|12-13-2006, 10:15 PM||#1|
Join Date: Mar 2006
N.Y. Times Article: Miller
The Jets’ Miller Discovers the Adolescent Within
By KAREN CROUSE
Published: December 14, 2006
HEMPSTEAD, N.Y., Dec. 13 — As the 22-year-old Justin Miller roamed the aisles of a nearby sporting goods store with five sixth-grade boys, it was not clear who was shepherding whom.
Miller, a second-year cornerback and kick returner for the Jets, watched his new best friend, Melquan Mitchell, 11, execute a kickflip. Melquan was one of 34 Brooklyn schoolchildren chosen for their good attendance and school citizenship to be chaperoned by seven Jets players on a holiday shopping spree Tuesday night.
Starting with both his size-7 sneakers on the board, Melquan slid his right foot underneath and flipped the board as he hopped into the air. The board rotated 360 degrees, and Melquan landed on it as nimbly as a cat.
Stepping on a skateboard still covered in clear wrap, Miller said, “I can work that trick.” He jumped, but the board landed in one spot and his feet in another. He tried again and again, nearly rolling his right ankle on one landing. Melquan covered his eyes and pleaded, “Please don’t injure yourself.”
After several failed attempts, Miller said, “That’s a hard trick right there,” and returned the $24.99 skateboard to a rack on the wall. As he was putting it back, something in the next aisle caught his eye.
Quick as a blur, Miller was balancing his 196-pound body on a gas-powered scooter. Grinning, he said, “We need these for training camp.”
Fifteen minutes after the hourlong shopping excursion at Dick’s was supposed to be over, Miller was dribbling a LeBron James basketball in the aisles and shadow-boxing with his five charges while a store employee, Laura Cestra, stood next to the second-floor elevator patiently tending two shopping carts overflowing with merchandise, everything from a 48-inch Rocky Balboa bop bag to a pink-and-white striped basketball.
“Justin,” Cestra said, loud enough to get Miller’s attention. “Ready?”
Miller moved toward the elevator, his shoulders drooping ever so slightly. He herded the boys to the elevator and they proceeded to the checkout counter downstairs. Miller left with a toy of his own, an assembly-required contraption called a Sharp Shooter that has side-by-side basketball hoops surrounded by netting.
“Hey, E,” Miller cried out to safety Erik Coleman, who was also shopping with the children. Pointing to his purchase, he said, “Look what I’m taking home.”
Miller, who will turn 23 in February, is in his second year in the National Football League, but he remains the youngest Jet. He was born 13 years after defensive end Bobby Hamilton and 13 days after Wallace Wright, an undrafted rookie receiver who was recently promoted from the practice squad to the regular roster.
In a locker room full of veterans who favor designer man bags and muted conversation, Miller stands out like a squeaky chew toy that the Jets’ adopted stray cat dragged in. He is loud in both his demeanor and his dress, walking around in bright-colored sneakers and a baseball cap that looks like it was cut from the same cloth as a Hawaiian shirt.
He often walks around the locker room wearing nothing at all. Miller’s cheekiness can make for some awkward moments as he tries to find his way in the button-down world of adults. But his personality plays to his advantage around children and on special teams, two environments where straightforwardness reigns and deviousness is quickly sniffed out.
On kickoff returns, open lanes quickly close to those who hesitate. Miller has used his blazing speed and brassiness to great effect, returning two kickoffs for touchdowns. He leads the league in kickoff return average, at 29 yards.
“What I love about Justin,” Jets Coach Eric Mangini said recently, “is when he has the ball in his hands he’s fearless and aggressive, and he takes the fight to the kickoff team.” On Wednesday Mangini added, “He has a very important role for us on special teams and needs to continue to develop his role defensively.”
It is hard for someone as hyperactive as Miller to keep his concentration, and that can hurt him in pass coverage. When he was at Clemson, Miller’s athleticism could cover up for the occasional mental lapse. But in the N.F.L., where everybody is athletically gifted, one mental slip-up can lead to a score by the other team.
“Consistency is really the key issue,” Mangini said. “It’s just so important in the secondary because there’s not a lot of help. If you just have that one sort of pause or one sort of hiccup, now it’s 7 points.”
Miller started three of the first four games for the Jets (7-6) this season, but has made only one start in the past nine. He did not start Sunday, but he did have a star turn in the Jets’ 31-13 loss to Buffalo. In the second quarter, with the score tied at 7-7, Miller stripped the ball from running back Anthony Thomas and recovered the fumble to set up a 30-yard field goal by Mike Nugent.
“I thought he took a positive step last week,” Mangini said. “He’s had a couple good weeks in a row in practice where we wanted to give him some more opportunities. That really is the ongoing process, where you show it out here during the week, then you get a chance on Sunday. That kind of carries over into the amount of chances you’ll get the following week.”
Miller’s competitiveness carried over to his community service. While shopping with the youngsters at Dick’s, Miller was challenged repeatedly by Melquan, the skateboarding wizard.
Melquan picked up a football and proclaimed that he could throw it farther than Miller; he picked up a bowling ball and said he could throw more strikes. When they came upon a pro-style basketball hoop on a stand and Melquan declared that he could jump higher, Miller had heard enough.
He unclipped his BlackBerry from his jeans belt loop and took his keys out of his pocket. “You don’t think I can touch the rim?” he said, then jumped and hit it with his palm.
The entire excursion was like that, the blithe leading the blithe. “I’m like a big kid myself,” Miller said with a smile while waiting in the checkout line. After lingering for one more game of pool, he accepted hugs from all his new best friends and was gone in a flash.