Shareef Miller had a lot to process when he arrived on the Penn State campus from North Philadelphia to begin college as a student and football player.
Only weeks earlier, his older brother, 25-year-old Mikal Powell-Miller, had been shot to death during an argument in West Philadelphia. Miller had second thoughts about leaving for college, heading to a place far different from the inner city where he grew up and separating from his mother, who had cared for him and his five siblings.
However, Miller slowly settled into college life while redshirting his first year. Now 21 and in his fourth year in the program, the 6-foot-5, 260-pound defensive end has transformed himself. He is the leader on the defensive line, respected by all his teammates and coaches and, in particular, by head coach James Franklin.
"I couldn't be more proud of him, the type of teammate he is, the type of student he's become, the type of player he is, and a leader," Franklin said at his weekly teleconference.
"He's worked for everything that he's got, hasn't been given anything. I think Shareef's a great example of why we're in college athletics. To think about Shareef back in high school when I met him and we started recruiting him, and to see where he is now, I'm really proud. He was a great kid coming out of high school, but like all of us, he was immature and needed to grow up and evolve, and he has.
Miller, a rehabilitation and human services major, appreciated Franklin's comments.
"He gave me the opportunity here when I was a recruit," he said. "He told me, 'I'll give you every opportunity in the world, but you've got to earn it.' He kept his word on that, and I kept my word. I just worked for everything."
Miller credited his mother, Tekeya Cook; defensive-line coach Sean Spencer; and defensive coordinator Brent Pry as three of the people who helped him the most.
"They gave me confidence and told me the things I have to do," he said. "Just as far as being older and more mature, like I would say from the time I got here to now, I changed like crazy. I'm more of a vocal leader. When I first got here, I didn't really talk a lot. I was kind of like in the back, kind of in a shell.
"But being more comfortable around everybody, I just evolved, established relationships with all my coaches and my teammates and stuff like that. That really helped me along the way."
Miller, who began high school at Frankford but transferred to George Washington for his senior year, made third-team all-Big Ten last year after leading the Nittany Lions with five sacks and 11 tackles for losses. He also has made great strides as a leader.
"It's crazy, but I'm the oldest guy now at end," he said. "I've got to lead these guys right. I've got to do the right thing and encourage them and stuff like that. Whatever I do, whatever I ask them to do, reflects on the defense and the defensive line."
That leadership will be key Saturday night when the Lions play Pittsburgh at a sold-out Heinz Field. Miller remembers the unfriendly environment from his team's 2016 visit.