Bryan Mills looks into the camera, flashes three fingers, engulfed in a full-on celebration with his teammates.
It’s Sept. 28, 2019, and the North Carolina Central Eagles are taking on the Morgan State Bears, their fifth game of the FCS season.
Mills provided that spark. The players and coaches knew the Eagles defensive back’s talent and potential. They knew he possessed an innate understanding of football, coupled with a relentless work ethic.
After Morgan State, the college football world knew Mills. It started with a play-action pass, where the opposing quarterback DeAndre Harris heaved a pass to the end zone. Underthrown, Mills jumped up and grabbed the ball at the 1-yard line, his first interception of the game. The second takeaway again came in the red zone, with Harris throwing to an outside receiver. Mills was underneath him the entire route, snatching the pass. Morgan State backup DJ Golatt came into the game and he drew up a play-action pass to the near-side receiver, only for Mills to jump up and grab the ball out of the air.
The 27-17 victory for the Eagles represents one of Mills’ signature performances. Three interceptions, two of which prevented touchdowns, tied a North Carolina Central record. Three interceptions earned Mills Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) and FCS Defensive Player of the Week honors. Three interceptions are what many cornerbacks aspire to achieve for a given season. Mills achieved it in one game.
As the NFL draft starts on Thursday, highlights such as Mills’ three interceptions against Morgan State stand out. Hard work and blocking out the doubters are integral fabrics of Mills’ character.
“I’ve put in a lot of hard work over the last seven years to get to this point,” Mills said. “I’m really looking forward to showcasing my talent and being great.”
Aspiring to excellence
On Dec. 19, 2010, Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson returned a punt 65 yards for a game-winning touchdown against the New York Giants. Known as the “Miracle at the New Meadowlands,” the game’s impact didn’t just reside in the Philadelphia and New York areas. It inspired a young Bryan Mills, who watched the game unfold with his grandfather Stephen, to pursue football. When he first took up the game in eighth grade, he wore a jersey with the No. 10, the same as Jackson.
“I was watching the replay on SportsCenter. Everyone at school was talking about it,” Mills said. “It was something I wanted to do.”
Mills grew up in Palmdale, California, a city due north of Los Angeles in the heart of the desert. He lived with his grandparents, Stephen and Carolyn, throughout the formative years of his childhood. Mills learned accountability and doing the right thing from his grandparents, and he continues to apply them in his daily life.
“Having integrity, having those core values, that’s what takes you further in life,” Mills said. “They really instilled that into me while growing up. I’ve never changed from that.”
Before football, Mills participated in martial arts, earning his black belt. While never using his moves away from the ring, Mills learned discipline and competition. He harnessed a competitive spirit, fueling his desire to be the best. When he transitioned to football, the athletic talent was apparent. Playing on the field required patience.
Mills enrolled at nearby Quartz Hill High School. James Vondra was in his first year coaching football at Quartz Hill when Mills was a freshman. Mills was part of a talented freshman class, and Vondra remembers him as a small guy who was all “elbows and knees.” It took three years before Mills made the varsity team as a starter, playing both wide receiver and defensive back. According to Vondra, it demonstrates Mills’ perseverance and discipline to remain focused on getting better.
“Bryan always used to come to me and ask, ‘What do I need to do to get to the level of the best guys?’ ” Vondra said. “He wanted to be an important piece of the program. He continued to work and always had a great attitude.”
Stephen Mills kept a close eye on his grandson when he was at Quartz. The support at home was crucial as Mills navigated high school, balancing football with academics. Vondra ensured Mills prepared on and off the field. However, when Mills required refocusing, his grandfather provided it.
“His grandfather was an important part of his life,” Vondra said. “He made Bryan remember what’s important. He shaped who Bryan is today.”
In his senior year, Mills played 14 games, getting better every week. In the Division 11 championship game against Valley View High School, Mills made five catches, each one in a spectacular, one-on-one fashion, putting Quartz Hill in a position to win the game.
Mills, unfortunately, left the game due to injury. Despite Quartz Hill’s loss, the teenager had the most catches and yards for the team. From making difficult catches to covering the opposing team’s best receivers, Mills thrives in the big games.
“He always wanted to cover the best guy,” Vondra said. “Bryan just had this inner belief that he knew he wasn’t going to get beat.”
Mills never received any Division I offers coming out of high school. As Vondra remembers, Mills wanted to enlist in the military.
“Go to a junior college and see what happens,” Vondra told Mills.
Mills enrolled at Antelope Valley, a local community college near where he grew up. He started as a cornerback and made all-conference in his first year. No offers came. This prompted Mills to transfer to the College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita, California, 40 miles away from Palmdale. Under the leadership of head coach Ted Iacenda, College of the Canyons is one of the premier junior colleges in the United States. Through rigorous training and competition, Iacenda is squashing misconceptions regarding jucos.
“We try to model our program like D-I,” Iacenda said. “Our strength and conditioning are very, very difficult. It’s often hard for kids coming out of other junior colleges to get acclimated. What we saw in Bryan is a young man with an unrivaled tenacity.”
Coaches say he continuously improves
When Mills arrived at the College of the Canyons, he played with five Division I-caliber defensive backs. While they all competed for playing time, Mills describes a sense of camaraderie among his secondary teammates, relying on each other’s presence to be better players on and off the field.
“Those are close friends of mine to this day,” Mills said of his defensive back teammates at the Canyons. “We always pushed each other to be our best. It was iron sharpening iron.”
Iacenda saw firsthand how Mills was going to outwork anybody. A student of the game, Mills was extremely coachable, listening in film sessions and willing to learn new techniques that the coaches wanted him to employ. Every detail of every coverage and route combination, Mills learned. His ability to learn, according to Iacenda, made Mills “deadly on the field.”
The cornerback played eight games for the Cougars in 2018, in both the secondary and special teams. In a game against Long Beach, Mills covered one of the slot receivers, who later received an offer to the University of Hawaii.
It was one of Mills’ standout games at the College of the Canyons.
“He did a phenomenal job locking up one of the best guys we saw all year,” said College of the Canyons defensive coordinator Dan Corbet. “As coaches, we never doubted him. We always had faith and trust in Bryan.”
When the recruitment period arrived, many of Mills’ teammates got offers to Division I schools. He waited, patiently, as he did in high school, for that offer to come. The time, the waiting, only fueled Mills. The chip on his shoulder became larger, wanting to prove to whoever gave him a chance that he belonged.
Eventually, Juan Navarro, the recruiting coordinator at North Carolina Central’s football program, believed in what he saw from Mills and decided to take a chance. The Eagles were looking for a corner to come and help the team right away. Mills became their guy.
Iacenda, Corbet and the Cougars coaching staff celebrated with Mills when he signed. Everyone was ecstatic, including Mills’ grandparents, who came to participate in the signing festivities. But Mills wasn’t caught up in the hoopla. He knew it would be a blank slate when he arrived at North Carolina Central, meaning he needed to work extra hard to become a nationally recognized prospect.
It didn’t take long for Mills to adjust, according to Eagles head coach Trei Oliver.
“He didn’t come in thinking that we owed him a position right away,” Oliver said. “He just worked his butt off at camp. We knew he could play.”
The competitiveness and the hunger to earn his keep allowed Mills to thrive at North Carolina Central. It rubbed off on his teammates, who wanted to bring that same competitive mindset in practice and during games. In his junior season, Mills accounted for 22 tackles and led the MEAC with five interceptions. He was voted first-team All-MEAC and named to the BOXTOROW All-America Team, honoring the best players from historically Black colleges and universities.
While the game against Morgan State remains a highlight, Mills’ time at North Carolina Central didn’t come without adversity. Dovonte Edwards, North Carolina Central’s defensive coordinator, recalls Mills taking on Florida A&M’s vaunted passing attack. He missed some one-on-one battles, leading to some big offensive plays for Florida A&M. Mills never let this bother him. He put bad plays out of his mind, focusing on how to improve for the next possession.
“He’s not a guy who is going to let a couple of plays snowball into any type of a drought,” Edwards said. “I was able to see a little bit of Bryan’s character, someone who continued to fight on to have a solid game, despite experiencing peaks and valleys.”
Hard work is about to pay off
When the coronavirus pandemic canceled the 2020 MEAC season, Mills met with his coaches. After a long conversation, the young prospect decided to declare for the 2021 NFL draft. It may not have been Oliver’s first choice, but he possessed a tremendous belief in Mills.
“We talked for hours, making sure this was the right decision,” Oliver said. “He told me, ‘Coach, there’s no doubt in my mind that I’m ready.’ He was so adamant and confident in his skill set that I accepted his vision and support him 100%.”
“I really wanted to be in this year’s draft class,” Mills said. “That was always my goal. I gambled on myself, putting all my eggs in the basket on that hope.”
Mills didn’t stop working. With his trainer, Russ, along with Edwards and North Carolina Central cornerbacks coach Ty Greenwood, Mills improved various aspects of his game.
“We’ve been working on his press technique, his off-man technique, ball skills and drill work to keep him fresh,” Greenwood said. “Hopefully, when he gets drafted, he’ll be ready when minicamp starts in terms of technique and fundamentals.”
Mills’ draft profile ascended after his participation at the Reese’s Senior Bowl. Competing alongside players from top programs such as Alabama and Clemson, Mills reveled in that environment, demonstrating that a player from the FCS belonged with premier talent.
“I was finally being honored as one of the elite players,” Mills said. “It showed all my hard work paying off and the perseverance of staying dedicated to one thing.”
Mills enters the draft as one of the top-rated prospects from a historically Black school and his journey reflects the importance of paying attention to these players, who possess the immense talent and character traits that NFL teams desire.
“We have a lot of talent in our conference and across Black college football,” Oliver said. “It’s good for our guys to get that exposure. It’s good when recruiting young men that we can tell them, ‘Look, if you’re good enough, you’re going to make it.’
“Not many get the opportunity to play at the next level. It’s a blessing for Bryan to have this opportunity. The sky’s the limit for him. All you need is an opportunity.”
Over the three days of the NFL draft, Mills will be at his grandfather’s house, watching the festivities unfold. Mills never let the “no’s” or the doubts stop him from pursuing his dream to play football. If he hears his name called, Mills says, he probably will do a backflip into the pool at his house.
The same person who watched with awe as DeSean Jackson returned that punt for a touchdown and who sported his jersey number is now on the verge of joining the same league he played in, with a burning desire to be the best.