Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett used his two older siblings as examples while developing into one of the biggest stars in the SEC.
This story appears in the July 27, 2015, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
When Myles Garrett was at Arlington (Texas) Martin High, he was the No. 2 recruit in the country, and Alabama’s Nick Saban, LSU’s Les Miles and Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin all showed up on the same day to watch him work out. He once had 8½ sacks in one game, and he blocked seven kicks in the first seven games his senior season, including one against South Grand Prairie High at the exact moment Sumlin landed next to the field in the Aggies’ recruiting chopper (aka the Swagcopter). “It was so cool,” Martin High coach Bob Wager says, “it was comical.”
But Garrett’s path to big-time football at A&M—where last year the 6'5", 260-pound defensive end smashed Jadeveon Clowney’s freshman SEC sack record and emerged as a potential No. 1 pick in the 2017 NFL draft—was as much about genetics as aeronautics. His mother, Audrey Garrett (née Johnson), was an All-America in the 60-meter hurdles at Hampton in 1982. His sister, Brea, 2½ years older, won Class 5A titles in the shot put and the 100 hurdles as a Martin High senior, then took the 2014 NCAA indoor championship in the weight throw as a junior at A&M. While Sumlin was recruiting Myles, she became the staff’s best ally, stopping by the football office to offer tips and tactics.
Then there's Sean Williams, Myles’s older brother by almost 10 years, a pro athlete who accompanied him on an official visit to College Station and served as a role model and mentor. More important, he offered a cautionary tale. “Myles looks up to Sean and loves Sean but knows the things Sean went through and how my mom hated watching her son self-destruct,” says Brea. “Myles never wanted to let my mom down. Honestly, the best thing Sean could have done for Myles was to f--- up.”
Myles remembers approaching a Chevrolet Avalanche with smoke pluming from its windows. He was around 12, and as he pleaded with the man inside to stop smoking weed, tears streaked his face. Sean, then a 6'10", 235-pound shot-blocking power forward for the Nets, had heard his little brother make this request many times before but never heeded him. “Definitely not,” Williams, 28, says when asked if he maximized his potential. “I let bad decisions get in the way, [let] smoking so much get in the way.”
Audrey started seeing Lawrence Garrett when Sean was five, and Brea and Myles soon followed. Myles quickly emerged as something of a dinosaur nerd. The family’s backyard still has indentations where little Myles dug for fossils. “He started when he was four or five,” says his father, “finding rocks and calling them dinosaur teeth.” Myles learned to read while playing the Jurassic Park video game with Sean, who encouraged him to sound out the words on the screen, and to this day Brea knows many of the lines from the original Jurassic Park by heart, having unwittingly absorbed them while Myles watched the movie over and over. (Myles nearly attended Ohio State because of its highly regarded paleontology program. He’s in the architecture school at A&M and is minoring in geology.)
As he got older, Myles played a lot of basketball with Sean, and despite the gaps in age and size, they went at it hard. Along with the stellar genes, Audrey gave her children an edge: “There was no allowing the kids to win in our house, be it Uno or tic-tac-toe. They could have been bums, but they would have been competitive bums.”
But there was a steady undercurrent of tension between Sean and his stepfather. Myles grew up watching them fight and listening to his mother cry over Sean’s missteps. Myles once told his mom, “You don’t smile no more,” making her tears fall even harder. Marijuana was one escape for Sean and basketball another. Sean didn’t start playing in organized leagues until he was 15, but by his senior year he was first team all-region at Mansfield High.
He left for Boston College in 2004 and led the Eagles in blocked shots in each of his three years and as a junior set the school record for blocks in a game (13) and a season (75 in 15 games). Midway through that year Sean was dismissed from the team for a rules violation reportedly involving marijuana, which came after two previous suspensions and an arrest for marijuana possession in ’05. (He was ordered to undergo drug counseling and barred from the BC campus for at least a semester.) Those off-the-court troubles contributed to his slipping to the 17th pick in the ’07 NBA draft.
Still, Myles idolized Sean. After the Nets picked Sean, Myles spent vacations in New Jersey with him, celebrating when he finally won in video games and when he first dunked on his big brother by grabbing onto him with one arm and tomahawking the ball with the other. In 2011-12, when Sean was playing for the Mavericks, the brothers often squared off at the team facility. One day Sean's agent, Bernie Lee, got a call from Dallas GM Donnie Nelson. "You have to tell Sean to stop bringing his friend in to play one-on-one," Nelson told Lee. "We're scared they are going to hurt each other." Nelson didn't know who the friend was but guessed he was Sean's bodyguard. Myles had just turned 16.
The throwdown on his brother coincided with a larger surge in Myles’s life. A year earlier, as a sophomore, he had been trending more toward slacker than superstar. As the backup to Devonte Fields, who in 2012 became the Big 12 defensive player of the year at TCU, Myles irked the coaches with inconsistent effort. Wager had moved to Texas from Boston in 1992 after reading Friday Night Lights, and he did not see the renowned Texas football passion he’d come to expect in Myles. So Wager called Myles and his parents in for a meeting that centered on the idea that talent wasn’t enough. The Garretts heard a familiar refrain after Sean’s stumbles: “Potential means you haven’t done anything yet.”
The meeting achieved its purpose. Myles dedicated himself to football, and for the first time his effort matched his heritage. “Their family, they’ve got some genetics,” says A&M strength coach Larry Jackson. He claims Brea is as strong and explosive as the Aggies’ linebackers and in a single conversation compares Myles with Adrian Peterson (explosion), Jean-Claude Van Damme (flexibility and strength) and a cat (body contortion). “We call him Batman,” says Sumlin, “because his body looks like the costume.” Brea says sometimes guys proposition her about gaining access to the family gene pool. “I’m like, No!” she says with a laugh. “That is not how it works.”
As a pass rusher Myles’s greatest asset is his first step, which Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee calls the quickest in the country. As he drives upfield, he remains coiled so that his spine is nearly parallel to the ground, making it extremely difficult for a hulking tackle not only to chase but also to reach for him. And when Garrett does come pad-to-pad with an offensive lineman, he has a chance to show off his freakish strength.
During Garrett’s first formal lifting session at College Station last summer, 315-pound Aggie tackle Germain Ifedi, considered the program’s strongest player, power-cleaned 352 pounds; he couldn’t do it a second time. Garrett walked over and lifted the weight three times while his new teammates whooped and hollered with each rep.
After a year in the Aggies’ program Garrett has a superhero’s measurables. He can run the 40 in 4.46 seconds and broad-jump 10' 9½" and has a 38½-inch vertical—all better than the marks than Clowney put up at the NFL combine after his junior year at South Carolina, before the Texans drafted him No. 1. Garrett’s 11½ sacks last season broke Clowney’s SEC freshman record of eight. “There’s no reason he couldn’t be the first guy taken in the draft,” says Jackson. “I told him if it doesn’t happen, it’s because he didn’t allow it to happen.”
Sean Williams has been visiting addiction specialist John Lucas in Houston since he got thrown out of Boston College. “All things being equal, and he didn’t have the smoking issue, he could have easily been a 12- to 13-year NBA guy,” says Providence coach Ed Cooley, who was an assistant at BC while Williams played there. Former Nets executive Bobby Marks says Williams could have been an “elite, Ben Wallace-type” defender. Instead, Williams’s last NBA cameo came with the Celtics in 2011-12, and he has spent the last two seasons playing in Turkey.
NBA coaches and executives like Williams, who is intelligent and personable, and his strengths—athleticism, length and shot blocking—fit the evolution toward small-ball lineups. He wants to return to the league but is vague when asked if he has quit smoking. “I’m trying to get back into that league; I’m committing myself,” he says. “I can’t do that.” As Lucas puts it, “We got some work to do.”
Unlike his brother, Garrett says he has never tried either alcohol or marijuana and doesn’t plan to. During an interview he wore a cartoon-covered Pokémon hat and explained how he planned to see Jurassic World the night it debuted. Ever the dino geek, Garrett’s idea of a big night out involves Netflix and digging fossils of another era—Marvin Gaye, Donny Hathaway and Al Green. Even his idols, Muhammad Ali and Hall of Fame Rams lineman Deacon Jones, are throwbacks. “I want to be a paleontologist, whether it’s amateur or professional,” he says of post-football life. “And I want to be a humanitarian. I want to go around the world just helping people.”
At home in Arlington he and Jesus Martinez—his 5'4", 130-pound best friend from childhood—play Mortal Kombat, Call of Duty and Super Smash Brothers. “He gets a little nerded out in Skyrim,” Martinez says. “I’m not into those strategy games.”
But like his brother, Garrett still has work to do. Most of his sacks came early in the season, against lesser competition; late in the year teams adjusted by running at him. He’ll push ahead by learning from both his siblings, the one who maximized her potential and the one who squandered his. Myles loves them both, but he knows what their stories tell him. “My brother was an example for what not to do,” he says. “The weed, it’s a distraction. A lot of other things can be distractions—girls, other drugs, fame and ego. I don’t want any of that to distract me from my main goal, which is going to the NFL and being the best defensive lineman or player who ever played.”