The Curve

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This is NFL Rookie Diaries, a series where NFL rookies take you inside their new lives as NFL players. From adjusting to playing the game at its highest level, to learning the locker room culture, to adjusting to life off the field, these rookies tell it like it is. Welcome to the NFL.

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Fact: You can’t beat Von Miller at Connect Four.

I know, because as a rookie, that’s one of my duties. I carry stuff in from practice like every rookie in the history of the NFL probably has, and I have to play Von Miller in Connect Four. Every day. And he’s got it down to a science. He’s the master. I’ve gotten him a couple of times, but he’s as close to unbeatable as it gets. And he’ll let you know it, too.

I met Von in Miami before I was drafted — before I became a Bronco. Coming out of college he was a guy I looked up to as a pass-rusher, and there I was, standing on the sidewalk listening to him talk about NFL locker room culture. Next thing I know, we’re talking football, and he’s demonstrating proper footwork and giving me tips right there on the sidewalk as people walk by.

He didn’t know me at the time. He didn’t know what team was going to draft me. And there he was, trying to educate me and make me better.

When you’re a first-round pick, a lot of times you just get thrown into the fire. You have coaches there to help you on the field, but don’t have anybody there to guide you on how to do the right things off it, or how to take care of your body.

Me? I’m in the ideal situation. I’m here with probably two of the greatest outside linebackers in the game in Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware. I can ask questions and learn from them every day. That’s an advantage most rookies don’t have.

Take Von, for instance.

You can tell watching tape that Von is an incredible athlete. But when you see him up close, it’s insane. I watch how quick his feet are — how many steps he takes and how he sets himself up to swipe the blocker’s hand and dip his shoulder to get around the edge. I think, OK, let me try that. Let me take my steps like this and work it into my own style.

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His get-off is the fastest I’ve ever seen. He just explodes off the ball. So one day at practice, I just walked up to him and said, “Hey man, I’m having trouble. My get-off is not looking like yours. What am I doing wrong?” He bent down, grabbed my feet and put them in the right stance, then showed me how to lean — how to balance my body to maximize my get-off speed. I started working on that on my own, and next thing you know, I’m getting off the ball faster. I could notice the difference. All because he was there, and I asked.

Von is the guy who teaches me the physical stuff. DeMarcus is the veteran — the guy whose brain I just want to pick. He’s so much more technical. We’ll be watching film, and he’ll stop, rewind, and replay it in slow motion.

“Hey, did you guys see that? The quarterback is leaning before he snaps the ball. If you key on that, it can help you get off the ball faster.”

We’re all looking around at each other.

I didn’t notice that … you?

Nope, me neither.

DeMarcus picks up on things nobody else in the room sees because he’s just been doing it for so much longer.

Von is a freak athlete, but DeMarcus has a totally different approach to the game. He sets guys up. He has enough experience to know what he’s going to get from an opponent and how to expose his weakness.

When we were playing the Raiders earlier this year, I was going up against a bigger guy. DeMarcus came up to me and said, “You’re strong and you’re fast. That guy’s bigger than you. You gotta be able to set him up. Give him a couple of speed rushes to take him up the field and get him moving back a little bit. Then hit him with a power rush. He’ll be on his heels and you can shed him easier. The quarterback is gonna step up in the pocket and you’ll be right there.”

And that’s exactly what happened. The quarterback stepped up in he pocket, and I was right there to get the sack.

As a rookie, I feel like I’m still trying to find out what I do best. What’s my go-to? What’s my move? What do I do that’s better than what other guys can do? And having Von and DeMarcus has helped me tremendously. I can learn the physical tools from Von and the mental game from DeMarcus. From there, I can start figuring things out for myself and putting the pieces together to define the kind of player I want to be.

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They look out for me off the field, too.

A blizzard swept through Denver recently, and I wasn’t prepared. I drive a Dodge Challenger. I live in the mountains and I don’t own an SUV. Rookie mistake.

So I called Von.

“Hey man. There’s no way I’m gonna make it through the snow … Can I use one of your SUVs to help me get to the practice facility?

He didn’t even think twice.

DeMarcus has opened his home to me. One day he came up to me and said, “If you need to get some treatment, you can come to my house. I have some laser therapy that’ll help get you right. We can watch film, too. Break stuff down.” It’s like an open invitation whenever I need it — to get healthier, to get better.

You hear stories around the league about being a rookie and being at the bottom of the totem pole. Coming into our locker room, it’s the complete opposite. T.J. Ward, Chris Harris, Aqib Talib — all these guys talk to me and take the time to share their knowledge to help me understand everything. Not just the game, but this whole new lifestyle.

But they’ve still got me carrying helmets in from practice.

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I wasn’t supposed to be in Denver. I wasn’t supposed to fall to 23rd in the draft. But I made a mistake before the draft and paid the price. Now, all I can do is work my ass off to be the best player I can be on the field and the best teammate and person off it. Everything happens for a reason, and at the end of the day, I don’t think there’s a better place I could have landed than right here with the Broncos. I get Von and DeMarcus and the other guys to learn from and support me, and as a rookie, I get a chance to compete for the playoffs and for a Super Bowl.

And maybe if I play my cards right, I’ll get the ultimate reward … 

The secret to mastering Connect Four.

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