ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — There are your plans. Then there is 2020.
As it has for many of us, 2020 has not gone according to plan for Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller.
“2020? 2020, man, it’s a lot right now — a lot,” Miller said. “But, you know, you have to get up every day, put in that work, try to be that person you want to be, keep grinding, no matter what comes at you. Just try, try at things, have passion. That’s where I’m at right now. Be consistently committed to the things that are important.”
Miller said these words just days before his football season likely ended thanks to an awkward step on the final play of an otherwise nondescript Tuesday practice. Miller had surgery on his ankle on Friday and recovery time is considered to be between four to six months, but a best-case scenario would be a three-month recovery. The injury comes during a year in which the would-be 10th-year pro has already fended off COVID-19 — “I was scared as hell” — and was distressed by police violence against Black men and women that has caused him to reflect — “I could have stood taller with [Colin] Kaepernick” — while inspiring him to take a leading role in the push for social justice.
Miller will push forward. But for his Broncos, who open the season against the Tennessee Titans on Monday Night Football (10:10 p.m. ET, ESPN), Miller’s ankle injury changes everything in 2020: on the field, in the locker room and anywhere else Miller’s talents, attitude, joy, desire and humanity have reached during his decade with the team.
“My own personal feelings, I was sad, when [the injury] happened [Tuesday], for a lot of reasons,” Broncos coach Vic Fangio said. “One, mainly for Von, because Von has had a hell of an offseason … he was of a mindset where he was going to come out and have a hell of a season.
“So, I’m sad that he’s not going to be able to get the season that he worked for because that would be fun to watch, for me, for him, for you, for everybody. … The good thing about his injury is once it’s healed, it’s healed. It’s not one of those where he’ll have lingering effects.”
Miller will keep pushing. The injury certainly isn’t the first hurdle he has faced during his life or his career, and it won’t be the last.
How Miller got to this point will play a big part in where he goes from here, how he lifts himself out of 2020 and what’s to come. Recently, Miller took some time to talk about the ups and downs of a career that was set to reach its 10th season. Just days before his latest injury Miller said he “hasn’t reached the high point, that’s my goal, keep going for a better high point.”
For now, that high point will have to wait.
This summer, Miller didn’t take anything for granted as he climbed the stairs each day on his way to the socially distanced outside linebackers meeting room in the Broncos’ facility.
“Every day, no joke, every day, I go up those stairs right now and reflect,” Miller said. “The way this year has been, I — those are the exact same stairs where it all started, my first day as a Bronco.
“There was a lockout [in 2011], so we were going to come in after the draft real quick and that was going to be it. So they flew me in and I walked up those stairs to meet Mr. B. And back then when you met Mr. B, that’s when you were a Bronco.”
“Mr. B” was late Broncos owner Pat Bowlen. And 2011, the year Miller arrived as the No. 2 overall pick, was pivotal for Bowlen, who had just hired Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway to be the team’s chief decision-maker and guide the Broncos out of a 4-12 mess. Miller was the first player Elway selected in the draft.
“So, every day already this year I remember walking up these same stairs, right by Mr. B’s office,” Miller said. “I walked up those stairs losing my breath because the altitude and the situation, but just losing my breath. I remember that first time every time I walk up those stairs. I wanted to be great. Great for the Denver Broncos. Great for Mr. B. Great for myself. … I’ll always feel that way no matter what.”
‘2013 was the test’
Even as 2020 has tried its best to pile on, 2013 laid a foundation for how Miller deals with adversity and how he will power through the post-surgery work he’ll begin soon.
Miller was an immediate success in the league, but after two consecutive Pro Bowl seasons to begin his career, 2013 was a setback. He was suspended for the first six games for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy. He missed a court date for traffic violations that resulted in an arrest warrant being issued. Questions about where he was, whom he was with and who he was becoming when he didn’t have a football helmet on were swirling.
“Man, 2013 really made me take a look, like a real look, like you look in the mirror and really look at what’s there,” Miller said. “It really made me prioritize me, what I was doing and how I was doing it. I found my real priorities in 2013, I had to really think about what I really wanted to do, who I wanted to be, because 2013 was the test everybody warns you about.
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“The hardest thing was to step out there and talk after the suspension … thinking to myself earning people’s trust back was going to be hard, but I had to get right. My first move was my parents, they moved in and we said we were going to get through it, but I had to clean up those things. Me.”
His parents, Von and Gloria, did move in with him for a time. And Miller returned to play in nine games that season, some good, some not so good. He had five sacks before tearing his ACL in Week 16 against the Houston Texans.
But pain will get your attention if it doesn’t overwhelm you, the notion that a fresh start has usually arrived because of a painful ending.
“He attacked that injury,” Chris Harris Jr. said “We both had ACLs, we both had to be in there every day and we both decided we were coming back from that. But he attacked it. You could tell everything about that year was coming out of him in that rehab. He might not agree, but that torn ACL, man, that pushed Von out again, beyond what he did before. He was going to do some things after that.”
Fangio expects Miller to do the same this time around. So much so that this past week Fangio wouldn’t even rule out Miller returning this season, saying he told the team “we’ll move forward [while] never forgetting Von and hoping that he returns at some point this year.”
Super Bowl MVP
Miller has seen his share of football heights as well. Super Bowl 50 was a lot of things — quarterback Peyton Manning’s final game, Elway’s pinnacle as a football executive and a showdown between the Broncos’ historic defense and the Panthers’ league-leading offense.
And it was all overwhelmed by Miller. After an audible, of course.
“Let me tell you about plans,” former Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said with a wry laugh. “The plan was, we started out the game, the plan was to rush four and Von was going to be the spy on [Cam Newton] because of all Von could do athletically and we just thought that was our best chance to keep [Newton] under wraps a bit.
“Well, we got in the first quarter, our rush is too good overall and Von isn’t even in it. I’m sitting there saying, ‘We can’t not rush Von right now.’ I said, ‘Von has got to rush.’ We changed; we decided to put the five-man rush package, instead of four and a spy.
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“Well, he caused a fumble, we recover for a touchdown and caused another at the 5-yard line and just disrupts everything and everybody until the clock is out. That’s an MVP for sure.”
Phillips has coached in the NFL since 1981. He has coached Hall of Famers such as Reggie White, Rickey Jackson and Bruce Smith. Last season he coached a Rams defense with the guy many people in the league believe might be the NFL’s best player in Aaron Donald.
And Miller’s Super Bowl 50 will always have a special place on his mantel.
“Von is just one of the greatest players to ever play his position,” Phillips said. “To be as versatile as he is, rush the passer, he can cover people, too. People don’t realize, he can cover a tight end, he can cover man-to-man — he knocked that pass away down the field in the Super Bowl which would have been the highlight for some guys, but he had already wrecked so much other stuff by then nobody remembers. He can drop in zone. He can do everything. Now, you don’t want him doing all those things because he can rush the passer like few others I’ve ever seen, but he’s just really, really versatile.
“Like all those great ones, he’s focused on being the best. They’ve got something, whether it’s heart, I don’t know what you call it, whatever it is, those guys I’ve been around, the Reggie Whites, the Bruce Smiths, the great, great players, have that inside of them that they want to excel, even though they’re great, they want to be better. Von has that.”
Winning back his football soul
Recent struggles on the field have further motivated Miller. Before quarterback Patrick Mahomes was the league’s “it” player and his Chiefs had won four consecutive AFC West titles, the Broncos owned the West. With Miller leading the defense, Denver won five consecutive titles from 2011 to 2015, but those seem like distant days now.
To make matters worse, the Broncos have missed the playoffs four consecutive times. In two of those seasons they lost at least 10 games. Miller has had moments of brilliance during this span, but not nearly enough to offset the carousel at quarterback and offensive coordinator. It’s all affected Miller and explains why he attacked this offseason like no other before in his career.
Following a December loss to the Chiefs in what became a disappointing eight-sack season — his lowest total since 2013 — Miller said losing “just defeats my soul.” It all sent Miller into a workout frenzy of sorts just days after the 2019 season ended.
“He has sent me some videos and pictures,” Fangio said earlier this offseason. “I do think he’s had a hell of an offseason. I know he’s worked extremely hard. I do sense that he’s got a hunger to his game and to his attitude that I don’t think he’s had the last few years in the league.”
And the target of Miller’s push was the mirror, again.
“When you get there and you win and you experience that, then every time after that you lose, you don’t go, it’s devastating,” Miller said. “You think it’s devastating to lose before, but after you’ve won it all, been at the top as a team, you really know what that feels like, when everything you do turns to gold.
“But this offseason, with everything going on, I figured out what I should have been doing more is pointing the finger at myself, figuring out what I can do, what more I can do.”
Lessons from COVID-19 quarantine
On April 17, Von Miller detailed his symptoms since testing positive for the coronavirus.
In April, as Miller watched images of overwhelmed health care workers and cities on lockdown, the coronavirus reached his own house.
When Miller, an asthmatic who uses an inhaler, first felt symptoms he said he couldn’t catch his breath at night. He had a fever and a strange sense this wasn’t like any cold or flu he had before. A test confirmed he had COVID-19 and Miller’s diagnosis made headlines from coast to coast.
“Man, I was extremely nervous. It’s all over, you see the videos of the hospitals, the stay-at-home orders, all of these things going on and suddenly I’m one of the first guys [in the NFL] to get it. I was scared, I ain’t even going to lie, I was scared,” Miller said. “I’ve got asthma. I was like, ‘This thing could kill me.’ And when you can’t catch your breath in the middle of the night, when you can’t breathe, it’s hard not to be scared. I eventually just did everything they say to get better, but yeah, initially, I was scared as hell. I tell these guys take it seriously or they might be scared as hell, too.”
Miller quarantined for two weeks and said it took another few weeks after that before he could resume his workout regimen. During that time he read about leadership — delving into Kobe Bryant’s career in particular.
He now believes he wasn’t pushing himself or teammates hard enough. He believes he can still be the player who brings others together, but he also can push to the front of the line with a little more forcefulness on football issues, social justice matters and the state of the Broncos.
“That’s what quarantine was,” Miller said. “The only good thing about quarantine is I could really look at myself in that light. Look in the mirror and really try to figure out what I can do, what should be on my plate. I’m the easiest thing that I control, the easiest thing I can influence.”
Standing up for social justice, fighting to return
Von Miller addresses the crowd at a Denver protest against police brutality and racism.
Miller’s teammates have seen the fire stoked in this offseason. They saw it each day in training camp, right up until the last play of Tuesday’s practice. They say it will fuel him moving forward, fuel him to return to demonstrate just how much he believes he has to show on the field and off.
“That was the thing that I think I was most hurt for him about was seeing that we won’t be able to see how great he was going to be this year,” safety Justin Simmons said. “[But] I’m a firm believer that that mentality that he had this offseason though, he’ll transition that into rehabbing and getting back to where he needs to be to be even better next year when he comes back.”
Miller said this past summer he felt “better than ever,” but he has said that before. Still, teammates like Simmons have used the word “hunger” based on what they have seen from him on the field and in the community.
In recent months Miller has spoken of football as a platform for social justice and penned in Time Magazine, “the love of my country compels me to use it.” In the essay, Miller described publicly the racism he encountered from the time he was an elementary school student through high school, college and into his NFL career — he called it pain that “sears me every day now.”
He closed the essay with: “Say their names. Hands up. Don’t shoot. I can’t breathe.”
Miller was among the Broncos who spoke to a large crowd in downtown Denver this past June after marching during a Black Lives Matter rally just weeks after he had recovered from COVID-19.
“I felt like I could have stood taller with [Colin] Kaepernick at the time; I could have supported him better.”
“I felt like I could have stood taller with [Colin] Kaepernick at the time; I could have supported him better,” Miller said. “… I apologize for not being a strong leader at the time. It’s all part of what I’ve been thinking about me as a person, a person who happens to play football. You can try to be really good at your job, try to be one of the best ever and try to be everything you can be as a person, too.”
Miller’s fire seemed equally stoked on the field, where he seemed to take pride in reaching his 10th NFL season, especially given the struggle for most players to maintain a career half that length.
“If you still have a passion for it and you’re still doing it at a high level, I don’t think I should even think about not playing,” Miller said. “I still feel like I’m able to compete; I still feel like I’m fast, most importantly. As long as I can keep doing that, I’m going to play. … Every year I get to play, every play I get to play, I’ll just keep pushing and at the end I’ll see how many [years] it is and I’ll look up and I’ll be cool with that.”
If you want a sense of how Miller will overcome this latest obstacle, consider how he answered this question: What is the single most important lesson you have learned since that April day in 2011 when you were drafted?
After pausing for nearly 40 seconds, almost geologic time for a guy who often responds in rapid fire, Miller spelled out his mentality.
“Over time I’ve really learned what effort means,” Miller said. “You can’t get complacent. It’s impossible to do that and succeed. When you start doing that, that’s when you go downhill. When you get complacent — you don’t take advantage of every day. So, do more, commit to it more. As time goes on, you’ve got to relearn that process every single year. You’ve got to keep going at it every single year.
“You can’t get bored with trying to be great; you can’t get bored with winning or thinking it just happens. You don’t want to get bored with whupping other people’s ass. You don’t want to get bored with success, don’t want to get bored with coming in here every day with the mindset of giving to your teammates and pushing yourself. Because if you do, you’re done, that’s it.”