With just eight seconds remaining in the first half of the NFC Championship Game on Jan. 24, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers nursed a 14-10 advantage over the Green Bay Packers and needed only a few yards to comfortably kick a field goal and increase their lead. But the Buccaneers decided against going the safe route.
At the snap, Scotty Miller, Tampa Bay’s diminutive white wide receiver who was lined up at the top of the formation, took off on a straight line to the end zone. Green Bay defensive back Kevin King backpedaled alongside him.
It was clear within a nanosecond that King, who had no safety help behind him, had made a terrible mistake in how he’d chosen to cover the speedy Miller. Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady, seeing the same thing, launched the ball in Miller’s direction as the camera operator showed Miller blowing past King. The ball dropped into Miller’s hands like a breadbasket. The last-second score put the Buccaneers up 21-10 at halftime, a lead they would never surrender on their way to securing a spot in Sunday’s Super Bowl in Tampa, Florida.
— Nick Sitro (@nicksitro) January 25, 2021
Social media was its humorous self following the Miller touchdown. “My boy Scotty Miller proving us white people can run,” wrote one user. “Clap if you got burnt by white boy Scotty Miller,” wrote another atop a GIF of King clapping during a previous Packers game.
A day later, Hall of Fame wide receiver Cris Carter put into context what most of America was thinking when it witnessed Miller’s catch over King.
“The defensive back … underestimated that white kid,” Carter said on The Pat McAfee Show. “If that had been [Buccaneers receiver] Antonio Brown, he would have backed off him.
“Never disrespect the talent level of anyone in the National Football League.”
Miller’s touchdown was a catalyst for the Buccaneers advancing to the Super Bowl against the Kansas City Chiefs, but his mere presence also tests our assumptions about race and the stereotypes it can fabricate in sports.
Sports, American or otherwise, is a system composed of sociological binaries. Black athletes are athletically exceptional while white athletes are intellectually superior. Black athletes are naturally gifted; white athletes have to work harder to make up for their lack of natural athleticism. Black men can jump; white men … can’t.
But those stereotypes can easily be turned on their heads. Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James is one of the smartest athletes ever, while a white man, Georgia track and field’s Matthew Boling, is positioned to be the next great American sprinter.
For Miller, that is manifested in how he’s perceived as a wide receiver, in how defenders choose to cover him. Will he be pressed at the line? Is there safety help for the cornerback covering him? What happens if you don’t do that? Ask Buccaneers cornerback Carlton Davis.
Just as in the case of New Orleans Saints quarterback Taysom Hill, there can be an element of, bet he won’t do that to me in how athletic white guys are viewed in the sports landscape. Society has been conditioned to believe that there are a set of rules when it comes to athleticism – and intelligence – in sports.
“I think that’s definitely an element to consider,” said Miller, 23, when asked if a misconstruction of his speed contributes to how he’s covered by defenses. “I think people underestimate my speed, but at the end of the day … if anyone’s looking at their scouting report, they should know that I’m usually the speed guy on whatever team I’m on.
“I’m guessing the Packers had a pretty good idea that’s what I do, I go deep. I guess you can chalk it up a little bit to them not expecting much out of me, but I think they probably had a pretty good idea I could run.”
There’s a theory in football that players who are both short and fast are normally thrown into one of two position groups, depending heavily on their race. Short and fast Black players are pushed toward playing defensive back while short and fast white players are shifted into slot receivers.
For Miller, who is 5-foot-9, that was originally the opposite. At Barrington (Illinois) High School, he spent time at running back, safety and return specialist in his first two seasons. It wasn’t until Miller’s burgeoning track and field career began to take off that assistant coach Todd Kuklinski, who is also the school’s track coach, realized receiver was where Miller could be most successful given his speed.
Miller was naturally gifted as a sprinter, but his competitive nature is what Kuklinski believes helped turn him into one of the fastest sprinters in the state.
During his junior year, Miller sent Kuklinski a video of himself practicing on the starting blocks inside the high school during winter break, when students were not supposed to be there. But that’s how much Miller wanted to get better. To this day, Kuklinski doesn’t know how Miller got inside the building.
“It didn’t matter if it was spring break or Christmas break or summer break, he was going to work and work and just do whatever he needed to do to be successful,” Kuklinski said.
When Miller lined up for a race, he had every intention of winning. He wasn’t happy just to be there. His confidence has been described as tenacious; every race was do-or-die.
At the 2015 Illinois state championship, Miller, the anchor on the 400-meter relay, received the baton with his team in fifth place near the top of the exchange zone. He proceeded to run down every team in front of him, including the No. 1 relay team in the state. Kuklinski clocked him at a 9.6-second split.
“People were in shock,” said Kuklinski.
Titus Booker, a rival sprinter in high school, said that whenever Miller competed, “he was set to teach them a lesson.” Booker, who played football for two years at Wisconsin, doesn’t know if that had anything to do with wanting to show he belonged because he was white, but Booker has witnessed others second-guess Miller, especially in football.
The mistake that King made in the NFC Championship Game was the same mistake defensive backs made against Miller in high school, where Miller accounted for more than 1,300 yards and 17 touchdowns his senior year. Playing Miller too close on the line of scrimmage. Underestimating his speed.
“He forgot who Scotty was,” Booker said, referring to King. “I can imagine it’s frustrating for [Miller].”
Despite interest from the track programs at Illinois and Michigan, Miller received only one full scholarship offer by his senior year, which was to play football at Bowling Green.
“Scotty failed every eye test when he was 17,” Miller’s father, Scott, told the Daily Herald about his son’s lack of recruitment coming out of high school. “People have a hard time believing what’s in front of their eyes sometimes.”
When then-Bowling Green offensive coordinator Kevin Kilmer first saw Miller run he, too, was caught off guard by just how fast the white kid was. Kilmer formerly coached in the Big 12, which means he’s seen speed speed. Miller measured up.
“It is surprising, and it’ll shock you,” said Kilmer, now the offensive coordinator at Angelo State. “But you better figure it out pretty quick or he’s going to continue to go by you.”
By Miller’s senior season at Bowling Green, the Falcons’ coaching staff schemed ways to get him the ball in different areas of the field to optimize his speed and route-running ability. On some plays he’d be in the slot on the left or spread out to the right. Or he’d line up on one side and motion to another position on the other.
That was no more evident than his senior season in 2018, when Bowling Green played No. 24 Oregon in the season opener. He used his quickness to catch a 6-yard touchdown from a slant route, but he also blew past his defender on a go-route for a 63-yard score. All in all, he had 13 receptions for 166 yards and two scores against one of the top teams in the Pac-12.
“That’s the game … where I knew this dude can really, really play at the next level,” Kilmer said.
Miller finished his career ranked third in school history in receptions (215) and receiving yards (2,867), and in his senior year ranked seventh in the country in receiving yards per game (104.4).
At Miller’s pro day, Buccaneers offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich was rooting for Miller to not run fast in the 40-yard dash, as he wanted the receiver to be his little secret.
“I knew if he runs as fast as I thought he would, that would open the eyes of a lot of people,” Leftwich said.
Miller proceeded to run a 4.39. Leftwich thought to himself at the time, “Yes, that won’t trigger … people to look this guy up and see what he is.” The Buccaneers took Miller in the sixth round of the 2019 draft.
Because of his size and skin complexion, there’s an inclination to compare Miller to every other white receiver in the history of the NFL. But while Miller may look like Wes Welker, Julian Edelman or Danny Amendola, he shares little in common with them.
For one, Miller isn’t a “slant boy” whose routes take him only 7 yards down the field. Miller has averaged 15.2 yards per reception in his two-year career. Welker, Edelman or Amendola never averaged 15 yards per reception in a single season (minimum 30 receptions).
Also, Miller is not a slot receiver. The Buffalo Bills’ Cole Beasley, another white receiver who looks like Miller, lined up in the slot position for a league-leading 87.1% of the time this season. Miller lined up in the slot 23% of the time. He’s every bit the downfield threat as Chiefs receiver Tyreek Hill.
Fellow Buccaneers receiver Mike Evans has played alongside speedsters such as DeSean Jackson, Chris Godwin and Brown. Whenever he runs mirrored go-routes with teammates, he gauges how fast they are going by who makes it down the field faster.
When he and Miller ran the same go-route, “[Miller] was a couple of yards ahead of me.”
Miller, for his part, hasn’t acknowledged how race plays a part in his journey. But he’s alluded to as much.
“It’s a crazy underdog story, just kind of been doubted my whole life because of my size,” he said when asked about making it from Barrington all the way to the Super Bowl. “… And other things as well.”
In the grand scheme of things, Miller’s race shouldn’t – and doesn’t – matter. But as much as many would like to ignore race in sports, it’s something we’re all aware of. A receiver catching a long touchdown has been done thousands of times. A Black player running a sub-4.4 40-yard dash is just another day that ends in y.
But enjoying white athletes excelling in sports is one of the few shared experiences of all Americans. It explains Boling and Larry Bird and “White Donte” DiVincenzo and Josh Allen. We all recognize that this doesn’t normally happen.
The NFC championship play could have been many things, including a defensive breakdown, but at the heart of it, the Packers didn’t appear to respect that the little white guy could run past them, as Carter mentioned.
Which brings to mind something Booker said about stereotypes in sports, but could be applied to society in general, whether talking about white or Black people.
“If you have that prejudice, if you have any type of stereotype,” he said, “you’re going to pay the price for it one day.”