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For Von Miller, it's all about drive

3/31/2011 - NFL

OVILLA, Texas -- Texas A&M head coach Mike Sherman didn't rant or rave or even try a half-hearted attempt at ridicule. He simply pulled a thick folder from his desk, handed it to his star defender, Von Miller, and asked the young man to sift through the documents. Once Miller had glanced at a few pages of the file Sherman had compiled, the coach took things one step further. Read it aloud, Sherman demanded. You need to hear how this sounds.

So Miller started talking. Missed study hall today. Late for class today. Good practice yesterday but didn't get it done today. After a few minutes of that, Sherman ended the exercise.

"Now tell me," the coach said while glaring at Miller. "Does that sound like a guy who wants to go to the NFL? Actually, does that even sound like a guy who wants to play football?"

If Miller was having a hard time answering that question -- which came only one day after he'd missed a study hall session in the spring semester of his freshman season -- he had even more trouble dealing with the news Sherman delivered after that conversation. The same player who had been talented enough to start as a defensive end in his first year of college football was suspended indefinitely. The punishment caused Miller to pack his bags and head back to his parents' home in suburban Dallas. If not for the protests of his father, Von Sr., Miller might have succeeded in transferring and altering a future that now shines so bright.

Miller recently recalled that memory while sitting in the kitchen at his parents' home. He still shakes his head when thinking about those days. It's apparent that the immature kid who was cruising through life back then has long since vanished. In his place stands a one-man wrecking crew, a focused 22-year-old with studious glasses, an easy smile and the confidence that comes with knowing he's a likely top-10 pick in this year's NFL draft.

"Everything changed for me after I went through that," Miller said. "Before that point, I was just relying on God-given ability. After that experience, I learned how to pay attention to every detail in my life."

That approach explains why Miller's rapidly soaring draft stock hasn't swelled his ego yet. Ask him how he feels about nearing the end of the pre-draft process and he'll tell you there has been no rush of excitement lately. Probe him about his draft-day plans and he'll say he's cool with something simple. As long as he has family and friends gathered around the big-screen television in his parents' living room -- and his father working the barbecue in the backyard -- life will be good.

Regardless of what happens in the next few weeks, late April will be a great time for Miller. That's because at 6-foot-3 and 245 pounds, he has the combination of power, quickness and speed that can make offensive tackles fret and defensive coordinators drool.

"I can play in a 3-4, a 4-3, a 50 scheme, you name it," Miller said. "Once you get past learning the plays, it's all about having fun. And at that point, it comes down to just lining up and beating the man in front of you."

"He has the skill to be a great pass-rusher, especially as a 3-4 guy," said an NFC personnel director. "The question you have is whether he can be an every-down rusher at his size in a 4-3 scheme, but there's no question he has excellent upside. He has the explosion off the ball, the burst, the ability to stay low to the ground and the closing speed to finish a play. When you talk about the things you want in a great pass-rusher, this guy has all of them."

Miller's stock has risen so high that he didn't even fear the potential ramifications of joining a lawsuit filed by key NFL Players Association veterans as part of their labor struggles with the NFL. That lawsuit includes some of the league's most high-profile players -- Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Drew Brees -- with Miller being the lone rookie. Though some people within the league questioned Miller's judgment -- "It won't hurt him in the end but I think he signed onto something that he probably didn't fully understand," said an AFC executive -- Miller believed he had to step up when "men like Mr. Manning, Mr. Brady and Mr. Brees" needed his help.

"I never saw myself as being a top-10 pick when I was growing up, so I never felt like I was jeopardizing something [by joining the lawsuit]," Miller said. "It's like when I came back for my senior year. I didn't sit around saying I could've gone here or there if I had left. I hope I don't get blackballed but I'm pretty sure that I'll end up on somebody's team. And when that happens, I'll make the most of it."

Miller's willingness to help current veterans isn't surprising because, at heart, he's as selfless as they come. When he finished playing in this year's Senior Bowl, he gave his shoes to an admiring boy who had asked for them as he left the field. Miller was equally accommodating when his coaches at DeSoto High asked him to play linebacker after he'd established himself as one of the best defensive end prospects in Texas. Even though he played out of position, he never griped about the situation.

Miller's parents sometimes worry about their son's generosity of spirit -- "He doesn't know how to say 'no' to anybody," says his mother, Gloria -- but everybody around Miller understands that's his defining characteristic.

"Team is the No. 1 thing for Von," says Texas A&M defensive end Tony Jerod-Eddie, who also played with Miller at DeSoto. "It kind of catches you off guard because he's so good, but if he can do anything to help the team, that's what he's going to do."

Miller's upbringing had plenty to do with that attitude. He grew up with Jerod-Eddie and two other current A&M players -- running back Cyrus Gray and inside linebacker Garrick Williams -- and they developed the kind of bond that Miller has always cherished.

"All we had was each other," Miller said. "We were all from stable homes and we always leaned on one another. We never had anybody jump out from the group and try to do their own thing. We always talked about doing things together."

Though all four boys loved football, Miller started his career in a covert manner. Since Von Sr. didn't want his oldest son playing the game until the boy's body matured, Gloria secretly signed him up to compete in a pee-wee league when Miller was a fifth-grader. Miller spent that entire season storing his shoulder pads and helmets in Gloria's SUV and wondering why his father wasn't showing up for games on Sunday mornings.

"I'd always tell him his father had to work," Gloria said. "Somebody had to pay for these things."

Once Von Sr. found out what was happening later that season, he couldn't deny the joy the sport brought to his boy. The same kid who used to watch Dallas Cowboys games and ask his father "why that star was in the middle of the field" had enough talent even then to make his dad proud. And as Miller's career evolved in high school, he displayed plenty of versatility as well. By the time he finished at DeSoto, he had played quarterback, wide receiver, linebacker and defensive end.

Miller also was gifted enough to start for head coach Dennis Franchione during his freshman year at Texas A&M, but he also had some growing up to do. That much was clear when Sherman, who coached the Green Bay Packers from 2000 to 2005, replaced Franchione after Miller's first season.

"When he first got here, he ruled with an iron fist," Miller said. "And I had gotten used to doing things a certain way under Coach Fran. I'd miss study hall or class and I didn't think it was a big deal. But when Coach Sherman sat me down, he told me that he would've cut me if I was playing for his pro team. Just the thought of losing this game woke me up."

Sherman did not respond to interview requests for this story.

It took Miller another year to find his comfort level in Sherman's system -- he was miscast as a weakside linebacker during his sophomore season -- but his career exploded when he became a hybrid defensive end-outside linebacker as a junior. Along with leading the nation with 17 sacks, Miller ranked fourth in the country with 21 tackles for a loss and earned first-team All-America honors.

"I saw more maturity and accountability in him after his freshman year," said Von Sr. "Like a lot of young kids, he was willing to do whatever people allowed him to do. If you let them skate, they'll skate. But I told Coach Sherman to make him accountable because that's what I do with him."

Miller's success put him in a position where he considered leaving A&M for the NFL after his junior season. He actually might have pursued that dream if there weren't so many factors pulling him back to College Station. For one, Miller liked being in college and around his childhood friends. He also wanted to keep building a winning environment at a once-proud program that had lost its edge when he arrived. As defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter said, "I don't think it would've set well with Von if he'd left school after a 6-7 season [the Aggies' record in 2009]."

So while Miller moved to his fourth new position in as many years at A&M -- he became an outside linebacker in the 3-4 scheme installed by DeRuyter prior to Miller's senior season -- he didn't disappoint. Miller finished with 10.5 sacks and 17.5 tackles for a loss for an Aggies team that finished 9-4.

"When I got here and talked to him about leadership, he was a little nervous about taking a bigger role in that," DeRuyter said. "But he really went out of his way to do it. You could see him helping younger kids with drills when he had time. He had the kind of presence that people listened when he talked."

"I was fortunate with the way things worked out," Miller said. "When you come back, you hope things are going to go your way but you never really know what can happen. It worked out well because now [his teammates] can see what happened to me by coming back for my senior year. Now they have a chance to go out and take things to another level."

It's hard to imagine the Aggies not feeling the sting of Miller's departure. Along with winning the Butkus Award as the nation's top linebacker, he earned Defensive MVP honors in the Senior Bowl and posted impressive numbers at the combine, including a 4.53-second clocking in the 40-yard dash.

"The things he did at the combine are the kinds of numbers you expect to see from defensive backs," said the NFC personnel director. "That tells you that he has the kind of tools that could make him special at the next level."

As Miller makes his way through a rigorous schedule of interviews -- he'll meet with eight teams drafting in this year's top 10 -- he realizes those physical skills will have potential employers salivating. But he also understands what he learned back during his freshman season: It's his attitude that will determine how far he goes in the NFL.

"The way I look at it, I haven't done anything that anybody else hasn't done yet," Miller said. "And if I want to do great things, I can't just fast-forward my life to make it happen. I have to keep doing things one day at a time and stacking those days up. If do that, I'll be happy with whatever happens. Because at least I'll know I gave maximum effort to get there."

Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.