From wide-eyed rookie to Super Bowl MVP, Von Miller an all-time member of the Denver Broncos

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- On July 26, 2011, a bespectacled 22-year-old with an ever-present smile arrived to the Denver Broncos' suburban complex for the first time. The NFL's lockout, which had canceled any offseason work, had just ended.

Von Miller, the No. 2 overall pick in the NFL draft that April, scanned the freshly mowed fields around him and said:

"It's all so surreal. Just getting on that plane this morning and coming out here was so surreal. Just seeing the lockout get lifted was surreal ... Actually being on a pro team, this is all I wanted to do all my life. This is my dream, and to actually be able to live it, I really can't explain it."

On Monday, just a day before the NFL's trade deadline, Miller's time in Denver ran out. The linebacker is heading to the Los Angeles Rams for two draft picks (second- and third-rounders in next April's draft). It's a move the Broncos and general manager George Paton needed to make with Miller's contract running out after the season.

The departure of great players almost always comes unexpectedly. Broncos Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway was the rarest of players, but his career path was perhaps even rarer in the modern era. Elway walked off the field after his last snap having won a second consecutive Super Bowl. Miller won't get that luxury in Denver.

Miller joins an NFC contender in full-blown mortgage-the-future mode to win now -- a group that includes a three-time Defensive Player of the Year in Aaron Donald.

But when the dust settles, Miller's spot in Broncos lore should be secure, as should some space in the team's Ring of Fame when the time comes. Miller is the best homegrown Broncos player since Elway called it a playing career in 1998.

"When I said, 'Broncos for life,' I meant that -- it will always be in my heart," Miller said as he left the team's facility Monday. "It was an honor and privilege to play here -- John Elway picked me and it was life-changing.''

After former Broncos owner Pat Bowlen convinced Elway to return to the team as its top football executive, Miller was Elway's first draft pick -- second overall in 2011, just after the Carolina Panthers selected quarterback Cam Newton No. 1. Miller played 142 regular-season games for the Broncos, had 110.5 sacks, eight Pro Bowl selections, seven All-Pro selections -- three on the first team -- and one historical MVP performance in Super Bowl 50.

Miller said on his first day he wanted to wear No. 58 because he was a big fan of Hall of Fame pass-rusher Derrick Thomas and that he hoped to "get some inspiration from that." He then proceeded to wear it like no other in team history, and Miller belongs in the same paragraph as Thomas in league history.

Miller's Canton case will be discussed years from now, but since sacks became an official statistic in 1982, the club of players with at least 100 career sacks and a Super Bowl MVP award has only two members in it -- Miller and Hall of Famer Richard Dent.

Since the confetti rained down after the 2015 season, Miller has become frustrated at times with the Broncos' failure to find the postseason. After a loss to the Chiefs in 2019 in Kansas City, Missouri, he said, "It just defeats my soul."

"This team, they're going to start winning soon, got a lot of great players, lot of great coaches here, staff is amazing,'' Miller said Monday. "[I] wanted to be part of it to fix it."

He missed the 2020 season with an injury -- the first time he had missed more than two games in any season with an injury. His only other extended time away from the field was a six-game suspension to open the 2013 season for a violation of the league's substance abuse policy.

Miller said during the 2020 training camp that the suspension was a watershed moment in his career and, in many ways, in his life. It "forced me to really look at myself and think about who I wanted to be, what kind of player I wanted to become and that I would never forget that. I had to get right, be right, and as long as I play in this league, that's going to be my approach."

This year, even this past week, he had promised to push the Broncos back to the playoffs "while my key card still works." He has been far more introspective this season, as he often discussed his desire to find "peace" with the future of his football career, even as he often would say, "I can still beat ass."

The sack dances, the smile, the growing pains on and off the field, the thousands of glasses he put on the eyes of children who needed them through his foundation, the jerseys that have flown off the shelves with his name across the back of them and the one gleaming silver trophy he put in the case that he walked by on the way to his car Monday will be his legacy.

"Always have Super Bowl 50 -- seeing the pictures when I was walking out made me tear up," Miller said. "We always got Super Bowl 50, always got Broncos Country, and got to keep going."