Miles Austin still remembers the moment he joined one of America's biggest sub-sets and became a football player – although these weren't the circumstances you'd expect from an eventual NFL powerbroker. Austin was a 16-year-old at Garfield HS with no hint that he'd someday be in the huddle with the Dallas Cowboys. Full-speed contact? With monsters? Maybe in the next life.
Until his junior year, Austin preferred basketball and track, although it wasn't for a lack of recruiting from Steve Mucha, the Boilermakers' gridiron coach. Austin kept his distance from the bigger, tougher kids until one day in the fall of 2000, when he was uncharacteristically late for school. Austin came face to face with the attendance officer – the same Mucha he'd kept putting off.
"I go to the office figuring I was going to have the book thrown at me," Austin recalls. "I said, 'What am I getting, a year of detention?'"
The future pro was shocked to hear just the opposite.
"You're never late, so don't worry about it. I'll write you a pass," Mucha answered, calmly sweeping Austin away in a gust of reverse psychology.
Austin went to class, unable to forget how he'd been spared. By day's end, Austin was ready to pay it forward, telling Mucha, "I appreciate what you did – if you have an extra jersey, if you need an extra guy, let me know."
Garfield's season was almost half over, but the offer, no matter how late, was too good to pass up. Austin was already making a name for himself as a star hoops player, and it was no stretch to think he was genetically coded for football, too.
That hunch was more like a prophecy. In just two seasons, Austin won all-Bergen and all-state honors as a wide receiver and defensive back. It's hard to believe Austin's career was launched on such a whim, but the Cowboys are grateful for fate's twisting currents. Austin, already a two-time Pro Bowl selection, is only now entering his athletic prime. He signed a $57 million contract after becoming the NFC's receiving yards leader in 2009 and setting the Cowboys' franchise record for 250 receiving yards in a single game.
The only obstacle to generational stardom has been injuries: Chronically strained hamstrings have cost Austin parts of the past two seasons, including the entire pre-season campaign in 2012.
Austin admits to some frustration, but he tries not to visualize getting hurt again – not when the Cowboys, coming off a disappointing 8-8 season in 2011, are leaning on him.
"Things happen in life, but how you measure yourself is not by what happens, but how you respond to it," Austin says. "I don't know why I've been hurt, but my goals are to help my team, get better each and every day, and not worry about statistics."
Austin's sense of self is remarkably modest – no small blessing for a high-profile player on America's most well-known football team. The Cowboys are the Yankees, and then some, which means most of the roster has traded normal lives for full-blown celebrity.
Austin is body-surfing through a personal golden era, awash in fame and wealth. Still, he has tempered his ego with memories of his past, never forgetting how the NFL ignored him after a sterling four-year career at Monmouth University. Indeed, Austin wasn't even drafted despite setting the school record in receiving yards. By the time he graduated in 2006, Austin had caught 150 passes for 2,867 yards and 33 touchdowns. Somehow, though, the NFL was unimpressed.
Austin didn't take the snub personally, since he had gone to Monmouth with the idea of getting an education, "and maybe becoming a history teacher," he says. "Anything else would've been a bonus."
As Austin tells it, he got his break from Bill Parcells, the Cowboys' coach – and a former Giants coach – who, as a fellow Jersey native, took a special interest in the unsigned wide receiver.
"He said, 'I don't know how great a player you are, but we can use you on our special teams if you go all out.' That became my focus," Austin says. "That's how it all happened."
It's said that the universe only rewards those who generate their own positive karma. If so, that maxim fits neatly with the arc of Austin's life. Together with his sister, Jennifer – a star javelin thrower who went to Rutgers and competed in the U.S. Olympic trials in 2012 – Miles is eternally indebted to Garfield's after-school programs.
"You reach a certain age in high school and you can go one way or another. A lot of kids I knew went the other path," says Austin, who chose to immerse himself in the Boys and Girls Club, where a safe, controlled environment allowed kids to choose basketball and Ping-Pong over drugs and alcohol.
With additional help from the Lindsey Meyer Teen Institute (LMTI), a peer leadership program, the two Austins had the chance to achieve bright, productive futures. Miles calls Jennifer, who is two years older, his "role model." She now runs the Austin Family Foundation. Formed in 2011, the project supports and promotes youth programming in lower income areas, focusing on character development and community involvement.
"Call me a proud big sister, to see what a successful athlete and man Miles has become," Jennifer says. "He's grown so much emotionally, the way he's handled his success. I don't know if I would be able to deal with the pressure on that level – especially the media and the fans."
But Austin's advanced Q-rating is what gives him the gravitas to reach out to kids who might be "on the fence" about bad choices, he says. The Austins are committed to keeping the Boys and Girls Club and LMTI alive in Garfield for the most fundamental reason of all – because it saved them. Every year, the Austin Family Foundation hosts a golf tournament to raise funds for the organizations that have become casualties of budget cutbacks.
"I'm not a politician, but those kids need that money," Austin says. "For $500, you can take a kid to a one-week camp and teach him or her about not falling under peer pressure, showing them it's cool to be anti-drinking and anti-drugs. I know how much it helped me; I'd put those groups on the same level as the sports I played."
Austin knows the struggle will be ongoing, from one generation to the next. His football career will eventually end – those stubborn hamstrings will ultimately prevail – but Austin intends to keep paying it forward to those kids in Garfield. Big gesture. Even bigger heart.