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Bills linebacker Matt Milano – man of few possessions and much promise

Matt Milano doesn’t want to think about the gruesome dislocated ankle and fractured fibula that ended his second season in the NFL.

He’d rather forget about that Week 14, fourth-quarter play with 1:38 on the clock, when the New York Jets faced third-and-goal from the 4-yard line and the Buffalo Bills were still clinging to a 23-20 lead, that moment when Sam Darnold was tackled short of the end zone and Milano’s left foot folded beneath the quarterback’s weight.

The outside linebacker says he’s erased it from his mind completely, how he remained on the ground, costing the Bills their final timeout. How he hopped onto the cart that whisked him from the turf at New Era Field and into an offseason of surgeries and rehab. How Elijah McGuire rushed for the game-winning touchdown on the next play.

“I threw my cleats out,” Milano says. “Everything associated with that game. Pictures and stuff. I just try to let that stay in the past and just move forward.”

It’s nearly six months since that early December game, and Milano is walking toward the Bills’ locker room as he speaks, no trace of limp in his gait, a full participant in the team’s voluntary offseason practices. This degree of candor passes for something of a revelation from the burgeoning star, known to Bills beat reporters as perhaps the least quotable player on the team.

By midway through last season, several said they quit approaching Milano’s locker for comment because he rarely offered more than two- or three-word answers. But now a reporter in search of an update sticks a television camera in his face.

“One hundred percent. Feeling great. No limitations at all,” Milano says, a direct and brutally efficient communicator, as usual.

The 24-year-old has always been reserved and something of a mystery, a man of few words and even fewer belongings, today a multimillionaire pro athlete who fits his full wardrobe into a single suitcase – solid black T-shirts, a white button-down, a couple of pairs of jeans, socks and underwear.

The toothbrush slips into a grooming kit in a small black backpack.

“He’s a self-proclaimed minimalist,” Bills linebacker Lorenzo Alexander said, “which is evident in the same suit that he wears wherever he goes.”

It’s been two years since Milano moved into his one-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment in a renovated, red-brick building with exposed ductwork in downtown Buffalo, after the Bills drafted him out of Boston College with a fifth-round pick in 2017.

And the interior remains nearly as sparse as the day he arrived.

“He doesn’t have a whole lot in his apartment,” Bills linebacker Julian Stanford said. “A couch, TV, I think he just bought a desk and he’s trying to find a chair. But that’s it.”

No end tables. No lamps. Nothing hanging on the walls.

“In his bedroom, he has a clothes rack, and that’s where his clothes are, on the rack, no dresser, no nothing. And a mattress on the floor,” Milano’s dad, Mike, said. “It’s hysterical.”

Milano acknowledges his lifestyle is an anomaly in a day and age of instant gratification and a culture built on materialism.

“It’s kind of weird at first,” Milano said. “People come into my apartment and they’re like, ‘Where’s everything?’ But you don’t really need it all.

“I just try to keep it to a minimum. A minimum is better. Once you start getting too much stuff in your life, your mind gets cluttered, your head gets cluttered, you can’t think straight on the field, so I just try to eliminate all distractions as much as possible.”

Milano never had a pet.

If his place burned down, he’d “just pack my bag real quick and get out of there,” he said. “On the move!”

He’s attached to his smartphone, but rarely posts on social media, making a concerted effort to rein himself in.

“I have so many tweets that I’ve typed out and just never posted ... once I start thinking about it – straight to the drafts,” he wrote on Feb. 15, then published.

“Because nowadays, you never know who you’re going to push the wrong way, so I just don’t say anything at all,” he explained. “It’s better off.”

Milano reads a ton.

“A lot of leadership books, personal development, that’s what I see around when he’s home,” his dad said.

He often writes in a journal.

“Just everything going on. You name it, I’m writing it down,” Milano said. “I wouldn’t call myself a journalist, but once I put something on paper, it’s kind of in the world. It brings it to life.

“It’s all kind of confidential stuff that I’m working on with some other people. Just things I’m trying to accomplish in my life. It’s not really football-related.”

He’s a big fan of Marshmello, the popular electronic dance music DJ who performs while wearing a custom white bucket on his head, turning anonymity into a calling card.

He loves traveling.

“It’s important getting out from the bubble you live in at the time and experiencing something new," Milano said, "seeing somebody else’s culture, what they kind of do during the day, who’s around there, and just meeting new people.”

His top priorities?

“Football is definitely very important to me, and my family, friends and just my overall self,” Milano said. “Improving myself day to day, that’s really what I’m passionate about.”

Of course, he threw away those cleats.

“I was just, ‘I’m done with all this stuff. I just want to hit the refresh button and start over,’” he said.

Milano’s teammates have embraced his quirks, though he remains an enigma.

“Matt’s a very interesting, quiet, reserved guy, so you won’t learn too much from him just because he’s not going to talk too much about himself. He’s not going to brag,” defensive end Jerry Hughes said.

“I follow him on Instagram, so I’m always in his DMs or just sending him little messages, just being goofy with him, just because he has a great sense of fashion. I always tell him how he always styles up. But he’s a real cool guy. He says he reads books, and so I’m still trying to get him to open up on what books he reads. I’m still trying to peel back the layers of Matt Milano.”

Matt Milano leaves injured against the New York Jets in December. (Harry Scull Jr./News file photo)

A transition

Milano was born on Long Island, the youngest of three children, and moved with his family to Florida as a toddler.

He was raised a Jets fan, and coincidentally, across the street from a family of Bills fans.

Dan Dry played running back at Canisius College in the early 1980s, and he and his wife, Tammy, the daughter of former Golden Griffins coach Tom Hersey, have six children, including three boys, all older than Matt and his brother, Michael.

Matt’s tenacity was evident when he was a small child.

“These kids were all bigger than him,” Dan Dry said. “He’d get thrown around, go home and cry, and he’d come back and roll around with them some more. They were always out there playing basketball and street hockey or football. And mainly football in our front yard.”

That’s where, each Sunday, the Drys placed a gigantic Buffalo Bills “Bubba” lawn ornament, a cartoonish inflatable player crouched in a three-point stance, staring at the Milanos' house across the street.

The families, neighbors for more than 20 years, grew to become close friends, often needling each other about their allegiances to rival AFC East teams, united in their aggravation as the New England Patriots won Super Bowl after Super Bowl.

Mike coached his boys in Pop Warner, Matt from the time he was 6, and over the years they earned plenty of trophies and awards, capturing five consecutive Mid-Florida championships.

Matt wanted for nothing.

“Christmases were great,” he said. “Santa came every year. I had stuff when I was younger, but once I got to that age of being on my own, I kind of transitioned out of that stuff.”

Matt never liked clutter. He was always organized.

But his dad recalls his youngest son taking it to another level as a sophomore in high school, when Matt cleared all the trophies from a shelf in his room.

“He just wanted to really simplify,” Mike said. “He said, ‘It’s no big deal.’ I don’t think he wanted the clutter, and it’s old stuff. He was just focused on the next step, the next chapter, let’s make it happen.”

Most of those keepsakes remain in a crate in the garage. Mike grabbed a few to display in his home office.

Milano didn’t get on the field much as an underclassman at Dr. Phillips High School while backing up safety HaHa Clinton-Dix, a future two-time national champion at Alabama and first-round NFL draft pick.

Matt just didn’t have the same talent or size as a young teen, then far smaller than his current 6 feet, 223 pounds. But he was coming into his own, as a player and person.

“I called him the ‘Quiet Model,’” Dr. Phillips coach Rodney Wells said. “I always told him, 'You’re so pretty, if football don’t work out, you can be a model.' He was always really, really quiet, always in the weight room, did a great job getting bigger and stronger, but he kind of kept to himself and didn’t say a lot. At all. He was particular about his outfits and his shoes and his clothes.”

Milano starred as a junior and senior, racking up 100-plus tackles each season, and capped his impressive high school career as the Orlando Sentinel's Central Florida Defensive Player of the Year.

Despite the success, he didn’t receive an offer from a single college in the state.

Milano’s high school teammate, meanwhile, San Francisco 49ers safety Marcell Harris, signed with Florida.

“He never said it, but he always felt a little slighted,” Mike Milano said. “They were a safety tandem. Matt had a better senior year, got the defensive player of the year award, and I think he’s still saying, ‘How did that kid get the offer at Florida and I didn’t even get a sniff?’

“I think it really drove him and continues to drive him to this day.”

Wells said college coaches had trouble projecting what position Matt would play in their schemes.

“He was always a ‘tweener,’” Wells said. “They didn’t know if he was a corner, a safety, an inside 'backer or outside 'backer, and I beat on my desk with the college coaches, ‘Look, just watch his film and watch his productivity, and you can figure out what he’s going to play, because he’s always one of the best on the field making plays.’”

Boston College coach Steve Addazio, an assistant at Syracuse in the late 1990s, when Wells played linebacker for the Orange, agreed to take a closer look and offered Milano a scholarship.

Matt Milano grew into his role at Boston College after a position switch to linebacker. (Getty Images)

Milano double majored in psychology and communications.

He took a class on Buddhism, his dad said.

Buddhist monks live simple, thoughtful and minimalist lifestyles, believing that desire and ignorance lead to suffering, that materialism offers a false and fleeting sense of satisfaction.

The dalai lama famously travels the world with few possessions in a small red bag. He once opened it in public, revealing a chocolate bar, eyeglass case, toothbrush and tissues.

Milano first arrived at Boston College with two suitcases.

“Everybody had their parents coming up bringing bags of stuff, and I was like, ‘You don’t actually need all that. If you just take a second to think about what you actually wear all the time and what you need, you don’t really need a lot of the stuff that you have,’” Milano said. “I just kind of put that perspective on my life and it’s kind of helped me with playing football.

“When I’m getting ready for a game, I’m not worrying about a bunch of other stuff. I’m just focused on that particular game at the moment.”

Boston College switched Milano from safety to linebacker, a position he hadn’t played since Pop Warner, because he was excellent against the run but limited in coverage. He was hesitant at first, but started his junior and senior seasons. He also worked to become a versatile defender against the pass, capable of covering tight ends, running backs and moving into the slot. In his final season, he was named the Eagles' MVP.

“One of my favorite guys of all time,” said Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown, who served in the same role at BC during Milano’s first three seasons in Chestnut Hill. “He just played the game the right way all the time. Smart. Intense. I just think this guy prepared so hard to play each and every game, like few guys I’ve ever been around. He was a good one.”

The Bills drafted Milano in the fifth round, with the 163rd overall pick.

Dan Dry grabbed his cellphone and began tapping out a message to Mike Milano.

“He’s a Jets fan, so I texted him, ‘Now what are you going to do?’” Dry said. “He said, ‘Come on over and have a beer. I’m going to have to be a Bills fan.’”

Tammy Dry dragged the inflatable Bills lawn ornament across the street and onto their neighbors’ front lawn. She used tape to change the nameplate to read “MILANO.”

Bills outside linebacker Matt Milano was back on the field for the first week of OTAs. (James P. McCoy/Buffalo News)

The path continues

Milano was starting at weakside linebacker by the fifth game of his rookie season, after Ramon Humber broke his thumb the previous week during a victory at Atlanta.

He took over the role full-time for the final month of the season, as the Bills won three of four to end their 17-year playoff drought. But a hamstring injury forced him to miss the wild-card loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars.

“I just think taking advantage of opportunities is all it comes down to,” Milano said. “Somebody gets hurt, somebody steps in. I think I did a good job of that coming in my rookie year.”

Milano was again starting at the beginning of last season, lining up alongside first-round rookie middle linebacker Tremaine Edmunds and veteran outside linebacker Alexander.

“Hard to believe, right?” Brown said. “That’s why you can take all those stars (from recruiting services), and all those evaluation tools sometimes and just throw them up in the air, because I don’t think it really matters a whole lot. The good thing for him is all he needed was one team to take him and give him an opportunity, and he ran with it. Look at the production he’s had for the Bills.”

Milano started the first 13 games last season, helping Buffalo earn the NFL’s top-ranked overall defense and pass defense at the time.

Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said Milano was having a “Pro Bowl-caliber season.”

He was tied for second in the league with six takeaways when his fibula snapped.

“You hate to see it for a guy that works so hard and does everything the right way," Alexander said, "but he’s come back strong. He never allowed that to really deter him or get him depressed. He never felt sorry for himself. And I was able to watch him rehab and come back and see the type of work he put in. He’s really starting to come into his own and I think really going to open up some eyes on a national scale this year.”

Milano was wheeled into surgery for the first time in his life the day after the injury, when a metal plate and screws were inserted to stabilize his lower left leg.

Milano said he couldn’t walk for six weeks, that it was three to four months before he could run, that he had a follow-up procedure to remove some of the hardware.

He remained in Buffalo to rehab throughout the offseason.

“It affected my life, but I was just always in a positive mindset, not really trying to let the situation get to my head,” Milano said. “Everybody else was home and I was here rehabbing. But there’s great people around here. I just made friends with a lot of the athletic trainers and people around here, and just made the best out of it."

He looked inward for strength.

“It was definitely on me. I wasn’t really looking out for any guidance or help," Milano said. "I feel like once you come to a point when you realize that only you can make decisions, you can be the one. Nobody else is going to help you out, you know what I’m saying? People can motivate you and stuff like that, but at the end of the day, if you’re not willing to take that step forward and do it yourself, I feel like you’re never going to do anything in life, especially coming back from something like that.

“If you’re always worried about, ‘Oh, this guy will help me out,’ it’ll just never work. I just kind of took it upon myself to always be on top of my rehab, my training, eating, what I’m putting into my body, all that kind of stuff to be able to do this.”

Former Bills center Eric Wood, recently named a color commentator for the team's radio network, once had a similar injury and offered advice.

“In 2016, I did what he did last year, and you can bounce back from that, and it looks like he has," Wood said. "He looked great at practice (during the first week of OTAs). I had six lower body surgeries in nine years. But with the one in particular that Matt had, you break your leg, but with that fibula break, you’re going to tear the ligaments on the inside of your ankle, as well, and those you just have to be super delicate with.

“Even though you’ve got a plate and screws and technically you’re not going to re-break that bone, you have to be very, very patient, and that’s something I talked to him about. I said, ‘Don’t mess with those ligaments, because I even pushed it a little bit and they got a little sensitive on me and it kind of bothered me through the spring.’ So I told him, ‘Be patient. Be patient.’ But Matt’s also a lot lighter than I am, and a lot more athletic, so he was flying around the field, which was a great thing to see.”

Milano managed to get away for a few weekends this offseason.

He traveled to Costa Rica, went deep sea fishing and explored the rainforest.

He spent time in Miami and New York City.

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Eliminate all distractions

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When the 2019 NFL schedule was released in April, Milano's parents, Mike and Janet, were thrilled to learn the Bills will open the season with consecutive road games against the Jets and Giants.

They plan to attend both and spend the week visiting family on Long Island, back where it all began.

But now Mike Milano sits in his home office in Orlando, surrounded by photos of his children and grandchildren, mementos tucked around the inside edges of the frames. There are trophies and plaques, the ones he made sure didn’t make their way to the garage. There’s plenty of Bills memorabilia.

“It’s just a great place to come and take it all in," he said, "and appreciate what you’ve done and the great family you have and the great kids that you’ve raised. It’s phenomenal. We are definitely blessed.”

His Jets gear is stashed in the closet. Unworn for 2 1/2 years, he has yet to give it away.

“The one thing I’ll leave you with,” Mike Milano said, summing up his youngest son, the Bills’ introspective linebacker and self-proclaimed minimalist, offering the comment without a hint of irony.

“No one’s given him anything. He’s earned everything he’s got.”

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