LAKELAND, Fla. — Kamisha Smith opens her front door with caution, looking both ways before she walks out to the road.
She doesn’t live right off the highway, but hit-and-runs happen regularly.
As Smith makes her way through the front yard, she feels danger lurking. Walking outside to fetch the mail is no easy stroll for her.
Behind a tree, beside a car or just in plain sight, a young Ventrell Miller is ready to tackle at a moment’s notice. On this particular day, the target is his mother.
“Normally I can take him,” Smith says. “We start wrestling and then he slams me. I tell myself, ‘OK, it’s time to stop playing with him.’ He needs to go to college and tackle someone else.”
Fast forward to June 2017, and Miller is set to enroll at the University of Florida. He is one of four linebacker signees for the Gators football team.
His mean streak makes him unique. After all, not many kids grow up tackling their mother for fun.
“She don’t want to play me no more,” Miller says.
An urge to tackle
Simply put, Miller was born to play linebacker.
He joined a flag football team at age 4, but it only lasted for two years. The flag part, that is.
“He was in our city league and you couldn’t play in pads,” Smith says. “So when he was 6 we took him to the Junior Jaguars [the area youth football team] because he was sick of flag football. He wanted to tackle.”
Unfortunately for Smith and her family, they became his tackling dummies. She blames her father for “bringing out the beast” in Miller.
“My dad started wrestling with my boys when they were young,” Smith says. “That’s just how he had fun with them — talking smack and wrestling. He’s 63 and he still gets out there and wrestles, so Ventrell takes after him.
“He would tackle everybody. I got hit. His daddy got hit. My parents, he would tackle them. He would tackle my sister. He would tackle my brother. He would tackle all my other sons. He just liked to tackle.”
As Miller grew older, his family no longer caught the brunt of his physicality. He began playing “sideline bust” in the street with neighborhood kids. It’s a game of football on asphalt where you can tackle or “bust” someone near the side of the street if there’s grass to soften the fall.
Miller’s grandfather eventually had to change his grass.
“Between wrestling and all the kids playing tackle football,” Smith says, “my dad had to put some soft grass in the front yard.”
A passion to play
Despite Miller’s ability, football didn’t always come easy for him during his youth football days.
He dealt with asthma throughout elementary and middle school and it hindered his play on the field at times.
“Whenever he would get short of breath, he’d come to the sideline and we’d have his inhaler ready,” Smith says. “We’d fill up his lungs and send him back out there. He never stopped. He would hit his inhaler and keep going.”
Miller never experienced an asthma attack during a game, but he had several away from football. His mother estimates that four of the episodes resulted in trips to the emergency room.
“Some of the attacks were really, really bad,” Smith says. “We would have to go the E.R. because all you could hear him make was this whistling sound.”
Smith remembers a car ride home from Atlanta as the worst attack Miller ever had. By eighth grade, the asthma subsided and eventually he stopped using an inhaler.
But he never missed a game because of his asthma.
“He would die on the field before he came off it,” Smith says.
An injury for Miller in youth league resulted in a cast on his arm. Doctors advised he keep it on for several weeks, but he ignored their instructions and cut the cast off early.
“Well,” Miller says, “we had a game.”
Becoming a Gator
Miller played running back during as a kid, but his coach always told him he’d be a better linebacker.
With his penchant for contact, Miller gave it a shot on the first day of junior varsity tryouts at Kathleen High School in Lakeland, Fla.
“They were in position groups and I just jumped in the linebacker line,” Miller says. “I had made my mind up that I’m going to listen to what my coach had to say. I didn’t treat football like a priority until then.
“I got used to linebacker pretty quick and just started to like defense more when the season came. That whole ninth grade year I played linebacker, started learning new techniques and growing as a player.”
Miller moved up to varsity as a sophomore, then had a breakout junior year with 104 tackles. His recruitment took off after his 2015 highlights hit Hudl.com. However, Miller’s sophomore season is still his favorite.
“I got reps on defense, but I was mostly a special teams player and I got a whole bunch of crackbacks that year,” Miller says. “The front-line defenders on kickoff would make an X when we ran down the field, so I was crossing over to the right side and just knocking people out.”
Miller, who received more than 30 scholarship offers, committed to Florida last summer. Passing on the likes of Miami and North Carolina, Miller says relationships with defensive coordinator Randy Shannon and former secondary coach Torrian Gray (his area recruiter) played a huge role in his decision.
So did Florida’s lack of linebacker depth.
“It’s an opportunity and I’m trying to run with it,” Miller says. “Having the chance to compete and play as a freshman means a lot. They need linebackers and I feel like I can come in, fill a position and work my way to the top. I’m going to give it all I got and do my best.”
Miller is from the same high school as Ray Lewis, one of the greatest NFL linebackers of all time. Shannon served as Lewis’ position coach in all three of his years at the University of Miami (1993-95).
“That’s exciting,” Miller says of the Lewis-Shannon connection. “I know he’s going to develop me into a better linebacker. I’m just happy that I can work with a guy of that caliber who coached Ray Lewis and so many NFL players.
“When you’re a linebacker coming out of Kathleen, you always look up to Ray Lewis. He’s an example of what Lakeland can produce. To know where he came from and see where he’s at now, that’s big motivation.”
Miller met Lewis after his junior season at a football banquet in Lakeland. Lewis was the keynote speaker that night and Miller received an award.
Miller hopes to be in Lewis’ shoes one day, with the platform and notoriety to return to his hometown and give a motivational speech to aspiring football players.
But for the next four years, Miller doesn’t plan on doing much talking.
“I don’t really say too much,” Miller says. “But when it’s time to put that work in, you’ll see me.”
Florida beat writers Zach Abolverdi and Ryan Young are traveling around the country visiting the Gators’ 2017 signees for SEC Country’s “Next Generation” series. Read their past Next Generation stories at this link.