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Rebounding from heartbreak: Bills' Miller battles back from long rookie season

The call was coming. John Miller had long resigned himself to that unhappy fact.

His mother was dying of cancer. Her battle, playing out in his hometown of Miami, was coming to an end. All Miller could do was cherish the time they had left.

He was convinced there would more of it when he boarded the Buffalo Bills' chartered flight to London for last October's game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, his seventh as a rookie guard. Certainly, Miller would find a way to be with her at the end. Surely, he would at least have the chance to say goodbye.

But four days after arriving in the United Kingdom, he received the dreaded call. Earnestine Miller was gone. She was 46 years old.

Seven months later, the pain is still visible on John Miller's round face.

"I just didn't expect it to happen that soon," he said quietly after walking off the field from last Tuesday's OTA practice.

At 22, Miller felt his world collapsing. His mother was everything to him. She was, as he posted on his Twitter account, his "black queen mamma." After her passing, he tweeted, "RIP my angel … I appreciate how you raised me and all the extra love you gave me."

John Miller and Mother

Offensive linemen tend to be among the more stoic of football players. They're technicians who, if doing their jobs properly, are mostly ignored and perfectly fine with that. They're not supposed to allow emotions to get the better of them. They must forget about the sacks and the penalties and the missed assignments and anything else that doesn't go as planned.

This was one time when something that Miller wasn't prepared for came along and he was outright swallowed by his emotions.

"Part of me wanted to play (against Jacksonville) just because I love the game that much," he said. "I wanted to go out there and play for my teammates. But, at that point, it was just too much mentally for me to bear, so I flew back home."

Miller still struggles with the memory of that plane ride, all by himself, from London to Miami. There's a distant look in his eyes as his mind goes back to 36,000 feet above the Atlantic.

"It was a very long flight," he said. "When you're just sitting on the plane and your thoughts are just running, you don't really know how to feel at that moment."

The Bills, who were already without Tyrod Taylor and other starters because of injury, would suffer a crushing loss to the Jaguars. But that wasn't a top-of-mind thought for Miller as he and his four siblings -- three sisters and a brother -- mourned their loss.

Miller knew he had to get back to work, had to return to the task of helping the Bills try to reverse a two-game tailspin.

It was much easier said than done.

"For me, I just took it day-by-day," he said. "That's all you can do, just take it one day at a time. You pray about it, you leave it in God's hands, and you come out with your hard hat."

Still, it was difficult to focus. In practice, in meetings. No matter where he was or what he was doing, he couldn't shake the thought of his mother. Her love was a constant that he could always count on.

"Trying to battle back from that, it was a lot on me, mentally," Miller said.

That started to show up in his play, even though he was part of a line that would help the Bills lead the NFL in rushing.

Long grind, more pain

After the Bills made Miller a third-round draft pick from Louisville, Rex Ryan and other coaches couldn't say enough about his intelligence and ability to quickly pick up the offense. They had no hesitation throwing him into the starting lineup at right guard from the very start of offseason workouts and never looking back.

As the regular season progressed, however, Miller's performance gradually slipped as he struggled to keep pace with the physical and mental grind of his first NFL season, while having yet to recover from all that preceded it.

"Coming in as a rookie, we have a long process before we even get in the building with the (NFL) Combine prep, doing the Combine, taking visits here and there, different individual workouts with different teams," he said. "Then, you come in, you have rookie minicamp. Then, you come back for OTAs. Then, you got to go back (home) and you've got to train for the summer. Then, you've got to come back, go through camp, which is long. Then, of course, you have the long season.

"So, yeah, mentally, there's a lot coming in as a rookie, trying to get adjusted to the scheme, the knowledge. The speed of the game is tremendously different, even the physicality of it."

His mother's passing was the first of two of low points. The second major setback would come on Nov. 23, during the Bills' loss to New England on Monday Night Football. Miller would suffer a left high ankle sprain that would cause him to miss the next two games.

He returned in time to face Philadelphia on Dec. 13. Miller knew he wasn't in top form, and it showed as Eagles dominant defensive tackle Fletcher Cox pummeled him on the way to the Bills' 23-20 loss. Cox had equal success against veteran left guard Richie Incognito, but that didn't make Miller feel any better.

"You're not taking those reps and you're not getting that physical conditioning as much as you're used to throughout the week," Miller said. "It was tough, it was tough. I felt like I couldn't move as well. I didn't get as (many) reps as I'm used to throughout the week, because I was limited and I was trying to fight through and get out there on the field."

Seeking Pro Bowl knowledge

He didn't merely lament the negatives of his rookie year. He learned from them. His biggest lessons were investing the time and money to make sure his body would be in the best condition possible to withstand the punishment of an NFL season.

Miller spent the first few weeks of the offseason training in Miami, but then flew to Scottsdale, Ariz., to train at Zone Athletic Performance. He worked out with a pair of Pro Bowl guards, Evan Mathis and Louis Vasquez.

"So I got a chance to talk with those guys, see what they do in the offseason, how they take care of their body, as far as massages, chiropractor, a lot of different things that you can do as far as soft tissue and stuff like that," Miller said. "Making sure you're putting the right things in your body. Your protein, making sure you're taking your supplements. That was one of the things that I was lacking that I'm doing now."

He spent five weeks with a conditioning coach. Much of the focus was on rehabilitating his left ankle, working to get back the flexibility necessary to help prevent another injury.

Miller also seeks advice from Incognito -- another Pro Bowler who is obsessive about keeping himself in top shape -- about conditioning and blocking techniques.

"I think his play kind of went off a little bit when he had the ankle and all that," Ryan said of Miller. "But he was fighting through it. But I think he is going to be an outstanding player for us. So I think he will just take off from where he left off. We knew (when he was drafted), from a mental standpoint, physical standpoint, that we really thought we hit on him when he came in here. And that is still the case."

"Yeah, it was a challenge," Miller said of his rookie season. "But it's a learning curve for me and I take a lot of things from that rookie season: how to take care of my body, how to stay physically in shape throughout the season. And I battled through injuries, some personal things as well, and I just feel like I overcame a lot of obstacles. Every game I was out there, I gave it my all.

"Now, we have another year in the offense," he added. "The whole five guys up front, we're all returning, so we all have a cohesiveness and we know what to expect, how to grind together. I know the scheme better and I understand what I have to do as far as what I have to get done on the field, how I approach each and every block."

Through it all, however, his thoughts will drift back to his mother. He will see her face, hear her voice, remember her unwavering love and support.

The emotions start to bubble up.

"I still struggle with it now," Miller said. "I still think about her every day, but it was just one of those things that you have to not necessarily let go, but you have to learn to accept the fact that she's gone and she's in a better place."

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