A late March afternoon in suburban Dallas finds Von Miller at home trying to light his mother on fire. She's at the kitchen table, working on a laptop, and he's just over her shoulder flicking a lighter a few inches beneath her bare forearm, a large grin creasing his face. That the flying sparks don't immediately send Gloria running suggests that this isn't the first time her 22-year-old son has played Dennis the Menace. There was the time he stuffed a dead snake under his brother's bed just to see if she'd scream, and the time he put a turtle in a high school teammate's helmet. Miller's explanation of his pranks—"They just happen," he shrugs—is enough to keep the house on alert 24/7. "As soon as you think you're safe," Gloria says, "he'll come up with something else."
Anyway, provoking Miller, a two-time All-America linebacker out of Texas A&M who's projected to be a top five pick in the April 28--30 NFL draft, is a bad idea. Dave Kennedy learned that the hard way during the Aggies' summer retreat two years ago. He had reason to feel safe from the team prankster given that 1) he is A&M's strength and conditioning coach, and 2) the retreat was taking place at coach Mike Sherman's house, partly so the players could have the run of the pool. Kennedy's mistake was doubting that Miller would have the temerity to throw him in. "I'd grab him, but he was just like, You're not gonna do it," Miller recalls.
So Miller employed a little misdirection: He made up a frantic story about losing his phone and asked Kennedy to call him so they could track it down. The moment Kennedy whipped out his own cell, he was toast. An accomplice (Miller will only say it was "a trustworthy teammate") swiped it, then Miller picked Kennedy up and hurled him into the drink. "Looking back, I was a dumbass," says Kennedy, adding that Miller should expect payback the next time he's on the College Station campus. "He'll be around—especially if there's a lockout."
There, too, Miller is at the center of the action. This time, though, it's no joking matter. He's suing the NFL.
NOW, BEFORE you conclude that Miller is going rogue, consider that it wasn't entirely his idea. He was drawn into the lawsuit, which counts superstars Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees among its 10 plaintiffs, by the outfit formerly known as the NFL Players Association, which believed that a high-profile rookie litigant would strengthen its antitrust claims against the league. In essence, Miller is standing for all prospective 2011 draft picks who, the lawsuit asserts, will be harmed by the lockout and by restrictions on rookie wages, which the suit characterizes as a "price-fixing agreement." It claims more broadly that the draft is "one of the longest-running restraints on competition for player services in the NFL."
Miller's MVP performance in the Senior Bowl in January got him on the NFLPA's radar, and he says that at the Super Bowl in Dallas he met with veteran running back LaDainian Tomlinson, who persuaded him to sign on to the suit when it was filed in March. (Also of note, one of Miller's agents, Andrew Kessler, is the son of Jeffrey Kessler, a lead attorney for the players.) For Miller, joining the legal action is less about taking a stand on principle than receiving a seal of approval from his future colleagues. "The PA could've picked any rookie coming out this year," he says. "It's a blessing that fell into my lap."
So Miller is in the unusual position of suing his potential employers, something NFL teams might hold against him if he weren't the best pass rusher coming out of college this year. Early in his Aggies career the 6'3", 246-pound Miller excelled against a procession of future franchise tackles that includes the Redskins' Trent Williams (Oklahoma), the Seahawks' Russell Okung (Oklahoma State) and the Vikings' Phil Loadholt (Oklahoma). Last fall Miller fought through an early-season right ankle injury to lead the Big 12 in sacks (10½) and the team in tackles for loss (17½) on the way to winning the Butkus Award as the nation's top linebacker. At the Senior Bowl, Miller proved his versatility, dominating in the trenches and in coverage. He killed at the combine with a mix of speed (his 4.53 seconds in the 40 was second among linebackers), strength (21 reps of 225 pounds) and hops (a 37-inch vertical). For every talent evaluator inclined to dismiss him as a mere workout wonder à la Vernon Gholston, five herald Miller as the second coming of Hall of Famer Derrick Thomas. Miller's trainer Dan Brandenburg, a former NFL linebacker, worked with first-round picks Sean Weatherspoon and Clay Matthews leading up to the last two drafts and thinks Miller is the best athlete of the three.
Miller can't believe he's even being talked about in the first place. "I never dreamed of being in this spot," he says.
Miller's football career began with a series of end arounds. His father, Von, didn't want him to play until his body matured, but Gloria caved to her son's wishes and secretly enrolled the boy in fifth-grade Pee Wee ball. To ensure that her husband stayed in the dark, she stashed Von's pads inside her Chevy Suburban and washed his jerseys in the garage late at night. Dad finally caught on about a year later, when he was making a rare bid to clean the SUV and football gear spilled out the back. "By then, quite honestly, he was entrenched," the elder Miller says. "I wasn't gonna take football away from him."
At DeSoto High, just south of Dallas, Miller emerged as one of the best defensive end prospects in Texas as well as a standout hurdler. He signed with A&M after falling hard for College Station's famed 12th Man as a junior. "I had never been to a game where the fans were so into it," says Miller, who gave them plenty to cheer about as a true freshman. Although he arrived weighing just 211 pounds, he bulked up and had 22 tackles and two sacks in a part-time role.