maintained his power - he has broken tackles on all five of his touchdowns this season - and increased his speed.
Austin also worked hard on honing his route-running ability, which he considers a work in progress. He arrived in the NFL as a guy who got out of his breaks quickly. He's learned technique to allow him to get good releases and create space from cornerbacks. He's developed an understanding of defensive concepts, studying how to find holes in coverage and becoming more patient so he'll be in the right spots at the right times.
"Being effective while you're running fast at the same time, not just running fast," Austin said. "That's what I'm working on and continuing to work on every day."
There was buzz around Valley Ranch in the spring of 2008 that Austin was primed for a breakout season. Austin, who finished the season with 13 catches for 278 yards and three touchdowns, had to settle for flashes of brilliance. (His two-catch, 115-yard, one-touchdown performance in a road win over the Green Bay Packers pops to mind.) Austin's development was slowed by a couple of knee sprains. He suffered the first covering a kickoff following his touchdown catch in the preseason opener, sidelining him through the first regular-season game. He missed three more games after hurting the knee again on a third-down catch during the game-winning drive Nov. 16 against the Washington Redskins.
After an anticipated training camp competition with Patrick Crayton didn't materialize this summer, Austin had to wait until injured ribs sidelined Roy Williams to make his first career start. Austin earned the job on a permanent basis by breaking Hall of Famer Bob Hayes' team record for receiving yards in a game in dramatic fashion, taking a slant 60 yards for a touchdown in the overtime win over the Chiefs.
"He's been working hard for a long time, waiting for his opportunity," said Tony Romo, who has thrown thousands of passes to Austin during voluntary workouts not organized by the team. "Obviously, now that he has it, he's doing pretty well. He's definitely a big part of this offense. I'm glad to see that all the time and effort and hard work that he's put in has paid off. "
Suddenly, Austin is being treated like a superstar. So many reporters and cameramen swarmed his locker Wednesday that Austin apologized to neighbor/linebacker Steve Octavien before taking questions. At the previous night's Dallas Mavericks season opener, Austin had seats a couple of rows behind Mark Cuban and received a roaring ovation when his smiling face popped up on the arena big screens.
Austin's confidence has soared, but his humility has stayed intact. He mentions hard work about as often as he smiles. He's still the same easygoing guy with a "magnetic personality," as both his high school and college coaches describe it.
But, just in case, an old friend has a reminder for Austin.
"He deserves everything he gets," Jim Garrett said. "But do me a favor, will you? Tell him that the road isn't finished yet."
Tim MacMahon covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.