FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — The video clip lives on the internet, just a few clicks away for anyone inordinately interested in the 2013 NFL combine. There, you’ll see Rontez Miles perform the 40-yard dash and the vertical jump for 32 professional football teams, all while wearing the crest of one of them on his left shoulder.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are, quite literally, on Miles’ flesh and in his blood, courtesy of a tattoo that was plainly visible during the combine (they were made to wear cut-off shirts, he said ruefully).
“(It’s a) tattoo that I can’t wash off,” the Jets safety said as training camp was drawing to a close this summer. “My family recorded the combine and we're watching it and during all the ball drills I remember one of the guys saying, ‘Well, you know where he's trying to go.’ (He said) that (the tattoo) might not help. But this tattoo is so old.”
Miles, now 30, got it shortly after high school, four years before the combine. But though he didn’t get drafted, it worked out in the end. He’s spent his entire professional career with the Jets and enters the season backing up Marcus Maye at free safety. But despite the different allegiance, the Steelers tattoo remains as an ode to a tight-knit Pittsburgh football community that fostered his growth and his love for this sport, the one that’s helped define his life since Pop Warner.
On this day ahead of the Jets final preseason game, Miles slips off the arm of his sweatshirt to show the ink. It’s surrounded by more tattoos than he had in 2013, but the Steelers logo is dark and bold, and prominent enough that it’s still hard to miss.
“The whole family” would watch the Steelers, he said, “before you’re even old enough to know what’s on TV . . . I think they're one of the main reasons why I even play football or defense on top of that, because there's a big traditional thing in Pittsburgh — the defense, it's always been a Steeler show.”
Of course, he loved Troy Polamalu, the eight-time Pro Bowl safety. “You've got Jerome Bettis, you got Lethon Flowers. I can go all day. Kordell Stewart — Slash — he was one of my guys. Man, and the list goes on. Those guys kind of made me who I am.”
Miles became a safety for Woodland Hills High School his sophomore year. The colors were teal and black and they were so known for their defense and became known as the “Teal Curtain.” The Steelers references didn’t end there. Miles himself was sometimes called Polamalu. On Sundays, or whenever else the Steelers were playing, members of the football team would congregate to watch. They had all been playing together for more than a decade, save for a few exceptions, like the new kid, Rob Gronkowski.
“Those were some of the best times of my life,” Miles said. “When you get into high school, it's all teenagers and just like screaming and loud music and you can't focus on the game…(There was) a lot of joking going on…but for me, I used to be that main one that, through all the ruckus, was trying to focus on the games.”
Miles was in high school in 2005 for Super Bowl XL, the first Steelers Super Bowl victory since 1979. He was in his first year at the California University of Pennsylvania in 2009, when they won again. The Penguins won the Stanley Cup, too, that year, Miles points out. Pittsburgh felt unstoppable.
“It was amazing,” he said.
And though he’s basically been in the NFL since 2013, Miles mostly hasn’t met any of his Steeler idols, though he hopes to, he said. Save for one, that is.
“Hines Ward is one of my favorites,” Miles said. You know, Hines Ward, arguably the best Steelers wide receiver of all time, and a Jets coaching intern.
“I remember seeing him and I walked up to him and I was like, just a disbelief,” Miles said. "I know I'm a pro athlete, too, but I told him I need a picture eventually. My mom and everybody will go crazy.”