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Monday, May 13, 2013
Jets rookie has two dreams in mind

By Rich Cimini
ESPNNewYork.com

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Rontez Miles' upper body is covered with tattoos, a lot of ink for a lot of physique. The tattoo that means the most to him is on his left forearm. Seven words:

"My Brother's Keeper ... Take it in Blood."

The rookie safety's half-brother, Vondre Griffin, has the same tattoo in the same place, and there are times when Miles sits and stares at his arm, reading the words, wondering if Vondre is doing the same thing.

From his jail cell in Pittsburgh.

Rontez Miles
Rontez Miles, a safety, hopes to find a home in the Jets' depleted secondary.

They're separated by 350 miles, Rontez trying to make the New York Jets as an undrafted free agent from Division II California (Pa.), Vondre awaiting trial on murder charges.

This isn't how it played out in their childhood dreams, when they stayed awake at night in their attic bedroom in Braddock, Pa., and talked about playing together in the NFL. That has been replaced by a new dream, Miles playing for the Jets and his brother -- exonerated -- watching him from the crowd.

"I'd probably cry my eyes out before the game," he said at rookie minicamp over the weekend. "Then I'd play my heart out."

Growing up in Braddock, an old steel town filled with crime and drugs, Miles and Griffin -- born two months apart -- were inseparable. Their plan was to stick together the entire journey, from high school to college to the NFL.

Miles sacrificed a lot, probably hurting his career, but the plan was the plan. He didn't want to abandon his brother.

They played together at Woodland Hills High School, a football hotbed that produced Jason Taylor and Rob Gronkowski. In fact, Miles and Griffin were teammates with Gronkowski, who caught passes from Griffin, a quarterback who drew attention from college recruiters at mid-major schools. He decided to attend Kent State.

Miles, considered the superior prospect, received offers from Pitt, West Virginia, Arizona State and Colorado, which appeared to be the favorite. He said no to the BCS programs, opting to follow his brother.

"I never cared about the big schools or flashy things or all the publicity," Miles said. "I never cared about that stuff. I just wanted to play football with my brother and change our family, doing it together. He'd have done the same for me."

They have the same father, but he was out of the picture for a long time. Miles' mother was a crack addict, so, no, it wasn't a very Brady childhood. He had two good things in his life: football and Vondre, who moved in when they were in high school.

They didn't last at Kent State. Griffin encountered academic issues and was kicked out of school for possession of marijuana and driving without a license.

Miles could've stayed, but he decided to leave with his brother, returning to Braddock and an uncertain future. He caught a lot of flak from his friends, who said he was crazy to leave Division I football.

He didn't touch a football for two years, taking classes at a community college and loading furniture trucks with his brother. Miles became eligible to play football, drawing interest from a few schools.

Rontez Miles
Rontez Miles was invited to the combine but went undrafted.

Mike Kellar, the coach at California -- about an hour south of Pittsburgh -- arranged a lunch meeting at a restaurant a few miles from Miles' house. Keller liked him coming out of high school, but he assumed Miles was headed to Colorado or another big program. He was surprised when he heard it was Kent State.

"I never understood why he did that," Kellar said. "It was to his detriment. He could've played at a higher level."

After lunch, Kellar gave Miles a ride home, but they never got there. Miles insisted on being dropped off a few blocks early, offering no reason. Kellar looked around and figured it out. They were some of the worst slum conditions he'd ever seen.

"He didn't want me to see where he lived or the neighborhood he grew up in," said the coach, who wasn't sure if he'd ever see Miles on campus.

He made it to campus, all right.

Playing without his brother, who never met the eligibility requirements, Miles enjoyed a terrific career at Cal U. He was a two-time winner of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year, recording nine interceptions over his final two years. He was a two-time team captain for the Vulcans.

At safety, Miles was fearless and instinctive, known for his loud and spectacular hits. He played bigger than 6 feet, 203 pounds; he played as if he owned the middle of the field.

In Tackling 101, defenders are taught to run through ball carriers. Miles took it literally, it seemed.

"There were times," Kellar said, "when I expected him to come out the other side, in the middle of the guy's back."

Wide receiver Thomas Mayo, a former Vulcan now on the Jets' roster, said of Miles, "I don't want to say he tries to hurt you, but" -- a smiling pause -- "he tries to hurt you."

Miles' best moment, according to Kellar, didn't involve a high-speed collision. It occurred before the season in a team meeting. Every senior was required to stand up and recite his final-season goals. Putting football aside for the moment, Miles talked about how he was looking forward to graduating in December.

Kellar was taken aback.

"I'm thinking back to that first meeting in the restaurant and the drive home," he said, "and I'm almost in tears, listening to him speak."

It was about that time, last August, when Miles' brother was arrested for allegedly killing a 37-year-old man with a gunshot to the head. It occurred at 3 a.m. outside a McKeesport, Pa., bar. Griffin was apprehended after fleeing the scene, according to testimony at a preliminary hearing.

Griffin, charged with criminal homicide and carrying a firearm without a license, is being held without bail at the Allegheny County jail. He told police he acted in self-defense when backed against a wall by three men, one of whom allegedly lifted up his shirt to reveal a gun.

A witness corroborated Griffin's story, telling a pre-trial hearing that Griffin came to his defense when he was attacked by the three men, according to media reports. The trial is scheduled to begin May 20. Miles is optimistic.

"He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, trying to help a friend," said Miles, who last visited his brother in jail two weeks ago. "You have to protect yourself. Survival kicks in."

For now, Miles has to concentrate on football, mastering the Jets' complex defensive system to have a chance to make the team in training camp. The Jets are thin at safety, so he figures to get a good look.

Even though his head was "spinning like crazy," according to Rex Ryan, Miles stood out in minicamp. The coaches told him to slow down, reminding him the practices were non-contact.

"The one thing you can't take away from him is, this dude is aggressive and it will show up more on special teams than it will anywhere else," Ryan said.

On the eve of minicamp, Miles received a pep talk from his brother. Griffin's phone minutes from prison are precious and costly, so they had to make every second count.

They prayed together and for each other. They prayed for a second chance at life and for a first chance at a lifelong dream.

"I'm excited for him, he's excited for me," Miles said. "It's a crazy feeling, it's weird. I'd never thought I'd be going through this without him."