From an early age, Shareef Miller was motivated to succeed, whether it was on the football field or off.
Along the way, Miller relied on advice from people he trusted, starting at an early age with his mother, Tekeya Cook, and his older brother, Mikal Powell-Miller, and continuing with coaches from the Pop Warner league and George Washington High School who helped him gain a scholarship to Penn State.
Now a redshirt junior defensive end with the Nittany Lions, Miller is paying it forward. Referring to himself as “the older guy in the room,” he has been a leader and adviser to the younger players and keeps things honest with his teammates if he feels they aren’t working hard enough in practice.
And like the people who mentored him, he wants to be a positive role model for youths, especially those in his old Frankford neighborhood, and try to steer them down the right path.
“When I was younger, my older brother was my role model,” Miller said recently. “But a lot of kids don’t have a big brother or a dad in their life. They have nobody to look up to. That’s a reason for kids to fall victim to the streets. All they see is the negative, people doing bad things.
“When I come home and I go to the Frankford Chargers field in the area where I’m from, all the young guys come up to me and talk to me and want to pick my brain. I tell them, ‘I come from where y’all come from.’ All I did was surround myself with great people. I had a tight circle.
“Football is what I wanted to do, and I wasn’t going to let nobody stop me. That’s why I never got in trouble, never wanted to do anything to jeopardize it. Kids want to know how it is playing in front of a lot of people. I just tell them, ‘You can be here one day, too. You can do whatever you want to do. You’ve just got to believe in yourself.’ ”
Miller said his older brother, who died in May 2015 after being shot during an argument in West Philadelphia, gave him the same advice to believe in himself and strive to do what he wanted.
“He was hard on me,” he said. “He told me I had to work hard. He told me, ‘Never listen to what other people say. Stay away from people that’s not really there for you.’ He was somebody I could lean on when I was down or anything. He said, ‘Everybody works hard, but what is going to separate you from other people?’ ”
The murder of his brother devastated Miller, who was close to graduation from George Washington, and he seriously considered not going to Penn State. When he did go, he sat out his first season as a redshirt.
But he had another rock in his corner, his mother, whom he calls every day.
“My mom is my biggest supporter,” Miller said. “She is everything to me. She raised me by herself. She’s been hard on me. I get my toughness from my mom. When I was playing little league, she was always on me. If I wasn’t doing something, I’d hear her voice. She’d be loud at the games.
“She told me, ‘Talk to God every day, listen to God, be a great person to people.’ She didn’t want me to follow anybody but to be my own man.”
That’s what Miller has done, to the point that he is scheduled to graduate in May with a degree in rehabilitation and human services. The 6-foot-5, 259-pound end, who earned All-Big Ten honors for the second straight year, is one of the most respected players on the Nittany Lions, who will play Kentucky in the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1.
“His growth as a person and as a football player is why you get into coaching,” defensive line coach Sean Spencer said. “He’s a leader in the [locker] room and on the practice field. He does everything right in the community. I’ve been in the neighborhood where Shareef grew up, and it’s a tough neighborhood. For him to be a semester away from getting a degree at Penn State is a testament to all the people who have worked with him here. This is a tremendous story.”
Another person who has assisted Miller is former Penn State defensive end Deion Barnes, a Northeast High graduate. When they met, Barnes described Miller, then at Frankford High, as quiet and humble but someone who wanted to soak up as much information as he could. Barnes gave him advice and some tips on improving his fundamentals.
“I’d tell him one game at a time, don’t count any stats, try to dominate the person in front of you as many times as you can, and all the stats that you’re looking for will take care of itself,” Barnes said. “From where he started off as a freshman, his maturity now has helped him take a huge step to being a leader. You see him talking and wanting everybody to do better.”
Miller said he will sit down with his mother and head coach James Franklin at the end of the season to talk about possibly entering the NFL draft and “make the best decision” on what to do.
Whatever he decides, he can look back and know he met his expectations to graduate and excel on the football field.
“I think with school, I surpassed [expectations] definitely,” Miller said. “Even with football, too. I handled everything well. I wouldn’t change anything.”