ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — They talk about him like he's a ghost, like it was a million years ago, back when he used to laugh and joke, when he'd parade around in his giant glasses after pummeling opponents.
Von Miller used to be funny. He used to be the crazy man in the locker room, who would sit and talk about anything, an open book. Last year, in his brief, eight-week appearance at the Broncos' facility, there was none of that, and the contrast makes the man standing there on the brink of his fourth NFL season seem about a million and a half years old.
"I've been through every situation you can possibly be in on the field and off the field," Miller said Wednesday, not quite resigned, but certainly introspective. It was the first time he'd spoken at the Broncos' facility since his season-ending ACL tear on December 22. Coming off a 2013 season that saw him miss six games with a suspension and one with that injury, Miller will be one of Denver's most interesting "additions" come fall. Disappointing doesn't even begin to describe the past year of his life, and how he responds, both physically and mentally, will go a long way in determining how much Denver can improve on defense.
"I've been through a whole bunch, and to still be here and still have everything that was set out before and still be able to get it now, it's a true blessing," Miller said. "I come to work every day, and it's just different now. I love coming to work, not that I didn't love coming to work before, but I just have huge opportunity to come here and play with the Broncos."
For as much as Miller can talk about the physical, about his right knee and how he's progressing during the Broncos' organized team activities, his story — and his comeback — is almost entirely a product of the mental. Although he did cop to being a bit too bulked-up after his six-game suspension last fall, where Miller has fallen short over the past year with the Broncos has been in his mindset and decision-making. ACL tears heal. Poor judgment takes more of an overhaul, and if Miller really is that much more grateful for everything he has, that's a leap in the right direction.
In March, the Broncos were the darlings of free agency, bolstering their defense with the likes of T.J. Ward, Aqib Talib and DeMarcus Ware. There was little to no criticism of their moves — apart from perhaps the cost — and whatever questions Ware brought in age and injuries, they were negated by his positive impact on Miller.
The 25-year-old Dallas native grew up watching Ware play for the Cowboys. He looked up to him. He still does, and having someone like that, a mentor to keep him in line from just a few lockers away, is something Miller needs.
"DeMarcus is just, it's just kind of hard to explain," Miller said, struggling with his words. "It's just like DeMarcus already knows what I'm asking before I even ask him. I walk up to him, and he's like a psychic. He's a great teacher. It's different from any relationship I've ever had with anyone else. I look up to DeMarcus. I'm not afraid to say it: I want to be like DeMarcus Ware."
In talking more about Ware, Miller focused on one word: consistent. Ware is consistent. He is measured, mature, disciplined — all the things Miller needs to be, and if the younger player really sees Ware as a role model, that's better than any other advice or guidance his team could have possibly given him.
Ware won't be the cure-all, though. There are still the rough edges, still the questions. Asked if he considers himself a leader, Miller hemmed and hawed. "I just can't say I'm a leader," he began. No sugar-coating that. But he continues: "I think I can be a leader. I can share some of my experiences with the young guys and hope I can rub off on those guys. Hopefully they can take it and experience it and use some of that stuff to better themselves. That's all I can do."
Miller is still growing up, even if the past year has aged him immeasurably, even if he still feels a bit slighted, as if the world thinks he's nuts. He owned up to that on Wednesday. "I think we've got a lot of loose screws in the locker room," Miller said. "It's just a good balance of magnets and screws. You've got guys in there to keep everybody together, and you've got the screws loosening."
That's a nice way to describe what happened, when Miller's screw loosened to the point that the NFL saw fit to suspend him for six games. Everything that's happened since, though, should have tightened him back up, and maybe the team has a few more magnets to keep it all in check — or something like that.
That's the problem with the offseason: we're left with talk of magnetics, hardware and weird metaphors rather than tackles and sacks. As Miller said Wednesday, the NFL is a, "what have you done for me lately" league, and lately, Miller has snapped a ligament and attempted to swap some urine. Until September, that's the most recent memory, but give him a few sacks, a few hurries, a few tackles, and maybe it will be possible to forget.
That is, just as long as Miller remembers.