It’s a chilly afternoon at Manatee High School, with the school day already wrapped up.
Some remaining students scattered around campus near Hawkins Stadium are either heading to soccer practice behind the stadium or are walking to a nearby parking lot to head home. All look small in comparison to the figure walking up the sidewalk on this winter day.
His name is Thor Miller, and he’s one of Manatee’s past football stars.
Miller, a 6-foot-3, 305-pound offensive lineman, recently completed his senior season for McNeese State and is gearing up for the Cowboys’ Pro Day for the chance at hearing his name called during April’s NFL draft.
“It’s everyone’s dream if they play football,” Miller said.
As a true freshman at McNeese State, Miller played in 11 games, during which he averaged more than 20 snaps per game.
He earned one start as a sophomore and didn’t allow a sack in his first two college seasons.
In 2015, Miller started 11 games for a McNeese State team that won the Southland Conference and was eliminated in the second round of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.
This past season, Miller continued starting for the Cowboys, and he can turn himself into an NFL draft pick with a solid pro day in late February.
Miller said the Raiders, Patriots, Seahawks, Bills, Texans and Saints have already watched him at the Louisiana school.
The road to the NFL, though, means improving his combine skills with bench pressing and speed.
If his name doesn’t get called this April, Miller has a backup plan. He has already earned his undergraduate degree in health promotion and sports management from McNeese State, so he will continue his education next fall at the University of South Florida to pursue his master’s degree.
Miller said he’ll become a graduate assistant and start the process of being a coach if the NFL doesn’t give him the opportunity.
“I’m pulling for him to maybe do some things, because he definitely loves the game and is a grinder,” former Manatee High teammate and quarterback Cord Sandberg said. “He works hard, and enjoys being that guard, tackle or whatever they need him to do.”
Sandberg and Miller are good friends, with the latter opening holes for Sandberg to shift his way past opposing defenders.
There were also times when Miller gave Sandberg and others a good laugh during their victories with the Hurricanes.
“If we had a designed run or something and I was running behind him, if he thought I went the wrong way off his block he’d let me know,” Sandberg said. “’Sandberg, dude. I blocked the guy this way. What are you doing?’ He’d tell guys where they should have ran off his block, obviously all in good fun.”
Miller played left tackle for the Hurricanes, who won a state title in 2011 and were ranked No. 1 in the nation for most of the 2012 season.
During those seasons, the Hurricanes were known for a defense that featured players such as defensive lineman Demarcus Christmas and Blake Keller, who are starters at Florida State and Marshall, respectively.
Manatee’s offensive line flew under the radar, but it was just as stout with Miller, Jake Stickler (Georgia Tech, Division I), Michael Gulati (USF, D-I), Dylan Beauchamp (Newberry, D-II) and Kyle Mauk (Florida Tech, D-II) all moving to the college game.
And Miller, who credits Manatee’s program for setting him up for success in college, held his own in practice against Manatee’s defensive linemen such as Christmas.
“Thor’s hard work and dedication is what will gain him an opportunity, his athleticism will give him the biggest chance,” former Manatee High assistant Steve Gulash said. “Because there’s a lot of big guys in the world, but there’s not a lot of big, athletic guys.”
Gulash and Miller have known each other for years, dating to when Miller played youth football at the Manatee Police Athletic League, which had an unlimited weight division.
Growing up, Miller played some defensive line. At Manatee, though, there wasn’t a need for him there. So he was switched to offensive line and he flourished.
Owing to his versatility, he did it again when he was moved from left tackle with the Hurricanes to guard and center with McNeese State.
“It’s a little bit of a difference playing tackle,” Miller said. “It’s kind of like playing a chess game. The defensive end has so many opportunities to make moves and go two-ways and stuff, so that definitely helped me with my feet moving to the guard position. The only thing the guard position is you’re going to face bigger guys, so you definitely have to be stronger.”
And getting stronger is Miller’s goal these next several weeks.
If it happens, he is likely to get a chance in the NFL. And a chance is all he wants.
“As long as you get the opportunity and make the most of it, that’s really what I’m banking on,” Miller said. “Just an opportunity to impress them, that Pro Day and maybe giving me a shot at a mini-camp or something along those lines.”