Broncos' Von Miller begins long road back

Von Miller is at a crossroads in his career after serving a six-game suspension for substance abuse. AP Photo/Jack Dempsey

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Three months ago, Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller was poised to launch into superstar status as the best defensive player on what is potentially a Super Bowl team.

He had an 18.5-sack season on his resume, two Pro Bowl appearances in two years and the beginnings of what he hoped would be a growing list of endorsements. Then came his suspension for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy, a still-infamous “I know I did nothing wrong,’’ missive on Twitter in July and an arrest for a missed court appearance to go with a traffic stop just days after that arrest, when he was cited for multiple traffic violations.

All of that was followed by the revelation in a report from ESPN NFL Insiders Adam Schefter and Chris Mortensen that Miller tried to influence a drug test collector, who was subsequently fired. Now six games later and with plenty of words written or spoken about his road back, Miller will return to the Broncos' lineup Sunday in Indianapolis. He is just one step from one of the league's most severe punishments -- a suspension for at least a year -- for whatever becomes of the rest of his career.

“I think he understands that, you know, he made some errors and there are a lot of people here to help him, his teammates, coaching staff, people in the organization, we’ll see where it goes,’’ Broncos coach John Fox said earlier this week. “People in life make mistakes; we’ll see where that goes.’’

“I definitely made mistakes in the past, but like I said before it wouldn’t do anybody any good, wouldn’t do me any good to go back and defend stuff in the past,’’ Miller said this week. “All I can ask is judge me on my actions going forward. If we can do that, I’m positive I can gain everybody’s trust back.’’

And by everybody, Miller says he means those in his football life, his personal life and his business life. However, one player who made it all the way back from life-altering struggles with drugs and alcohol to earn induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame says Miller’s starting point, the key to it all, must be the face Miller sees in the mirror.

"He has a chance to be a Hall of Famer, but if you were asking me what I would ask him right now, I would ask, 'Are you willing to substitute this lifestyle you have chosen for a Hall of Fame jacket?'" said Cris Carter, a member of the Hall’s Class of 2013 and an ESPN NFL analyst. “That’s the kind of ability he has.

“But the key with any type of treatment or any type of recovery, is really being honest with yourself,’’ Carter added “ … Have a heart-to-heart with yourself, change your surroundings. It’s a long process, it’s a long, long process. If he does have a great support system there in Denver, if he has support people like me [have] had, who care for him, that matters. But it’s really up to him, and it’s going to take time. You can’t expect a miracle after six weeks; it takes time to change, to change a lifestyle. But even with that he has to understand he's one step from losing everything.’’

Miller has declined to offer many specifics this week about how he got to Stage 3 of the league’s substance-abuse program or why he tried to influence a specimen collector if he had “done nothing wrong.’’ But when asked if he now considered himself to be a recovering addict, Miller stumbled a bit before saying he didn’t believe he was.

“I have, uh, I will say that with struggles, with immaturity and stuff, but no, not that,’’ Miller said.

Carter said it’s a significant issue for anyone who has found trouble with drug use. Several team sources say while Miller has received day-to-day help during his suspension, he is not believed to have attended any formal drug and alcohol counseling. Miller has declined to say if he has attended, or plans to attend, such counseling in the future.

Carter said he has routinely pointed to a Sept. 19, 1990 session in rehab as a pivotal point in his life and that he’s been clean ever since.

“If he wants this to be bottom, if he wants this to be the dark chapter of his life and for the rest of the chapters to be about how he got it turned around, it’s up to him,’’ Carter said. “If he can make this his rock bottom … but if you ain’t got the discipline in that, then everybody is just wasting their time. It has to come from him or it’s just a matter of time before he blows up again, just matter of time.’’

Almost from the day his pending suspension was revealed just before the start of training camp, Miller has acknowledged “mistakes.’’ On a few occasions he has acknowledged immaturity, but he has been hesitant thus far to discuss any drug use other than to say he doesn’t believe he has a substance-abuse problem.

He did offer this week: “It all starts with me, no matter how much help you have around you, if you can’t do it, you just can’t do it, and I feel like I’ve taken steps in that direction -- it’s a constant struggle every single day,’’ Miller said. “But I’m positive I’ll be all right.’’

But when asked if he would use drugs again, Miller said: “I’ve definitely made mistakes, but I’m working hard to fix those mistakes now. I can’t [dwell] on the past or anything, but I can sit here and say that I’m working hard to be a better person, be a better football player, be a better teammate.’’

History, however, says there are obstacles for Miller. As a Stage 3 participant in the league’s substance abuse program, Miller is subject to unannounced testing up to 10 times a month for the remainder of his NFL career.

And since Roger Goodell became the league’s commissioner in 2006, 132 players suspended for at least one game under either the substance-abuse policy or the policy on performance-enhancing drugs started just one-quarter of their career games after serving the suspensions, according to ESPN Stats and Analysis. Essentially, the players never seemed to regain the career momentum following the suspensions.

The players, as a group, started 74.4 percent of their career games before their suspensions and just 25.6 percent of their career games following. The totals include former Broncos D.J. Williams, Todd Sauerbrun, Kenny Peterson and Ryan McBean. The totals don’t include 27 players who have already served suspensions this season, including Miller.

But in the end, Carter said, it will be about how Miller handles the time he does not spend in the Broncos’ Dove Valley complex that will determine the outcome.

“Just depends on what you want, when you have relationships and ties when you’re in the NFL, like we do, you have to set your priorities,’’ Carter said. “You have to ask yourself what are your priorities? For me, the thing that helped me was a family, having a wife, having a wife that was pregnant with my son Deron, that gave me the impetus. I knew if I messed up one more time, like [Miller], I would be banned for at least a year and potentially lifetime. So you have to put something out there that’s bigger than you, that can get you up every morning, gets you to go. Because you’re going to have the urge to use,’’ Carter said. “And you have to put other things in your life to fill that void.’’