Football

‘It changed my life’: Shareef Miller’s mother and the choice that put him on a path to the Eagles

Tekeya Cook had mixed feelings two weeks ago when her son, Shareef Miller, was selected by the Eagles in the fourth round of the NFL draft.

A part of her was excited that her baby was going to be staying close to home, playing for the team he grew up rooting for, playing for a team whose Super Bowl victory two years ago brought the 6-foot-4, 254-pound defensive end from Penn State to tears.

But another part of her – a big part of her – wished that the Frankford, Pa., native had been drafted by somebody – anybody – other than the Eagles.

"It's like a gift and a curse," Cook said in an interview this month. "I don't want him to be in Philly a lot. He's just going to have to balance it out.

"He's going to have to take it seriously because it's very dangerous in Philly. Too dangerous."

When Cook refers to "Philly," she isn't talking about Rittenhouse Square or Queen Village or Northern Liberties or the corner of Broad and Pattison, where the Eagles' training facility is located.

She's talking about Frankford, where, as a single mother, she raised Shareef and his five brothers and sisters and where even a football star doesn't have to go far to find trouble. Or have it find him.

Cook already has lost one of her children to the streets. Shareef's older brother Mikal was shot and killed in West Philadelphia in 2015.

"I told one of his friends, 'Don't make me kill you. Stay away from my son,'" Cook said. "Shareef is a good dude. Everybody has their own life. But if you're really his friend, don't bring that around him and try to bring him down."

While he described being drafted by the Eagles as "a dream come true," Miller understands the concerns his mother has about his playing and living in Philadelphia.

He wants to be a role model for the kids in the city, like the ones who play for his old Pop Warner team, the Frankford Chargers. He wants to be there for them and inspire them and let them know that, regardless of their circumstances, anything is possible.

But he also knows that there are going to be people looking to drag him down.

"To be able to just come home and play for the Eagles is great," Miller said after he was drafted. "Obviously, it's different now. I'm a professional football player now, so you never know what type of people, (what their) mind-sets (are).

"But I feel like I have the right people around me. I surround myself with the right group of people that support me and want the best for me. So I don't think staying home in Philly will be a distraction because of the type of people I have around me."

Saving her son

Miller's love for his mother knows no bounds. He knows the hell she went through growing up and recognizes how hard she has worked as a single mother to raise her children and give them an opportunity to flourish.

"I would not be here if it wasn't for my mom," Miller said. "My mom has molded everything in me. Toughness. Everything.

"She taught me everything. How to be a man and how to be a respectful person to people. I owe everything to her."

To repay her, Miller said, his top priority, besides earning a season-opening roster spot with the Eagles, is "making sure my mom is all right."

Cook is the ultimate survivor. The child of drug addicts, she spent most of her young life in foster and group homes and psychiatric hospitals dealing with bipolar disorder. She said she felt like the pound puppy that nobody ever picks.

"My whole life, coming from where I came from, my story was vicious," she said. "But through the grace of God, I'm still standing."

Miller was found to have a learning disability when he was young. As a student at Frankford High School, he was a standout in football, helping the Pioneers win back-to-back Class 4A Public League titles as a sophomore and junior and drawing interest from a lot of Division I schools, including Penn State.

But his grades were poor. He had a 1.7 GPA, which was going to be a definite deal-breaker with the schools that were recruiting him. He was looking at the possibility of going to junior college or a prep school, such as Valley Forge Military Academy, if he wanted to play Division-I football.

Rasheed Muhammad, a family friend and adviser who coached Miller in youth football, had taken an assistant coaching job at Frankford and became aware of the academic problems of many of the players on the team, including Miller.

So Muhammad had a frank talk with Cook about her son's dire academic situation.

"I said, 'Listen, I made you a promise. I told you that this kid is going to make it. He's going to go to college and play in the NFL. But we have to fix these grades,' " he said.

Cook looked around at other schools. Many of them, however, were interested only in her son's football prowess.

"She was shopping for the best education, and all they were talking about was football, football, football," Muhammad said.

Mourning his brother

One of the few high schools that wasn't just talking about football, football, football was George Washington, seven miles north of Frankford.

"They had a plan for him," Cook said. "An academic plan. And we just executed it."

It wasn't just a matter of switching schools. Cook and her children also had to move out of Frankford and find a place in the Northeast closer to Washington.

Miller initially fought the move. It meant leaving his friends and going to a new school and a new neighborhood where he didn't know anybody. It meant playing football for a new coach and a new team.

"He was not happy about moving," Cook said. "He was pissed. He would give me crap every day. It was a big mess. But at the end of the day, I didn't give a crap because that was my kid, and I knew it was best for him."

Said Muhammad: "His mom doesn't force too much on him. But in that situation, she knew that was for his best. She said, 'I know he's upset. But he has to understand why I'm doing it. He'll get over it.' "

Eventually, he did.

"Looking back on it, it was the best decision my mom could have ever made for me because it changed my life," Miller said. "It wasn't even about football. I wasn't really worrying about football my senior year. I was just worried about being academically eligible, so I focused on my academics, and that's when it really hit me as to why my mom made the decision."

Miller's whole approach to school and academics changed at Washington.

"He pulled that 1.7 up," Muhammad said. "Going into the second semester of his senior year, I started to see a change. I started to see the maturity and the dedication to the academics. He would go to tutoring. He would raise his hand and ask for help in math or things he was struggling with."

Cook told her son early on never to be ashamed of his learning disability. She told him to never let it hold him back. One of the reasons he chose Penn State was because of the staff's willingness to work with students with learning disabilities.

Muhammad said Miller asked Penn State coach James Franklin questions about academics, and Franklin had answers for all of them.

"All of a sudden," Muhammad said, "Shareef jumped up out of his chair and said, 'That's it. I'm done. I don't want to visit anywhere else. This is where I want to go.' "

The same kid who was dying on the vine with a 1.7 GPA at Frankford five years ago now needs just to complete an internship to receive his degree in sports management.

He didn't do too badly on the football field, either. He was a two-year starter and the team's co-defensive MVP last year, when he had 7 1/2 sacks and 15 tackles for losses.

If not for his mother, however, Miller might never have gone to Penn State.

A month before graduating from Washington and two months before he was scheduled to leave for college, Miller's brother Mikal was shot and killed. Miller's world went to hell.

Mikal wasn't perfect, but he loved his brother and watched over him. He helped persuade Miller to transfer to Washington. They were close.

"His life, Mikal kept it away from his brother," Cook said. "If he was street, he didn't bring it to him. He wanted the best for Shareef."

Mikal's death sent Miller into a tailspin. He told his mother and Muhammad that he didn't want to go to Penn State.

"Mikal's death broke him," Muhammad said. "I'd never seen him down like that. Death wasn't something he was used to. Especially that close to him. His brother was his best friend. He didn't even want to go to the funeral. It was a struggle for him.

"That was his first real dose of real life," Muhammad said, "of what it's like growing up in the inner city."

With the help of his mother and Muhammad, Miller eventually recovered and used his brother's death as an impetus for success rather than an excuse for self-pity.

"I told him, your brother would have wanted you to (go to Penn State),' " Cook said. "I said, 'You didn't come this far to lose.' It was do-or-die for him."

Giving kids hope

Miller doesn't live in the old neighborhood anymore, but that doesn't mean he has forgotten where he came from.

Two hours after getting drafted by the Eagles on April 27, he was down on Ditman Street in Frankford, holding a news conference on the field where he played youth football. After it was over, he stayed and talked to the neighborhood kids.

The next afternoon, he went over to Washington and talked to the players on the football team.

"It means a lot to those kids just to see someone come from where they came from and had to go through some (of the same) things, someone who had a single parent and stuff like that," Miller said. "I want to give these kids someone to look up to. I want to give them hope.

"I'm definitely going to go back in my community and do whatever I can to help these kids reach their full potential. Go to school. Get a great education. Go to college and live out that dream whether it's the NFL or the NBA or whatever they want to do."

"He knows he has to go back," his mother said. "Because if you don't, what did you do it for? You need to let somebody else know that it's possible. You need to let them know that, if it can happen to me, it can happen to you."

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