DENVER -- Through reflection, Von Miller found motivation.
To understand his path of discovery, you have to first go the Pro Bowl on Jan. 26 at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Fla., before it became a bubble sanctuary for professional sports. Miller prepared for another enjoyable game, smiling, laughing, rushing, while not worrying about tackling.
Then the news clobbered the players. Kobe Bryant was dead at age 41, perishing in a helicopter accident in southern California.
"It kind of struck me hard. That started it for me," Miller said. "It was hard to believe it was real."
The fragility of life on his mind, Miller tested positive for COVID-19. It scared him, and affected his lifestyle. With the pandemic gripping the country and Miller recovering, there were no trips to the Kentucky Derby and Coachella, no filming of commercials.
"I really just thought about what can I do with all of this time? Man, I am going to train everyday as much as I possibly can. That's what I did," Miller said. "I kind of got lost in that."
His body changing physically -- he has added muscle in his upper body -- his mental focus followed after watching "The Last Dance" documentary on the Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan. It forced a personal audit of last season, and Miller was not satisfied with the numbers.
"I asked myself, 'Hey, Michael Jordan was the best that ever played. Was I really making that commitment to the game? Was I really doing the same stuff he did?" Miller said Tuesday. "Kobe was one of the best to ever play. Was I doing the same things that Kobe was doing? Was I demanding more out of my teammates? Was I demanding more out of myself? I looked in the mirror, and I said I wasn't. I have just tried to change that."
It is a startling epiphany for a player entering his 10th season. At 31, years old, Miller boasts the type of resume that will land him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. When you are as good as him, seasons are measured in All-Pro honors and Super Bowl berths. Neither came last year as the Broncos suffered their third straight losing season for the first time since drought of 1963-72. Miller finished with eight sacks, his lowest total since 2013.
Broncos coach Vic Fangio mentioned last week that Miller was "hungrier" than in years past.
Miller's offseason provided a road map to his goals. Von read Bryant's book, "The Mamba Mentality: How I Play." He dissected Jordan's relentlessness.
"They would never ask their teammates to do something they wouldn't do themselves," Miller said. "I want my teammates to say things about me that they said about them."
These are legacy players who possessed the type of drive that danced between unhealthy and obsession. Miller has rolled up his sleeves in the past, his Quadzilla legs a testament to his training. But he's never dug deep into his own psyche or his way of interacting with teammates. Miller has always acted as caulking in the locker room, connecting guys at all positions with his outgoing personality.
This sits in juxtaposition to Kobe and Jordan, who were not remembered for making friends and keeping peace.
I asked Von if it was realistic to believe he could lead in this fashion, challenging players until they are uncomfortable.
"I might be 31 years old and year 10, but it's never too late to change. I have identified the leader I was before wasn't getting it done. It wasn't leading us to the right direction where we needed to be fast enough," Miller said. "I have to change, I have to demand more out of my teammates. But at the same time, I have to love on my teammates and let them know I appreciate them."
Therein lies the balance. Demanding respect while not losing yourself. Miller plans to talk with DeMarcus Ware and Peyton Manning, seeking advice. This is a crossroads season for Von, who has a club option for 2021, the last season of the contract he signed following his Super Bowl 50 MVP performance.
"I felt like I was a great leader before, but I shied away from being the No. 1 leader. Pressure is privilege," Miller said, explaining how his position has evolved. "To have that pressure to lead us to dominance, to lead us to Super Bowls, I want that pressure."