Shareef Miller heard it all.
You’re going to JUCO.
You got all those offers for nothing.
Miller — once a prized high school prospect in a precarious position — admittedly didn’t care too much about his senior season.
High school football wasn’t his primary concern. Being eligible to play at the next level was. So was getting out of a neighborhood steeped in drugs and temptation.
Miller, now a redshirt sophomore defensive end ready to start for Penn State, held a dangerously low GPA going into his final year of high school. The violent pass-rusher had more offers than he could fathom, but schools backed off because they didn’t believe he’d be academically eligible.
But Miller’s sole conviction was to prove everyone wrong. Instead of going to a junior college — or worse, hanging around the streets of one of Philadelphia’s roughest neighborhoods — the bearded battler delivered on a promise to himself and his family.
“I wanted to be different,” Miller told the Centre Daily Times. “I didn’t want to be the average teenager back home. The average teenager back home sells drugs and then they wear the fancy clothes. All that’s going to come; I want to do it the right way. I wanted to inspire kids in my city and my area. If I can make it, you can make it.”
Rasheed Muhammad watched the 2017 Blue-White Game and wept.
The person he’s known for so long in Miller — who’s been through so much — was named the game’s defensive MVP. He couldn’t help but cry.
Muhammad, the former coach of Miller’s Pop Warner Frankford Chargers, witnessed his growth first-hand. Due to the weight classes, the 12-year-old played up against 15- and 16-year-olds who had 20 to 30 pounds on him.
But, in the team’s first practice, Muhammad knew Miller would be special.
“The first time he went, he kind of shied through a drill,” Muhammad said, “and I ripped him.”
There’s no way you’re going to be able to play football if you’re soft. There’s no way.
Muhammad was testing Miller — and he passed.
“I wanted to see how much I could get out of him,” the coach said. “I had to challenge this kid. Let me press the button, and when I pressed that button on that first day, it was just different.”
After practice, Muhammad went to his father and fellow coaches with words many would deem crazy: “This kid is going to the NFL,” Muhammad told them. “He has it.”
From the start, Muhammad knew Miller was worth investing in as a football player. And over the years, the two formed a familial bond.
Miller calls Muhammad, now 36, his “OG” and “big brother.”
When Miller was sacking quarterbacks two years his senior in Pop Warner, Muhammad was on the sidelines.
When Miller earned first-team All-Southeastern Pennsylvania accolades as a junior at Frankford High School, Muhammad was keeping close tabs.
And when it came time for Miller to make the biggest choice of his life going into his senior year, Muhammad was there for support.
“Tekeya (Miller’s mother) calls me and she says, ‘I’m moving up to the Northeast,’” Muhammad, then an assistant at George Washington High School, recalled. “A light bulb went off in my head. She was moving to the zone where Washington was at.”
After his junior campaign at Frankford, about seven miles from George Washington, Miller had offers from 10 colleges: Penn State, Michigan State, Oregon, Virginia, Illinois, Rutgers, Syracuse, Indiana, Temple and Purdue.
Problem was, he couldn’t commit to any of those schools. He didn’t know if he’d be academically eligible as a freshman.
“At that point in time, I had no shot at getting into college with the grades I had,” Miller said.
Miller needed to transfer from Frankford. He needed a fresh start, a place to get him on the right track in the classroom.
Enter Ron Cohen, coach of George Washington.
“That’s my guy,” Miller said. “He had a plan for me.”
The proposal was simple, yet trying: In order to move his GPA to the NCAA standard, Miller had to take three summer courses entering his senior year. While regular school was in session, he’d stay after the bell rang to complete SAT and ACT prep classes.
The summer courses weren’t without sacrifices. Miller missed scheduled recruiting visits to Oregon and Maryland because he couldn’t skip a day.
From 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. throughout the summer, it was just like a regular school day.
“I was like, ‘I don’t want to do this (stuff),’” the defensive end recalled. “But I thought, I can sacrifice this summer now to get where I want to be. I don’t want to go to JUCO.”
That was one motivating factor. The other was silencing doubters.
Word spread quickly around the city.
When Miller moved from Frankford to rival George Washington, many jumped at the chance to call him a traitor.
Opposing players’ trash talk centered around his poor grades. Even Miller’s friends didn’t think he could pass the SAT or ACT — and when he did, rumors swirled that someone took the test for him.
“All that stuff pissed me off and motivated me,” Miller said. “I know what I did. I know I put the work in.”
That’s what made it so frustrating for Miller when, for the longest time, he couldn’t pass the SAT. After taking it three times in a row as a senior, he was still 10 to 20 points short of where he needed to be.
But Miller, his mom and Muhammad were so focused on the SAT that they forgot that he even took the ACT.
Months after filling in his final answer, the results came to George Washington’s counselor. Miller went to the office, opened the letter and saw a passing grade.
“He was able to pull it off,” said Cohen, the George Washington coach, his voice rising with every word. “He did it.”
When he did pull it off, Penn State was waiting.
Muhammad said Penn State assistant Josh Gattis didn’t give up on Miller back when he was ineligible, and the Nittany Lions were there to welcome him once his academics were squared away.
Miller verbally committed to Penn State on Jan. 25, 2015. A week later, he signed his National Letter of Intent, with his mother and Muhammad by his side.
Miller kept up his academics throughout his senior year. He was ready to graduate and get up to Penn State, where he could make his family proud.
Unfortunately, Miller’s final month at George Washington was a difficult one. In May 2015, his 25-year-old brother, Mikal, died after being shot four times in West Philadelphia.
It was a devastating blow to Miller. Even though his brother was “probably on the other side of the street,” according to Muhammad, he was still someone Miller looked up to.
Mikal also played a role in Miller’s move from Frankford to George Washington.
“Shareef heard it from me and heard it from his mom, but then he heard it from his brother,” Muhammad said. “Coming from him, he could’ve said, ‘Nah man, stay where you’re at.’ But his brother was on board.”
Added Miller: “I think about him every day in whatever I go through. Without my family, I wouldn’t be here today.”
Because of his brother’s support, his mother’s move, Muhammad and Cohen’s push, and his own drive, Miller is in a unique position. Facing an uphill climb — with academics and his neighborhood norms working against him — he made it out.
Instead of succumbing to his peers’ jeers, Miller persevered.
Penn State head coach James Franklin called him “a survivor,” while George Washington acting coach Steve Benzio said he’s “special.”
“He’s one of those kids that had a lot of reasons to make excuses and didn’t,” Benzio noted. “He had a lot of reasons to be negative, and he wasn’t. He had life situations that would’ve been too tough for a lot of people, that he overcame.”
Now, Miller — a projected starter at defensive end — is primed for a breakout year with the Nittany Lions. His 5.5 tackles for loss in 2016 without a single start gives credence to that.
With that success, those who doubted him in his hometown — those who questioned whether or not he had the mental fortitude to get where he’s at — have come crawling back.
When approached by those wanting to “jump ship,” Miller keeps moving. He only has time for those who stuck with him through “the thick and thin,” the academic and situational hardships that have made him that person and player he is today.
“I’ve got nephews and a little brother looking up to me,” Miller said. “I’ve got to be an example for them.”
“With all the work I’ve put in, I want it. ... This year, I’m ready to be the guy.”
CDT sports editor Josh Moyer contributed to this story.