Christian Miller’s biggest moment came just a week before his mother’s, and they wouldn’t have it any other way.
On April 26, Miller was selected in the fourth round of the 2019 NFL draft by the Carolina Panthers.
A few days later, Lisa Miller earned her Master’s degree from the University of Alabama.
And both of them found the drive to succeed through the adversity they both faced.
Lisa Miller and her two children, Christian and C.J., have been remarkably close since she divorced amicably from their father, former NFL player and radio personality Corey Miller, and became their primary caretaker more than a decade ago. She didn’t want her pre-teen sons to share her own challenges of single parenthood.
“They were (and are) great kids who didn’t deserve to be without because their parents were no longer together,” she told the Observer this week. “They were my main focus. They came first.”
So during the day, Lisa Miller served as principal of the elementary school that both Christian and C.J., older by a year, also attended in Columbia. And at night, when she thought her sons were asleep, she worked for Blue Cross into the early morning hours at her home computer.
“I watched her work two jobs, I watched her work 10-, 11-hour days full time and then come home and work on the computer,” he told the Observer. “I watched her pass up on meals so me and my brother could eat.”
“I think they were aware,” she laughed. “They were really good kids. They knew mom was giving it her all ...They were just enthusiastic about making it easy for me.”
Christian Miller says that his mother’s strength and resolve through that part of their lives taught him everything he’s needed to know about handling challenges.
“That’s something I like to pride myself on, being mentally tough,” he said, choking up a little after his first NFL practice at the Panthers’ rookie minicamp earlier this month. “I speak with my mom all the time and she’s my hero, just seeing all of the things she’s done for me growing up, and that’s kind of where I get it from.
“She’s an inspiration to me. The support she gives me, everything I do I like to do in her honor. Because as long as I’m making her proud, I’m happy.”
Miller needed those lessons in mental fortification early, because he had his fair share of setbacks at Alabama. A four-star outside linebacker recruit out of Spring Valley High School in Columbia, Miller had to wait his turn to see the field as a redshirt freshman, then played in a situational role in which he kept getting hurt.
Even during his best year, his senior season last fall in which he racked up 8.5 sacks, Miller dealt with challenges. He pulled his hamstring during the college football playoff semifinal while chasing former Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray and missed the national championship game.
Still, Miller remained positive. With his father alongside, he attacked the months-long, pre-draft process with gusto, despite knowing he’d have to convince teams he could stay healthy.
During that process, Miller also stayed in close contact with his mother. She had moved to Tuscaloosa, Ala., after C.J. got a basketball scholarship to Shelton State, a junior college in the area, so that she could be closer to both sons.
Lisa Miller took a job at Alabama, where she discovered that university employees can take classes at a discounted rate, and decided to apply for her post-graduate degree.
As Christian and Corey traveled across the country interviewing with teams — including the Panthers — Lisa Miller buried herself in her class work as final exams approached.
The timing of Lisa and Christian’s studies overlapped. After earning a degree in exercise science, Christian pursued a Master’s in sports business management; Lisa’s post-graduate work was in health studies. The two would compare notes, celebrate grades and even compete a little bit for the highest marks as they approached graduation day.
“The boys have been my biggest cheerleaders through this whole ‘going back to school thing,’” she said. “Watching him get his Master’s in December was great, and I knew mine was just around the corner.”
In between the two graduations, of course, was the NFL draft. After Christian got the phone call from Panthers general manager Marty Hurney and head coach Ron Rivera, he was immediately immersed in the chaos of a rookie’s first year in the league. He had to prepare for rookie minicamp, deal with the first wave of sponsorships, meet his coaching staff, get his uniform and equipment locked in, and hold his first media interviews.
So when Lisa Miller’s moment to walk across the stage came just days after the draft, a small part of her feared that Christian wouldn’t be able to see it.
But when she sat down before the ceremony, she saw both sons sitting in front of her in the audience, looking up to her as they always have.
“And I see them, and they have flowers ... ” she said as her voice trailed off into tears.
“They had flowers in their hands, they were beautiful. And they had these, I think they’re called ‘Build-A-Head’, where you (enlarge) and print out somebody’s face, it was my face.
“And they were holding up these faces, and I could see them just beaming.”
Afterward, she pored over her sons’ iPhone videos of the ceremony, to hear them proudly narrate her every move.
“I still get teary-eyed when I think about it,” she said. “Because my motivation for doing that was to show my boys that whatever you’re given in life, whatever you’re handed, make the most of it.”
“As much as I did it for me, I also did it for them to show them that they could do it.”