- Alex Scarborough, ESPN Staff Writer
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- His backpedal has come a long way since the start of spring practice. He is finding rhythm in his footwork, the steps coming back to him like a familiar dance from the past. Jai Miller isn't making music on the football field yet, but he's finding some of the right chords.
Nick Saban looks on. It's the first day of camp in Tuscaloosa, and already he's seeing the tools come together. Miller, his promising if not unorthodox safety, is finding his groove. Everything about him is encouraging: his maturity, his intelligence, his work ethic, his build. This is someone Saban can work with. This is someone who can do the improbable. He can make good on a second chance.
"He's catching on way faster than I did when I first got here," said safety Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix, a rising junior and likely starter for the Tide. "He's catching on and learning very well and picking up and making a big improvement and change in the secondary."
Miller is still finding his way. There are good days and bad, practices where he drops three interceptions and scrimmages where he makes touchdown-saving tackles. He never thought a return to football would be easy, and so far it hasn't been. You don't show up at Alabama and become a star. You work at it and hope you're at your best when your number is called.
Hope is what football represents for Miller -- a chance to have something at the end of a toilsome journey. Alabama is either the end or the beginning for him, the final chapter of a restless athlete's tale or the start of something special.
Signed, sealed …
He put on a crimson cap, halfway grinning from the side of his mouth. The auditorium at Selma High (Ala.) exploded, his classmates crying out in excitement. He would be the first legitimate multisport athlete to attend the University of Alabama, a steal for then-football coach Mike Price. Reports were sent out: Jai Miller, the state's most dynamic athlete since Bo Jackson, had committed to the Crimson Tide for the 2003 class.
But Miller was playing a game, dropping the Alabama hat from his head. Now his deep-set, wide brown eyes beamed from underneath the brim of an Auburn cap. Stunned, the other half of the auditorium rose, cheering his deception. After all, a bit of theatrics never got in the way of a good rivalry.
Now that he had whipped the crowd into a frenzy, it was time to drop the hammer. He would leave them, the state that bore him, the state that longed for him to stay home and entertain them for just a few more years. He would make this decision for him and no one else.
Miller snatched the Auburn hat away and unbuttoned his shirt to reveal a Stanford jersey. He would play basketball and football for the Cardinal, something neither Auburn nor Alabama had a history of accommodating.
It was a tough pill for the hometown crowd to swallow, its favorite son burning the bridge from both ends. He took the road few imagined he would dare travel. He really did want it all, and at Stanford he would have his best chance of getting it -- not just athletics, but the ability to pursue an education that would secure a future absent scoreboards and free agency.
In choosing Stanford, he was doing what he always planned, what he was raised to do. Jai Miller was being his own man.
The fork in the road
The elaborate commitment ceremony was supposed to be final. Then-Stanford basketball coach Mike Montgomery had made a great impression on his official visit, as had former football coach Buddy Teevens, agreeing that there would be time for both sports. Star forward Josh Childress and wide receiver Teyo Johnson took him around campus and sold him on becoming a Cardinal.
The baseball diamond was supposed to be part of Miller's routine his senior year at Selma, a way to wind down the final months before traveling west. He had a passion for the game, but it wasn't where his future was headed.
That was before scouts stumbled on his untapped power at the plate and exceptional range in the outfield. He was a natural, but football and basketball hid him from the limelight because he couldn't make time for the year-round travel teams and tournaments that traditionally showcased prospects.
At a game between Selma and nearby Carver High, a scout came to the ballpark in search of one of Miller's teammates but came up empty. The player he hoped to see had quit to focus on football shortly before he booked his trip. Instead of turning tail, the scout stuck around to see the strong-armed kid destined for Stanford.
In his first plate appearance, Miller hit a towering home run that left the field in the blink of an eye. The scout remained seated.
Boston Red Sox scout and former Alabama baseball assistant Danny Watkins had watched Miller play throughout high school. What he saw of Miller on the baseball diamond was rare but unpolished.
"He was a fantastic athlete, one you could really dream on," Watkins said. "When you look at the five tools it takes to play baseball, he had them all."
Miller hit .500 his senior year and suddenly had another cap to consider. The Florida Marlins took Miller in the fourth round of the amateur draft, baiting him with a six-figure contract.
Now the joke was on Miller. The money was too good to pass up.
At 18 years old with a ticket booked for California, Miller changed course, taking a path he hadn't planned on, a journey that would prod and provoke him for nearly a decade before it spit him back out.
Grief and lessons with it
If there's one thing that stands out about Miller, it's his perseverance. Refusing to accept failure kept him bouncing around the minor leagues for nine years. He couldn't give up. He wouldn't step away from the game on anyone's word other than his own. Football begged him back, but it would have to wait its turn.
Robert Johnson grew up in Montgomery and calls Miller his brother, tracing their friendship back to the elementary school playground. Johnson, who played tight end at Auburn and for three years in the NFL, said he tried countless times to get Miller out of baseball and back to the game he knew best.
It didn't matter that Miller felt he wasn't getting what he wanted out of baseball; he was determined to see it through.
"For a kid like him that lost so much and put so much into it, to not reap the benefits was too much to deal with," Johnson said of Miller's baseball career. "We talked about it every day."
Riding a bus from one empty ballpark to another in the minors wouldn't break Miller. The disappointing back-and-forth trips to the big leagues wouldn't either. There was a drive inside him, a flame lit at birth and nurtured from the time he was old enough to carry a bat or lift a ball.
When Miller was 13 years old, both his mother and grandmother were killed in a car accident. Miller was in his mother's Chevy TrailBlazer on the way home from a basketball game when a car swerved ahead of them. Lori, Miller's mother, yanked the steering wheel to avoid the oncoming vehicle, sending the car into a spin, flipping multiple times. Mother and grandmother were thrown from the TrailBlazer, killed by the impact. Miller remained inside, alive.
The child that went into the accident came out a much different person, forged by despair and tragedy. The pain didn't suffocate him. It ignited him.
"I saw that kid changed into a phenom -- athletically, intellectually," Johnson said. "He took the work ethic from his mother to another level. Everything he learned from their 13 years together was magnified."
Miller's grandfather, Randall, became his guardian, moving him to Selma where he owned a funeral home. The two bonded in grief, keenly aware of the fleeting nature of life. Randall would watch his grandson develop into a blue-chip prospect. In the classroom, he was just as gifted, earning a 4.0 GPA his final semester of high school while simultaneously getting an A in an English course at the local community college.
"[The accident] changed his whole outlook on life," Randall said. "He had to take a good hard look at life and try to get the best he could out of it for the time he had."
Lori had recognized the potential simmering inside her young son. She went to all of his sporting events and was determined that her son not waste a single opportunity.
"She's the one that really pushed him when he was young," Randall said. "She didn't let him run the streets with the gangs, and that's why he stayed in some organized sports just about every day of the year. … It gave him a good strong discipline coming up. He lived up to that from that day to now."
Even when she could no longer be heard from the sideline, the conviction she instilled in her child was forever burned into his conscience. Giving up wasn't an option. His mother would have never allowed it.
There comes a time ...
Every athlete realizes, at some point, that he's gone as far as he can. Miller arrived there two days before Christmas, packing his bags for a move he no longer wanted to make.
The Oakland A's traded Miller's rights to the Baltimore Orioles on Dec. 23, 2011, less than a year after he had hit a career-high 32 home runs in Triple-A Sacramento. It would be his fourth franchise since signing with the Marlins in 2003.
Randall said it demoralized his grandson.
"He wasn't interested in baseball after that," Randall said. "And it looked like baseball wasn't interested in him."
At 27 years old, Miller was ready to try football again. He called his agent and said he wasn't coming back. A clause in Miller's contract with the Marlins guaranteed him college tuition, making him available to walk on at any program in the country. Georgia, Tennessee, Auburn and Alabama came calling. Mark Richt and Gus Malzahn drove to Selma to visit. As Johnson put it, they had an opportunity to get "the best walk-on in the country."
Miller worked out in Mobile, Ala., for nearly a month, grinding in the weight room day and night. Johnson would play tight end, and Miller would drop back and defend him, doing more than holding his own in game simulations. In the 10 years since playing football, Miller had matured. At 6-foot-3 and 213 pounds, he became downright menacing behind a helmet and shoulder pads. He was the picture of an NFL safety.
"He's physical, he's aggressive," Johnson said. "He's big, he's ripped up, he's fast. He's one of the most explosive people I've ever met in all of sports."
High praise from someone who played with the likes of Ronnie Brown and Carlos Rogers at Auburn.
"He's got a chip on his shoulder because his previous career he didn't get everything they deserved," Johnson said. "He wouldn't say that because he's that type of guy."
There would be no ceremony this time around, no audience to watch him make his decision. No fans to tease. There would be nothing but a phone call to the coaching staff and a quiet moment of reflection. Miller chose Alabama, granting a wish his grandfather had kept alive since 2003.
It would be difficult, Miller knew. The depth chart Saban keeps in Tuscaloosa is littered with four- and five-star recruits. Playing time isn't something that's handed out hastily.
But a challenge was what Miller wanted all along. He wanted to play at the best and most demanding college football program in the country. If he couldn't make it there, then what was the point of trying in the first place?
"Depending on how well he does at Alabama, it will determine whether he has a future in professional football," Randall said of Jai's future plans.
Miller enrolled and took his first class at Alabama on Jan. 9, less than two weeks before he turned 28. Though he loves studying engineering and is said to be earning A's, getting a degree is not the biggest factor at play. His timetable isn't what it once was.
"He's there to win a national championship. He's there to be a part of a team," Johnson said. "… But to be 28, the clock is ticking."
Miller isn't a traditional player because of his age and circumstance. He isn't on scholarship and might not stay the usual three or four years. His future at Alabama will be evaluated instead on a year-by-year basis. Coaches were told of Miller's NFL aspirations early in the process and understood the logic. After all, it's going to be hard enough persuading NFL general managers to consider a 29-year-old. Selling someone over 30 borders on the impossible. There's only so much tread on a man's tires.
Johnson, though, is confident Miller will make the unlikely transition from minor league baseball player to college football star. He says Miller's instincts are natural and his intellect is unlike anything he's seen. He anticipates the play before it happens, Johnson said.
Coaches have seen it too. On the first day of spring practice, Saban saw in Miller what friends and family had known for years.
"Anytime you're off for a while, it takes a little bit of time to transition back into it," Saban said. "But I've been encouraged by his athleticism and his size. He's a bright guy. He does learn. I saw him make a tremendous amount of improvement on the field ...
"Everything is new to him, every technique is new to him. I'm sure things are running a little bit together … but I'm encouraged by how he might be able to help us."
Though he's much older, teammates insist Miller is just one of the guys at practice.
"He's out there laughing, playing, full of energy," cornerback Deion Belue said. "You can't even tell."
And that's the thing about Miller: The scars of his past aren't visible. He doesn't show his hand in public. He keeps his story up his sleeve. The washout of a career toiling in the minor leagues doesn't haunt him. The memory of his mother only serves to fuel him. He acts on his own terms.
Those who know him, acknowledge this above all else: Jai Miller is and always has been a man of conviction.
2dKevin Van Valkenburg