Long before Christian Miller was chasing down quarterbacks in the backfield, he was hunting a different kind of prey in the backyard of his childhood home in Columbia, South Carolina.
Using a BB gun, Miller took aim at squirrels. He practiced and practiced until he was a deadly accurate shot.
Then, in an effort to better utilize the squirrels he was shooting with an increasing amount of success, Miller went about learning how to skin the small animals.
“I had watched the videos and stuff trying to figure it out,” Miller said. “It was a little trial-and-error, but I eventually figured it out and it was pretty easy. I had hopes of like making a wallet or something out of the pelts.”
The dream of crafting a squirrel-wallet never came to fruition, but he did learn how to turn his victims into dinner.
“I remember it because he used to tear up my kitchen scissors,” his mom, Lisa Miller, said. “I tried a little bit of what he cooked. He said it (the squirrel) tasted like chicken. I don’t think it tasted quite like chicken.”
Whether hunting squirrels or determining the best way to bring opposing quarterbacks down, Alabama outside linebacker Christian Miller is, and always has been, a perfectionist.
When the redshirt senior was attending preschool at Chesterbrook Academy, his mom remembers Christian’s teacher providing her with daily updates on how many pieces of paper he would crumple up and throw away until he was finally satisfied with a picture he drew. Very seldom, if ever, was it only one.
Christian’s pursuit of perfection was innate. The work ethic that has powered that pursuit was something he learned from watching his mother.
After his parents got divorced – Christian’s father, Corey Miller, played nine years in the National Football League – the future Alabama player and his older brother C.J. primarily lived with their mom. Christian was still around his dad constantly and maintained a strong relationship with him, but Lisa was the boys’ main provider.
She worked as an assistant principal during the day. She also got a job working from home for Blue Cross. After she put the boys to bed around eight, she would hop on the computer and go back to work for several more hours.
“Ultimately, I grew up with my mom,” Miller said. “Seeing her have to – she worked two jobs, worked her tail off, just to provide for us. I think seeing that drives me, especially now. She still works overtime just to make enough to support us. I think that’s where I get it from.
“I’ve seen her not order herself so she’d have enough money to pay the bills. But she’d get me and my brother food. It’s little things like that, I think, that’s always stuck in my mind.”
Christian’s bond to his mom was solidified by watching her sacrifices.
“The boys lived with me most of the time, and I think they kind of watched and saw everything that I was doing and trying to do to make sure things remained constant for them and they didn’t miss a beat,” Lisa said. “I think we were very open. We’d talk about a lot of things. I think that’s what makes the relationship close.”
As Christian got older, he continued to hunt. He eventually graduated from the backyard to open forest, and from squirrels to deer. He continued to play football as well, flourishing in the sport he’d been around his entire life.
Having racked up an astonishing 188 tackles and 24 sacks in his senior season at Spring Valley High School, Christian established himself as a four-star recruit and the top prospect from the state of South Carolina in the 2014 class. College coaches from around the country vied for his talents, including Alabama’s Nick Saban.
Knowing that Christian’s connection with his mother was deeply rooted, Saban centered his recruiting pitch on winning her over.
“I remember when he came to our home for the home visit, and I was a little nervous at first because obviously Coach Saban is coming to your house,” Lisa said. “But when he came and we started talking, one of the things he said to me was, ‘I know you guys are very close. I’ve got to convince you if Christian is going to come to Alabama.’”
The prospect was highly sought-after, but in the end, Saban got the stamp of approval from both Christian and his mom.
For Christian, there was the draw of playing for one of the top programs in the country and being coached by one of the most successful coaches to ever do it. Beyond that, he was attracted to the idea of getting to practice and play with the best players in the country. It was a perfectionist’s dream school.
“The fact that I knew, as a skinny, raw player, I could go to a place like Alabama that’s known for the biggest, strongest, fastest, most physical players, then I’m going to ultimately become that,” Christian said.
The process of transforming himself into one of the Alabama players that he looked up to would not be easy. When he arrived in Tuscaloosa, Christian estimated that he weighed around 200 pounds. For reference, current Crimson Tide running back Najee Harris weighs in at 220. The first step to becoming the biggest, strongest and fastest player was to bulk up.
When Christian would finish off his first helping of food at breakfast or dinner, he’d gobble down another. Even when he was full. Before he would go to sleep every night, he’d gulp down a smoothie packed with 1,500 calories. Even when it made it impossible to get rest because his stomach ached. Once practices concluded, he’d make his way to the weight room and pump out extra reps of curls or pushups. Even when he was exhausted.
The 6-foot-4 linebacker has now bulked up to 244 pounds.
“It’s not easy, but again, that’s what makes it so much better now,” Christian said. “I’m in a position where I’m having some success on the field. Things are playing out really well because I know everything that I’ve done. I was even doing that in high school, so I’ve been doing this for eight years now in terms of physically getting to where I need to be.”
It was during the bulking-up period that Christian discovered his ideal breakfast food. He tried breakfast bowls and oatmeal but eventually settled on SpaghettiOs.
“It sounds crazy,” he said. “They have good calories and are easy to eat. I can finish them in 2 minutes and get on with my day.”
The habits Christian adopted while he was trying to gain weight have not dissipated with time. Even today he can be found in the Crimson Tide’s weight room when its mostly empty, if only to fend off the paranoia, the voice in his head that tells him he’s getting worse.
“It’s instilled in me,” Christian said. “I feel like I have to get some type of workout in, eat a certain amount.”
Christian contributed on special teams in his sophomore campaign and was poised for an expanded role last season before tearing a bicep in Alabama’s season opener against Florida State. It sidelined him for the next 10 games. Christian did recover in time to sack Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm in the national championship game.
The time away from the game may have been fuel to the fire, according to Christian’s former strength coach and family friend Mike Armstrong. Armstrong played with Corey Miller at South Carolina, and his son Clay introduced Christian to deer hunting.
“I’m one of those people who thinks everything happens for a reason,” Armstrong said. “I believe when he got injured last year it made him really hungry.”
It may have been the countless hours he spent honing his craft or the injury that delayed his time even further, but Christian has competed with a heightened sense of purpose this season.
He’s second on the team in sacks with 7.5, has amassed 26 tackles and has recovered a fumble.
There’s a clock in Christian’s head. It counts the seconds it takes him to reach the quarterback. When he’s not on the field, it’s counting down the time he has left at Alabama.
“I’m very aware of time,” Christian said. “Just knowing that it’s my final year, unfortunately I lost most of last year, so I just knew that this year, I wanted to do whatever it takes to leave my mark.”