Wherever football takes Josh Miller, he makes sure to bring his red Nike shoes with him.
On the surface, they just look like a pair of worn out casual shoes, but for the first-year Winnipeg Blue Bombers defensive back, they're something he'll cherish forever.
After redshirting his first season at Ball State University, Miller's mom Toyia — who had previously beaten breast cancer — called him to inform him that the cancer had returned and that this time, it was everywhere. Soon after, the family had a mini vacation in Gatlinburg, Tenn., which is where Toyia bought Miller's Nike skateboarding shoes. A week later, Miller was back at Ball State preparing to play his first game when he got the call that his mother had died.
Those red sneakers have meant the world to him ever since.
"I keep those in the suitcase," said Miller, when asked if the shoes made the trip to Winnipeg.
"Around the house when I'm just walking around, if I'm feeling my mom that day, I just throw the shoes on."
After three years at Ball State, the 25-year-old from Indianapolis, Ind., took the shoes to the Motor City as he signed with the Detroit Lions as an undrafted free agent in 2019. He failed to make the team, but the Bombers ended up calling to give him another opportunity to make it in the pros. Miller has made the most of it so far, as he was one of three CFL newcomers, Deatrick Nichols and DeAundre Alford being the other two, to stand out in training camp and earn jobs in the Bombers secondary.
"I hope she's smiling. Every time I touch the field, I say a little prayer as I lace up my cleats and I tell God 'Hey, talk to my mom and let her know I'm playing today,'" Miller said.
"Hopefully she's watching. I hope she's smiling and I hope she's proud. I try to honour her every time I touch the field."
Miller has had his patience tested throughout his football career. He was a highly touted prospect in high school, but a shattered ankle prevented him from going straight to a Division 1 college. He had to start his college career at the NAIA level with Marian University before attracting the attention of Ball State where he had to sit out a year. Then after his brief time in the NFL, the global pandemic hits, forcing him, and so many others, to wait a full year before trying their hand at the CFL. Last Thursday's season-opening game against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats was an emotional night for Miller.
"I went out there for my first game and I had my helmet on and I was just super happy," he said.
"But, I had tears falling from face… not like sad tears, just happy tears. I was really overjoyed with being here. That’s just an example of how I feel. Tears, man."
With veteran defensive back Josh Johnson missing practice on Monday and Tuesday (Wednesday was a closed practice) with a head injury, Miller might be in line to make his first career start this week when the Bombers host the Toronto Argonauts on Friday. Miller, who had a pair of interceptions and six pass knockdowns as a senior, has been practising with the starters this week.
"I’m having a blast. Everything, all the adversity just made me grateful," said Miller. "Every day I’m just happy to be there. I’m surrounded by so many talented people I can’t believe I’m here. For me, I feel blessed, I feel grateful and I’m just really happy."
Miller hasn't had much time to learn the ropes of the Canadian game, but he's confident he'll be ready if his number is called on Friday.
"On the field, it's natural, it's genuine, it's authentic. It's what you've been doing since you were a kid in the backyard," he said.
"I just think about my family, I think about God when I'm out there, so I just try to honour them with the gifts I've been given. I just try and have fun, man. If you see me, I'll be smiling on the field. I'm gonna be smiling and having fun."
Having fun hasn't been an issue for Miller since landing in Winnipeg. "Oh yeah, they welcome that. They welcome personality here," he said.
"They want you to be yourself, be transparent, and show them that you want to be a part of the team by just opening up and being yourself. They've welcomed me from Day 1, so I feel like I'm part of the team and can just be myself. That helps me play better, too."
Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of.