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The painting came from a 2007 autograph show, a $99-per-ticket affair in Raritan, N.J., not far from where Miles Austin Jr. still punches in every morning to his job as a truck driver. By the time he saw the canvas, Austin had already shaken hands with NFL legends Jim Brown and Kenny Stabler. He had trembled and cried as he told them about his son, Miles Austin III, an undrafted receiver out of I-AA Monmouth (N.J.) University who had signed with the Cowboys in 2006. Brown and Stabler had never heard of the kid, of course, but no matter. When Austin Jr. found a vendor hawking artwork of Dallas quarterback Tony Romo and running back Marion Barber, he puffed out his chest and asked if there was a painting of his son for sale too.
"The guy told me, 'Uh, we're still making that Miles Austin mural,'" Miles Jr. recalls, laughing. He left the autograph show with a consolation prize, offered gratis: a three-panel piece, roughly three feet by four feet, of Terrell Owens, then one of the many wideouts ahead of Austin on the Cowboys' depth chart.
Part gift, part apology and now mostly a metaphor, the T.O. triptych has remained in Miles III's childhood bedroom in Garfield, N.J. One afternoon this month, when Austin was visiting his parents, the Owens painting sat on the musty green carpet, still encased in protective plastic, surrounded by prom photos of the onetime no-name who last year emerged as the go-to wideout in Dallas that T.O. had been—briefly.
Austin got his first career start in Week 5 in 2009, and from that point on the rangy 6'3" receiver had more catches (76), yards (1,239) and touchdowns (10) than the rest of the Cowboys' wideouts combined. In fact, over the final 12 games of the season the Romo-to-Austin connection produced more yardage than any other quarterback-receiver tandem in the NFL. On Jan. 9, NFC East champion Dallas beat the Eagles in the playoffs 34--14, with Austin piling up 82 yards and a touchdown. It was the Cowboys' first postseason win in 13 years, prompting owner Jerry Jones to enter the locker room afterward and scream, "The demons are gone!"
Austin, as usual, was happier. Whether grinning his way into the end zone while racking up a franchise-record 250 receiving yards in his first start or fist-bumping stadium attendants outside the Cowboys' locker room, Austin has been a one-man repudiation of the NFL's cooler-than-thou trend of success begetting sourness, the playmaker celebrating as if he has chugged spoiled milk. "I guess I just enjoy my life," says Austin, 26, who's known around Garfield as Smiles. "Every day in Dallas I enjoy being with the guys. There's really no reason for me to ever be sad."
But as the Cowboys were set to open training camp this week in San Antonio—the first team to bring its full roster together this summer—even Austin's sunny disposition seemed threatened. In April the Cowboys traded up in the first round to pick the best wideout in the draft, Oklahoma State's talented but trouble-plagued Dez Bryant. And while Jones pledged that locking up Austin long-term was a top off-season priority, he has yet to offer more than the one-year, $3.2 million tender that Austin signed in June. Nine months removed from his NFL breakout, Austin now finds himself in the unexpected role of a star receiver looking over his shoulder, a player who must prove his worth. Again.
Miles Jonathan Austin III was sleeping. He was two weeks into his junior year at Garfield High, and when 8 a.m. turned into 9—school started at 8:20—he awoke in a panic and flew out of his room and down the street. Upon arriving at Garfield's double doors, Austin was greeted by Steve Mucha, the school's head of discipline. When Mucha didn't issue him a detention, Austin knew what his punishment would be. At the end of the day he simply knocked on Mucha's office door and was handed a football jersey.
Mucha was also Garfield High's football coach, and he'd been imploring Austin to suit up for years. The teenager was a supreme athlete—he was an all--Bergen County swingman for the basketball team and an area track star like his older sister, Jennifer—but he hadn't strapped on the pads since middle school. "So I put him in right before the half in his first game, against Passaic County Tech," Mucha recalls. "He caught a 70-yard bomb right down the sideline." A career was born.
Despite a prolific run at Garfield (65 catches, 1,671 yards, 15 TDs over his two seasons), no schools higher than I-AA came calling. Former Monmouth receivers coach Mark Fabish, now the tight ends coach at Penn, only scouted Austin on a tip from a friend of a friend. ("Raw as heck, but worth looking into," he'd heard.) Fabish took it as a good sign that the blue-collar Austin was often asked to moonlight at safety and quarterback at Garfield and "never made a stink." That should have come as no surprise given his background: Austin's mother, Ann, teaches physical education at a school for the autistic; his grandfather was a minister who worked at Rahway State Prison; and überpolite Miles Jr. addresses everyone as "sir."
At Monmouth, Austin proved so good, says Scott Van Zile, then an assistant coach and now the offensive coordinator, that it "may have been a disservice to his development. Miles only needed to know a couple of things on Saturdays to take advantage." Indeed, having come so late to the sport, Austin lacked football knowledge that even remedial Madden players would have: how to run precise routes, how to come out of breaks, how to recognize Cover Two defenses. "I was just running around out there," admits Austin, who spent his summers working the door at a pub in the beach town of Belmar, N.J. Nevertheless he set Monmouth records in career receiving yards (2,867) and touchdown catches (33). Before his junior year, former NFL scout Jim Garrett volunteered to work him out at Garrett's home on the Jersey Shore. At the end of the day Garrett concluded that Austin had pro potential.