ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Two years ago, Denver Broncos outside linebacker Von Miller talked about wanting to be a leader and wound up suspended for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy. Nearly a week ago, he sat with his cell phone pressed against his ear, listening to a friend and displaying just how much he's learned about setting examples. Miller soaked in every word uttered by former San Francisco 49ers outside linebacker Aldon Smith, who had been released following his arrest for a hit and run, DUI and vandalism. Then Miller quietly promised to stand by his pal in exactly the same way he plans to be there for all his teammates in Denver.
Miller spent the first four years of his career being a man-child for the Broncos, a force of nature that piled up sacks (49 so far) with staggering consistency. This is the year when he actually sounds like a man fully grown. He's turned that corner in his career where he realizes the game's greatest players are judged more off impact than mere numbers. More importantly, Miller understands that the impact one makes doesn't always have be confined to the field.
"I'm at the point in my life where I can see what I need to be doing every day," Miller said. "But I also can see what's happening around me now ... I just try to work every day. I try to lead by example. If I see something with a younger player, I say something. But I also don't talk about things I don't know. When I talk, it's coming from experience."
That conversation with Smith was likely more than a way for Miller to console a friend at a low point. It also let Miller see how close he could've come to torching his own career. Miller was suspended for six games during the 2013 season over a diluted sample. His problems didn't reach the level of Smith's -- who served a nine-game suspension last season and has been arrested five times in his career -- but it's fair to say Miller was walking a dangerous path.
So when Miller spoke with Smith, he tried to be more of an asset than an advocate. "I just listened to him," Miller said. "I didn't offer any advice. I just wanted to be his true friend. We were friends before we ever got to the NFL, but I also know there's only so much you can do. What I learned is that you're a grown man, so it's on you to figure things out."
That same attitude explains why Miller is now at such a peaceful juncture in his own career. Even though he's coming off a 2014 season that saw him produce 14 sacks and his third Pro Bowl nomination, he's talking about goals that include "getting five to six teammates to play at a higher level" and elevating his game to the point where "the rest of the team won't have to worry about doing anything else out there." He was recently discharged from the NFL's drug-intervention program -- after testing clean for two years -- and he's also preaching to younger teammates about how they should handle their own careers. Miller is basically setting his sights on the one thing he never really talked openly about: a legacy.
Of course, there was a time when it seemed as if Miller's lasting reputation wouldn't even be in question. The second overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, he started his career making everything look easy. He had 11.5 sacks in his first season and 18.5 in his second. Along with winning NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors, he made the Pro Bowl in each of his first two years in the league. Then everything changed in that third season.
What Miller can see today is that he was too wild and stubborn for his own good. He would hear veteran teammates like Wesley Woodyard and D.J. Williams advising him in his younger days, but he wasn't really listening. Miller admits that he "was crazy" in his first NFL season, and that it didn't really catch up to him until 2013. That year ended with him logging just nine games, tearing his ACL in Week 16 and watching the Seahawks slaughter the Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII. That was the season when Miller saw how fragile his world really could be.
Miller has openly credited fellow outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware, an 11th-year pro with eight Pro Bowl appearances of his own, for helping with his transformation. Ware has long been one of the league's good guys, and his character inspired Miller to do better. However, nobody grows up without consciously choosing to do so. Whereas Smith continues to struggle with issues only he can address, Miller found a way to course-correct his own life.
"When I went through my problems, I experienced all that stuff with the media first-hand," Miller said. "So when I heard about Aldon, the first thing I told myself was that I didn't believe it. And when I talked to him, he said that wasn't what happened. It's unfortunate, but I know he can recover. He's still blessed with youth [Smith is 25], but it's on him. Whatever I can do to help, I will do."
Miller already can see something that Smith has yet to display knowledge of: that it's best to rely on the people around you. Ware certainly inspired Miller, but Miller also has two strong parents in his corner. Both were at the Broncos' training-camp practice Wednesday, and Miller joked that his mother, Gloria, might as well be his roommate. Despite residing in Texas, she spends that much time at her son's house and attends every Broncos game with her husband, Von Sr.
On the field, Miller also has made a strong impression on new Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak. That means even more now that Miller is entering the final year of his rookie contract and positioning himself for a deal that should top $100 million. "I love his work habits," Kubiak said. "I know a lot of people who know Von, but the thing I've been impressed with is that he's a leader and a worker. I think he's really grown up as a person, and it shows every day."
This isn't to suggest Miller has become so serious about life at the age of 26 that he's lost his sense of humor. He still embraces his goofiness (he's known for being the team's most relentless farter) and he's smart enough to know that this maturation deal doesn't stop with one well-timed epiphany.
The real blessing here is that Miller finally is chasing a different kind of greatness. It's the kind that ultimately might determine whether he's remembered as just another star or somebody who really left his footprint on the game.