The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Von Miller’s eyes have ‘always been on Buffalo.’ Now, it’s a reality.

Veteran edge rusher Von Miller surprised many by signing with the Buffalo Bills this past offseason. (Jeffrey T. Barnes/AP)
11 min

Late in the preseason, Von Miller sat before his Buffalo Bills teammates and shared rare insight into his psyche. One of football’s top pass rushers over the past decade, Miller opened up in an interview with the team’s sports psychologist, sharing some of the lessons he learned over the years.

He talked at length about how to see the positives and stay neutral, about the importance of communication, about how he flushes a bad play out of his mind to focus on the next.

“He was talking about how he approaches life in general, from a mental standpoint,” Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said. “He’s an open book as far as sharing with guys how he prepares, how important nutrition is. And it was so well received by all of our players because they gained some insight into what makes him tick and why he’s a future Hall of Famer. Stuff like that, you don’t always see that from great players.”

Miller — the effervescent edge rusher with two Super Bowl rings, a chicken farm and some of the finest between-drill dance breaks the NFL has ever seen — has been glue in every locker room of his career, the popular kid who gets along with everyone. And he has always been an open book. In a league where stars so often keep their methods secret, Miller routinely shares his. He has impacted football in ways few can, largely because of his ability on the field, but also because of the lessons he has learned and taught over the years.

Over the past six months, as he has left the warmth of Los Angeles for the brutal winters of Buffalo in search of another Super Bowl victory, those close to Miller say he has changed in a way they never saw coming. He is looking ahead — not to retirement but to his fit with a team he believes can win for years to come.

In choosing the Bills, Miller picked a path where he could fill a void on the defensive line — a move that might be enough to bring Buffalo its first Super Bowl victory.

He’s ready to spread his influence further — to pay it forward.

‘I’d go to Madagascar to win’

When the Denver Broncos revamped their defense in 2014 and spent more than $100 million on DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward, Miller’s life changed immediately. The former Texas A&M standout became the star of a defensive powerhouse. More significant: He gained a mentor in a player he long admired.

The Broncos signed Ware to bolster their pass rush — but also to guide Miller, a young star whose mistakes were starting to cost him. The previous season, he had been suspended six games for violating the NFL’s drug policy.

Von Miller Sr. described Ware as a confidant for his son, almost like a sage uncle or big brother. Miller said Ware was his idol.

“DeMarcus, he came at a vital point in my life,” Miller said ahead of Super Bowl LVI in February. “I thought I knew what it took to be a superstar in this league. I thought I knew what it took to be successful in this league. Well, I was wrong. … We talked about life, football, of course, business, what to do with your money, how to handle the media, how to handle all of these things. I’m really just a product of DeMarcus. I come from the DeMarcus Ware tree.”

Ware and Miller won the Super Bowl together after the 2015 season, but by 2016, the fun had fizzled. Peyton Manning retired, triggering a quarterback carousel that spun for five years, and the frustrations of losing, often in the same way, set in.

After a loss to the Chiefs in December 2019, Miller struggled to hide his disappointment. With watery eyes, he told reporters the losing in Denver “just defeats my soul” and he was “ready to hit the gear” and “ready to go again.” He wanted another taste of that Super Bowl feeling — but it wouldn’t come in Denver.

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Although the trade to the Rams in November blindsided him — “I cried real tears,” he said — it wasn’t long before he realized its benefits.

“Winning championships is addictive,” he said. “At this point in my career, I’ve played all these years and done everything you can possibly do. It’s about winning. I’d go to Madagascar to win.”

‘I never saw myself leaving'

To Bills General Manager Brandon Beane, seven hours might as well have been seven days. Despite talks at the NFL combine, where teams regularly gauge which players are interested in them (and vice versa), Buffalo didn’t know just how intrigued Miller was until shortly before he signed.

Miller’s agent, Joby Branion, said close to 10 teams called in free agency, but the decision came down to the Rams and the Bills. On the morning of March 16, upon hearing Miller was genuinely interested, Beane made an offer. Seven hours later, after some tweaks and multiple phone calls, they reached an agreement. Miller, in a video from the Bahamas, shocked the NFL by announcing he was going to the Bills.

“My eyes have always been on Buffalo since I almost got drafted here,” Miller said in August. “They had the number three pick, and Denver had number two. That whole draft process, I was always going to Buffalo, Buffalo, Buffalo and [Marcell] Dareus [was going to] the Denver Broncos.”

In retrospect, it seemed Miller’s decision had been brewing for years. In reality, the choice was painful.

The Bills’ interest in Miller ran deep — long after the 2011 draft. They tried to trade for him three times, including in November, and they won this time largely because of their offer: a six-year, $120 million deal that included $45 million guaranteed at signing and more than $51 million in total guarantees. The Rams were willing to give Miller three years and roughly $18 million annually, a higher average value than the Bills. But L.A. didn’t guarantee anything beyond the second season.

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By choosing Buffalo, Miller chose an extra $15 million guaranteed by his mid-30s — and more if he plays out the full deal. Yet the decision tormented him. Miller is conflict-averse and at times loyal to a fault, multiple people close to him said, and he leaves the big decisions to others. He left Texas A&M because Denver drafted him, he stayed in part because he was franchise-tagged, and he went to L.A. because he was traded.

“I told him early in the process, ‘You know, Von, if it were up to you, you’d still be playing in College Station,’” Branion recalled. “The only reason you left is because your eligibility expired.' His response was: ‘Ha, you’re right. Gig ’em.’”

“I never saw myself leaving [the Rams],” Miller said. “How do you leave Aaron Donald, a great environment and all those great places that L.A. has for Buffalo?”

But Miller answered his own question: “I was talking to my dad in the process, and he was just like, ‘Are you content?’ I told him I still feel like I got a lot of football left.”

Miller’s inner circle has tightened over the years, and his influencers are now limited to only a handful — his parents, Branion, his financial adviser Joey Feste and his legal team. As he weighed his decision, that circle encouraged Miller to think about the long term — where he can have the greatest impact, where he can win and where he wanted to be. The Bills were built for years to come, Miller’s friends and advisers, reminded him, with young talent, an elite quarterback, a good core and a healthy salary cap.

Their missing piece was Miller.

So he chose.

‘Success leaves clues’

Miller believes some things manifest into reality. Like, for instance, someone calling him old.

“Physically, emotionally and mentally, I don’t feel 33 years old,” he said. “I’ve been around teammates that just fall into that mind-set of like, ‘I’m old.’ I hate saying that. … If I don’t move like it, if I don’t look like it, don’t push that on me. I still got a lot of football left.”

Giving a pass rusher who’s approaching his mid-30s a six-year deal might seem risky. But Miller is not just any rusher. With deceptive power, a quick get-off and a bend few can replicate, he can still do things physically that others can’t. Beane points to February’s Super Bowl as proof that Miller can still wreck a game; he had two sacks in the Rams’ victory over the Bengals. But the GM said the Bills were just as intrigued by Miller’s leadership.

“He was a big part of them winning,” Beane said. “It was Von the player — we still think he can do it — and then the intangibles, the leadership. We get these young ends and we’re hoping that he can teach these guys some things and unlock some of their talent.”

Miller’s arrival has required some adjustment, though. He will be primarily a stand-up end in Frazier’s 4-3 defense after years of playing as a linebacker. It’s plausible his playing time will be trimmed too, to keep him fresh and make him more impactful on situational downs.

But no matter what he does with the Bills this season and beyond, it’s almost certain his ways off the field will leave even more of a mark. Behind the scenes, Miller’s studies are expansive. He researches opponents as well as players he has idolized or worked with in the past — such as Ware, Champ Bailey, Bruce Smith and even Tom Brady.

“Success leaves clues,” Miller said.

Miller passes those clues along. For the past six years, he has gathered some of the game’s top pass rushers for a sharing-of-ideas each offseason at the Von Miller Pass Rush Summit. This year, in an NFL Films documentary about the Rams’ win, Donald explained how Miller talked to him for 30 minutes about being more vocal. And this summer in Buffalo, it has been common to see Miller talking to a younger lineman about a move, the angle he’ll take on a rush or even just life — as Ware did with him.

“I talk to them like I’m talking to my younger self,” Miller said. “It could be finances, it could be football, it could be family — anything. I don’t tell these guys stuff I was doing. I tell them stuff that I wish I would’ve done.”

In Denver, Miller moved on from his suspension to become a leader on the Broncos. He built “Club 58” (he wore No. 58 in Denver) in the basement of his home as a hangout for friends and teammates and established a foundation to provide low-income children with eye care and corrective eyewear.

In 2021, police in Parker, Colo., investigated Miller based on his interactions with his former girlfriend, but the district attorney declined to file charges, citing a lack of information and evidence.

Miller has a 1-year-old son, Valor, whom Von Miller Sr. believes has been instrumental in his son’s growth. Soon, Miller will become a father of two, and he has business ambitions beyond football: He hopes to one day run a chicken enterprise, starting with a processing plant that will become operational in December.

And Thursday, facing his former team in the NFL’s season-opening game, he’ll begin the next chapter of his career on the field. It will be built on lessons of the past.

“I’m just paying it forward,” Miller said.