McMillian’s big break was years in making

GREEN BAY, Wis. — Jerron McMillian hasn’t been a highly touted player at any point in his life.

After playing safety and quarterback during his high school career in New Jersey, the University of Maine was the only school to offer McMillian a college scholarship to play football. Maine wasn’t interested in his quarterback skills and moved him to safety after a redshirt season as a freshman.

Now a fourth-round pick of the Green Bay Packers, McMillian can look back on his experiences at Maine from a more positive perspective. But while he was there – at the Football Championship Subdivision level — it wasn’t easy to believe that playing for a small-college football program would be the right path to his NFL dreams.

“I had to make the best out of it,” McMillian said last week. “I had a lot to learn and had to develop a litle bit. Being at a small school, talent is talent regardless of where you play. It’s just how it gets done. What’s really the difference between us and them (bigger schools)? Maybe it’s just the name of the school and that their kids coming out of high school had more looks. But it’s just how you compete.”

And that’s what the Packers liked about McMillian. General manager Ted Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy overlooked McMillian’s lack of high-quality, big-game experience and national exposure and simply saw his talent.

With a reputation as a big hitter and solid tackler, McMillian represents what the Packers were missing throughout the 2011 season. Frequent missed tackles in the secondary and poor awareness in open-field situations contributed to the Packers allowing the most passing yards in NFL history.

“We were very impressed with watching him on tape,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said after the selection was made. “He has the qualities we look for in a safety. He can run, and he’s a very aggressive player. You see him throw his body around and be a good tackler.”

The coaching staff and front office in Green Bay liked McMillian well before the draft and had already brought him in for a visit. That was one of only three predraft visits for McMillian, who also stopped in New York for meetings with the Giants and Jets.

Even though McMillian’s visit with the Packers went well, it still surprised him to be drafted 133rd overall.

“I didn’t think I would come out so high, and then sometimes I thought that maybe I won’t get picked up at all,” McMillian said. “Then again, you never know.”

So when McMillian’s phone started ringing with a Wisconsin area code and Thompson asked him if he’d like to become a Packer, it was unexpected.

“My body started shaking and everything,” McMillian said, and he was soon greeted with a congratulations by his father, mother and brother. “It was real exciting, really emotional. It was just a big turning point in my life.”

And it was the message McMillian’s father gave him a few minutes later that meant the most to him that day.

“He said, ‘You’re going to be making something out of your life, now go out there and go get it,’ ” McMillian said.

In the days since he was drafted, McMillian’s phone hasn’t had very many quiet moments. Friends, family members, former teammates and other people from his childhood all have taken the opportunity to wish him the best in his NFL career.

“You grow up in the sandbox with a bunch of your friends, and sometimes there’s those that say, ‘I could’ve been this’ or ‘I could’ve done this,’ ” McMillian said. “Maybe everybody doesn’t have the same focus, but I knew what I wanted to do once I got to a certain point in my life.”

For McMillian, that moment was at age 14, in 10th grade. He had heard and seen plenty of others in his community who didn’t chase their dreams and ended up regretting it.

“I had people who said to me, ‘Don’t end up like me,’ ” McMillian recalled. ” ‘Keep doing what you love. Focus up.’ That made me want to work even harder. So I just tried to stay active. I had to stay away from a lot of things. When a lot of people tried to go off and do other things, I just played sports.”

Now McMillian has the opportunity to play football full time as his career. With Nick Collins, a small-school player himself at Bethune-Cookman, recently being released by the Packers, McMillian will have the chance to win a starting job immediately in Green Bay. And he will be taking his small-school attitude with him into training camp as he competes for that spot.

“Like a lot of people that go to small schools, I have a chip on my shoulder,” McMillian said. “(Going to a small college) made it that much harder to get where I needed to go, and coming from Maine, we know we don’t get as much run as everyone else. We maybe didn’t have the special facilities or workroom, but you’re all going to be doing the same thing in there.

“I’m going to work as hard as I can, and, next thing you know, things will pay off.”

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