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Then came a regime change, from the laissez-faire Dennis Francione to Sherman, a former Packers coach, who was less than enamored with Miller's work ethic—particularly his habits of skipping class and coasting through practice. To send a message, Sherman suspended Miller indefinitely in the spring of 2008. "I didn't feel what he was doing was necessarily going to lead him to the NFL," Sherman says. Miller packed his bags and considered transferring, but there was no way his father was going to release him from his letter of intent. ("We committed to the school," his dad reminded him.) Chastened, Miller returned to College Station with a newfound seriousness and an open mind to Sherman's advice. One of the coach's mantras stands above the rest. "He kept telling me, 'You can't live double lives,' " Miller says. "Once I cleaned up off the field, football became a lot easier."
Not that A&M coaches made Miller's job simple as they moved him along the defensive front, from standup end as a freshman to weakside linebacker as a sophomore (he still led the team in sacks, with 3½) and then to a hybrid defensive end--outside linebacker—a position coaches later dubbed Joker—as a junior in 2009. It was in that role that he became a dominant force, leading the country in sacks (17) and finishing fifth in tackles for loss (21½) on the way to the first of his two All-America honors.
Miller considered turning pro after that season ahead of a potential 2011 work stoppage but thought better of it. The money wouldn't have been great (he was projected as a second-rounder), and his parents, who own a power supply business, weren't in need of it. Moreover, he was just starting to take an interest in school. A blow-off class in chicken farming turned into a minor in poultry science. "I visited farms and hatcheries," says Miller, who is taking classes online this semester toward his degree in university studies. "I wanted to understand the whole business."
He also became a serious film student after then Aggies defensive coordinator Joe Kines compared him with Derrick Thomas. To get a feel for the compliment, Miller screened three seasons' worth of film of the late Chiefs great, and not just footage from on the field. "I watched Derrick's interviews, too," Miller says. "It was just crazy to see a guy who played 20 years before me doing the same stuff."
Like Thomas, Miller is a speed merchant. He has tremendous burst off the line and a sprinter's rolling acceleration, a vestige of his days as a track star. His talent as a contortionist, though, is what really sets him apart. Where most rushers go through or around blocks, Miller is flexible enough to go under and even over them. In practices, Sherman jokes, Miller "destroyed the confidence of our left tackles."
But afterward he'd give them pointers on how to beat him the next time. Now, with the NFL on the horizon, he's been helping his teammates in other ways. Miller ran at Texas A&M's pro day against the advice of his representatives so that three lightly scouted seniors—quarterback Jerrod Johnson, offensive lineman Matt Allen and defensive tackle Lucas Patterson—could get some of his shine. Miller sent junior defensive tackle Tony Jerod-Eddie videos of his private workouts, and he infected junior running back Cyrus Gray with his unrelenting spirit. "Von's whole career, guys have always been saying he's too small to play defensive end, but he always found a way to make something happen," says Gray, who struggled to make the transition from high school quarterback to Aggies tailback. "He's more than just a leader; he's a big brother to me."
The gravity of Miller's decision to join the players' lawsuit didn't hit him until April 6, when he walked into the U.S. courthouse in St. Paul, Minn., for its first hearing. Though he seemed the picture of cool in a gray pinstriped blazer, black tie and horn-rimmed glasses, inside he was a jangle of nerves. He had never before been inside a courtroom, let alone a federal district court. He hadn't done anything wrong, of course, but he couldn't quite shake a guilty feeling. Ominous warnings against cellphone use added to his sense of unease. The whole morning, he says, "was just overwhelming. I've never sued anybody. I've never been sued. I felt like I was in trouble."
Eventually Miller found ways to relax. He listened closely as one of his lawyers, James Quinn, stressed the "irreparable harm" his clients risked if the lockout continued. Miller focused on Judge Susan Richard Nelson, who promised a decision "in a couple of weeks" on whether to grant a preliminary injunction to end the lockout. (The actual antitrust claims will be heard later.) He marveled at the veteran players who were there—wideout Vincent Jackson and linebackers Ben Leber and Mike Vrabel—and even struck up a hushed conversation with another plaintiff, Vikings defensive end Brian Robison, a former Texas schoolboy star and a high school idol of Miller's. ("I didn't expect to see that Brian Robison," Miller says.)
Outside the courtroom, though, Miller prefers to keep quiet about the suit and his role in it. He won't articulate his position in the labor debate beyond stating his desire to play NFL football in 2011. In fact, he has agreed to be in New York City for the league's draft festivities.
Miller won't even talk about the lawsuit with his friends. "My boys ask me about it," he says, "but I don't think they realize how serious it is." That Miller does hardly means he's through starting fires. He's just learning what it takes to carry the torch.