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How Kobe’s death and "The Last Dance" changed Von Miller

Zac Stevens Avatar
August 4, 2020

DENVER — Up until the early afternoon of Jan. 26, Von Miller’s offseason was like every other offseason throughout his career. In fact, just like every other offseason, Denver’s star pass rusher was hours away from starting in yet another Pro Bowl.

That was flipped on its head at 12:45 p.m. EST when the helicopter carrying Kobe Bryant and eight other passengers plummeted into a mountain in Calabasas, California, killing everyone on board.

“When Kobe died, it was so unexpected,” Miller said, still in disbelief. “It was right before the Pro Bowl. We were playing and at the same time, we were thinking, ‘Is this real with Kobe? Did this happen?’ Then after the Pro Bowl, I did all of the research, I looked at all of the articles and found out what was true and what wasn’t true. And I started to dig deeper on the type of person that he was.”

Part of that research for Von included reading Bryant’s book “The Mamba Mentality: How I Play,” which included a foreword by teammate Pau Gasol and comments from his former coach Phil Jackson.

“I want my teammates to say that type of stuff about me. I want my coach to say that type of stuff about me,” Miller said on Tuesday, reflecting back to what he took from the book. “I want to demand more from my teammates.”

Step one of Von’s transformation was already underway.

“Then the virus hit,” Miller said, adding another element to his equation. “And the virus canceled everything. It canceled the Kentucky Derby. It canceled festivals that I would go to every year — like Coachella. It canceled all of these endorsements and all of this stuff I would usually do in the offseason. I really just thought about what could I really do with all of this time. And I was like, ‘Man, I’m going to train. I’m going to train every day and I’m going to train as much as I possibly can.’ That’s what I did. And I kind of got lost in that.”

That was until COVID-19 even canceled the star pass rusher’s training when it hit him too. Sidelined by the virus — on top of having asthma — Miller lost 15 pounds. But right after he received his second negative test, he was back to getting lost in his relentless training.

“I started back training and I started back running and it was tough, no doubt about it,” Miller said. “It was tough to warm up. I just pushed through it and in about two to three weeks I started to feel back to normal and I started to push a little bit harder.”

When training camp grew near, Von admitted he thought about opting out of the season due to concerns of COVID-19, but at the end of the day felt the Broncos were doing enough to keep players safe.

Merely days after contracting the virus, another event pushed Von’s transformation along.

“Then ‘The Last Dance’ came out and I watched what Michael Jordan was doing back in his prime and I asked myself, ‘Hey, Michael Jordan was the best that ever played. Was I really making that commitment to the game? Was I really doing the same stuff he did? Like Kobe was one of the best to ever play. Was I doing the things that Kobe was doing? Was I demanding more out of my teammates? Was I demanding more out of myself? And I looked in the mirror and said I wasn’t,'” Miller said without missing a beat.

“I just tried to change that and work as hard as I possibly could,” Miller continued. “I didn’t take any days off. I didn’t go on any vacations. I didn’t do anything but workout and grind and reinvest all of the time I would usually spend on like endorsements and all of this other stuff. I just reinvested that time back on myself.”

Thanks in large part to Kobe and MJ, Von didn’t just look at the physical changes he could make, but the mental and emotional ones as well. Heck, Von is even rocking a new hairstyle by displaying the natural orange in his hair — although he likely didn’t get inspired for that from Kobe or M.J.

“In The Last Dance, Michael Jordan said that he would never demand anything out of his teammates that he wasn’t doing himself. So for me, it was like, ‘Bro, I got to work harder. I got to push harder. I got to get back into shape. I got to lead more. I got to lead better,” Miller stressed.

“Before, I always felt like I was a great leader, but I kind of shied away from the pressure of being the No. 1 leader, or leading in the right direction. I feel like, especially this offseason, pressure is privilege,” Von continued, emphasizing the final phrase multiple times on Tuesday. “To have the pressure of being the leader of the Denver Broncos and lead this team to dominance again and to lead this team to a Super Bowl again. I want that pressure and years before, I kind of shied away from that pressure: ‘I’m going to lead in my own way. I’m a team guy. I’m a people’s guy. I want to do what my guys want me to do. I want to be a fun leader.’

But not anymore. Not in 2020. As much pressure as No. 58 puts on quarterbacks on the field, he wants that same amount of pressure put on him off the field.

“I did a little research and found out that I want the pressure. I want pressure because pressure is privilege,” Miller said, stating the phrase once again. “Here with the Denver Broncos we always have the pressure of being a great team and I want that. I don’t want to shy away from that. Everything I can possibly do to be a great leader, that’s why I’m going to do.”

One of those aspects that Von values, especially living life in a global pandemic, is not being afraid to tell the people he’s around how much he cares about them.

“I tell guys that I love them more. I don’t have a problem saying, ‘Hey I love you. I appreciate you,’ because you never really know,” the star NFL pass rusher said. “And through these times that we’re going through now, I feel like it’s mandatory for me to tell guys I love them, especially my teammates, coaches and guys I spend all this time around.”

Entering his 10th season at 31-years old, the Super Bowl 50 MVP is easily in the midst of a Hall-of-Fame career. Yet he wants to redefine himself. He wants to push himself like never before. He wants to change his leadership style. He wants the pressure. He wants to be an even better Von Miller.

“It’s never too late to change. It’s never too late to change,” Miller said, almost speaking his message to an audience bigger than himself. “I’ve identified the leader I was before wasn’t getting it done and it wasn’t leading us in the right direction to where we needed to be fast enough. It might have been effective, but it wasn’t doing it fast enough. And I have to change and I have to be like [Kobe and Jordan].”

Through the first nine seasons of his career, there hasn’t been a person who has walked into the Broncos locker room that Von hasn’t been friendly with. In fact, nearly every single one of Von’s teammate has been invited over to Miller’s house for a card night or dinner. Making friends, especially with teammates, has never been an issue for Von, no matter how young or old they are.

“I have to demand more out of my teammates,” he stated. “At the same time, I’ve got to love them. I’ve got to love my teammates too. I’ve got to let them know that I appreciate them. I tell the guys all the time that I appreciate them, I pray for them, I’m thankful to be in a locker room with these guys.”

“But at the same time, I’ve got to work. I’ve got to show these guys. I still have to lead by example, but at the same time, I’ve got to cut down on ‘Sauce Von the Don’ and I’ve got to become more of a leader like Kobe and Jordan was,” Miller continued. “It’s never too late to change, no matter if it’s year 10 or year two. No matter what. I’ve got to find a way to do it.”

One way Von hopes to do that is by continuing to learn from legends that are in his own backyard.

“Kobe was a legend and I feel like we have a legend here with John Elway,” Miller said. “In years before I kind of shied away because it’s like Elway’s a legend and you’re kind of like — he walks in the room and you’re like, ‘Ah let me get out of here,’ but after this, I’ve refocused and I’m like ‘Hey, I need to spend more time with Elway and I need to spend more time around the legends and see what make these guys who they were and see what type of stuff they did and have it try and rub off on me so I can be better with my teammates, so I can be better with my family, so I can be better with the people that I interact with on a daily basis.”

Von pointed to two other legends and leaders he knows quite well that he wants to meet with and continue to learn from, Peyton Manning and DeMarcus Ware.

“Whenever the opportunity presents itself, I have to take advantage of that. I can’t shy away from anything,” Miller said without hesitation. “If there is any other time for me to do it, it has to be now despite all of the obstacles we have around us. I just have to find a way to adapt, overcome and achieve the goal of bringing the Broncos back to where we need to be and become the leader that I need to be.”

If Von Miller hung ’em up right now and called it a career, he would have the Ring of Fame and Hall of Fame to his name by the end of the decade.

But Von wants more. He’s aspiring to be like one of the legends that have motivated him to take his game to the next level this offseason.

“Last year, I didn’t play to the Sack Master standards. I feel like there was more for me to give. My coaches felt like there was more for me to give. And most of all, I felt like I could give more. I felt I can be more,” Miller said, being his own toughest critic. “I don’t feel like I’m finished yet. I want to come back here and play the best that I possibly could. I want to put everything into the offseason. I want to pour everything into myself and go out there and play the best I possibly could and see what happens.”


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