On the morning of the Pro Bowl, Broncos linebacker Von Miller awoke to news so awful he did not want to believe it was true. Kobe Bryant dead? In a helicopter crash?
“Whenever an artist, rapper, celebrity or somebody you never thought would die (actually) dies, you’re kind of taken aback,” Miller said Tuesday.
“You reflect on all the great things they did and you reflect on the person they were. It’s unfortunate that we’re like that as human beings, because we should give people their flowers while they’re still here.”
The tragic death of the Black Mamba changed the happy-go-lucky Vonster forever as a football player, a teammate and a man.
“It’s never too late to change,” said Miller, shaken to his core when Bryant died far too young, a basketball legend gone, nearly seven months shy of his 42nd birthday.
Yes, Miller owns a championship ring as the MVP of Super Bowl 50. But he’s also man enough to admit the old Vonster was a big goofball who viewed the extent of his role with the Broncos as sacking the quarterback and telling jokes.
No more. At age 31, Miller insists clown time is over, because there’s a legacy to build and no time to waste.
“The leader I was before wasn’t getting it done,” he said.
Miller hasn’t played in a playoff game since signing a six-year, $114 million contract in 2016. It irks him.
For all his obvious greatness, the old Vonster often required prodding to bring out his Hall of Fame talent. Miller and I have jousted on this sticky issue constantly, almost from the day he was the second overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft.
So when asked during a Zoom conference with reporters where he discovered this new-found chip on his shoulder, Miller laughed. Without missing a beat, he replied: “I think Mark Kiszla creates all the chips for me.”
Well, if Miller needs me to be a bag of nacho cheese Doritos on his shoulder to lead the NFL in sacks, I’m here for him, bruh.
During a tumultuous year that has shaken many Americans to the core, Miller survived a bout with COVID-19 that took an asthmatic linebacker’s breath away and marched with Broncos teammates through downtown Denver after the death of George Floyd.
But his eyes were forced wide open on the morning of Jan. 26, as he prepared to make his ninth appearance in the Pro Bowl. Miller learned Bryant, as well the teenage daughter of the Lakers superstar and seven others, were killed in fog-shrouded California hills outside Los Angeles.
“When it happened, especially right before the Pro Bowl, I was like, ‘What?’ ” Miller said.
He took the field in Florida that sad-and-shocking day, helping the AFC to victory in a game whose outcome seemed particularly meaningless as thoughts of NFL stars drifted to a tragedy on the other side of the country. “We were playing,” Miller recalled, “and at the same time we were thinking: ‘Is this real with Kobe?’”
When I asked why Bryant’s death touched his heart so deeply and profoundly, Miller opened a vein to let his emotions flow.
“When he died, you focused on the type of person and athlete he was. And you have no choice but to be motivated,” said Miller, who has reshaped his body and remade his attitude since the Broncos’ final game of 2019.
While studying the essential elements of what Bryant described as a “Mamba mentality,” Miller also began tearing pages from his book of regrets. He vowed to not let an NFL career or cherished friendships slip away without displaying gratitude for the sport or people who have helped mold his success.
“I tell guys that I love them more. I don’t have a problem saying: ‘I love you. I appreciate you,’ because you never really know,” Miller said.
“Kobe was a legend, and I feel like we have a legend here (in Denver) with John Elway. I felt like in years before, I kind of shied away, because it was like: ‘Elway. Legend.’ He walks into a room and you’re kind of like, ‘Let me get out of here.’
“But after this, I re-focused and said, ‘Hey, I need to spend more time around legends and see what makes these guys who they were and see the type of stuff they did.’ And try to rub it off on me, so I can be better with my teammates, so I can be better with my family, so I can better with the people I interact with on a daily basis.”
Miller intensely watched “The Last Dance” on ESPN this summer and took notes on how Michael Jordan was far more obsessed with winning championships than being pals with teammates in the Chicago Bulls locker room.
“Michael Jordan said he would never demand anything from his teammates that he wasn’t doing himself,” Miller observed. “For me, it was like, ‘I have to work harder. I have to push harder. I have to get back in shape. I have to lead more. I have to lead better.’”
So here’s the action plan for 2020: Less like the old Vonster, and more like Mike.
No more Mr. Nice Guy?
“Last year, I didn’t play to my standards. I didn’t play to the Sack Master’s standards,” Miller said. “There was more for me to give. My coaches felt like there was more for me to give. Most of all, I feel like I can give more and I can be more. I don’t feel like I’m finished yet.”
Instead of playing for laughs, Miller wants to honor the legacy of Bryant. Whenever the Broncos take the field, Miller vows there’s going to be a little Mamba inside No. 58.
NFL quarterbacks, beware. This is going to sting.
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