Brother's death inspired Penn State's Shareef Miller to escape violent North Philly streets

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - Shareef Miller remembers the three phone calls as if he just received them.

It was May 2015, nearing the end of his senior year at George Washington High School. Classes had just let out when his phone rang the first time.

His mother, Tekeya Cook, was hysterical. Shareef's 25-year-old brother, Mikal Powell-Miller, had been shot four times following an argument in West Philadelphia.

When the phone rang again, Shareef, now a Penn State redshirt freshman defensive end, didn't answer. He didn't want to hear that his brother and best friend was gone. But he knew.

When Cook finally got through to her son, he dropped his phone and wept outside their North Philadelphia home.

Then he shut down.

"I didn't talk to people for weeks. I didn't even want to come to Penn State," said Shareef, whose Nittany Lions will face Southern California in the Jan. 2 Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. "Sometimes I would get on myself, like 'I wish I was there.' If I was there, I probably could've done something. . . ."

On Miller's road from Frankford's Whitehall housing project to State College, there were many obstacles. There were many times it would have been easier for the defensive end to quit, to stop practicing and studying and instead take up a life in the streets like many of his childhood friends.

Judging by odds alone, Miller knows he shouldn't be here, wearing grey Penn State football sweats and chatting with a reporter inside Penn State's Lasch Football Building.

But Miller was not raised to quit.

He learned toughness by example. He watched his mother care for him and his five siblings, all while never missing a football or basketball game. He remembers how his late brother would tackle him on the concrete during pickup football games when they were kids.

After redshirting last year, Miller logged two sacks and five tackles in Penn State's season-opening win over Kent State. Afterward, Miller dedicated his first college game to his brother, who has become a constant source of motivation.

"What has upset me the most was he came to all my games and he hasn't been able to see me play in college," Miller said. "Coming from where we came from, we ain't seen nothing like this. . . . I just want him to see."

Miller has played football since he was 6 years old. Except for a few weeks in 10th grade. After finishing his Pop Warner career with the Frankford Chargers, he decided he wasn't going to go out for the Frankford High School team. His mom cried.

He just didn't love it anymore, he told her, not the way he loved basketball, the sport his older brother, Mikal, played.

It didn't take long for Shareef to miss football. After a Frankford win, he saw a photo of his former teammates in the newspaper.

"I was like, 'Dang, I'm trying to be like that in the newspaper,' " Miller said with a laugh.

Miller returned to the team in time for its third game of the season and quickly made an impact. By his junior year, he was a star, receiving an early scholarship offer from Rutgers and earning first-team all-Southeastern Pennsylvania honors from the Inquirer.

But as Miller excelled on the field, he struggled in the classroom. He was being recruited by about two dozen Division-I schools, but it didn't look like he was going to make the mark academically.

Before his senior year, his mother made a decision. Miller was going to transfer to George Washington High School, a new environment where he could focus on getting his grades up.

Miller wasn't happy. Not only did he have to start a new school as a senior, but Frankford and George Washington were rivals. Looking back now, however, he sees how that decision changed his life.

"If my mom never made that decision to go to Washington, I would've never been here," he said. "I would've been at junior college."

Miller eventually did get his grades up and scored well enough on the ACT to get into Penn State, which had been recruiting him since the fall of 2014.

But after his brother died, college and football didn't seem to matter. Nothing did.

Mikal Powell-Miller was Shareef's best friend and, in many ways, his role model.

Mikal was a genuine person, someone everyone wanted to be around, Shareef recalled. He dressed well. He never had trouble talking to girls, often reminding Shareef not to be so shy around them.

And when it came to his family, Mikal was fiercely loyal.

Shareef knew about the life his brother led in the streets. He knew about the violence and the guns.

"That's where you're raised, that's what you know," Shareef said. "We didn't know anything else."

But when Shareef was around, Mikal tried to shield his younger brother from all that. Mikal wanted a different life for Shareef.

So, even in his grief, Shareef knew he couldn't pass up the opportunity to play football at Penn State, a place he was drawn to for its family atmosphere and proximity to home.

"I had to beat the odds," Miller said. "I couldn't stay in Philly. I ain't going to be nobody in Philly."

Leaving wasn't easy.

Miller had to get used to the quiet in State College, to sleeping without the sounds of police cars and ambulances, to not worrying about walking at night like he did back home.

To make sure he stayed out of trouble, he cut off all but a few childhood friends.

"They're still doing the same stuff, still on the corner," Miller said. "None of my friends went to college. Some of them didn't even make it out of high school."

He also had to watch his roommate, St. Joseph's Prep graduate John Reid, play every week while Miller redshirted.

Hardest of all, Miller said, was being away from his mother, whom he calls at least once a day.

Miller's ultimate goal is to play in the NFL and to make enough money so he can move his family out of North Philadelphia.

To get there, he knows he has to keep working.

"I think he has tasted success," coach James Franklin said after Miller's first game. "He is practicing at a much higher level right now. . . . I'm excited about his future."

Miller played in 13 games this season and logged 22 tackles.

"I left some money on the table this year," Miller said, "on a couple plays."

In the offseason, he wants to get faster and stronger and to improve as a pass rusher.

But before he can get to his winter to-do list, Miller has one more game: the Rose Bowl.

With the high price of plane tickets, his mother likely won't be able to make the trip to Pasadena, Miller said. But he knows that back home she will be cheering for him, like she has his whole life.

As for Miller, this will be his first visit to California. And when he walks into the Rose Bowl stadium for the first time, Miller will think of his brother Mikal and wish he could see.