ST. LOUIS -- Johnny Millard is no stranger to life in the NFL. But this time, it's a bit different.
Millard, a rookie free agent linebacker with the Rams, is the son of Keith Millard, the 1989 NFL Defensive Player of the Year. The elder Millard, selected by Minnesota in the first round of the 1984 draft, played a season in the USFL before spending the majority of his nine-year NFL career with the Vikings. He was named to the league's all-1980s team and still holds the NFL record for sacks by a defensive tackle in a season with 18 in 1989.
After his playing days, Keith Millard turned to coaching, with stints as an assistant in Denver, Oakland, Tampa Bay and Tennessee.
"He was a great player and is a great coach, but my dad never put any pressure on me,'' said Johnny, a 22-year-old from Cal Poly. "There are obviously some expectations, but I like that because it pushes me. I love playing football and have a great relationship with my dad, so it was a blessing to be around him and to learn as much as I did growing up. I've been around this game since I was born and even spent a couple of years as a ballboy when my dad (and Rams special teams coordinator John Fassel) were working for the Oakland Raiders.
"In some ways, this feels very comfortable to me, but I also realize that I'm a free agent who has to work hard every day to prove to the coaches that I belong.''
The Millards have talked a couple of times a week during Rams' OTA workouts, but only a small part of the conversation has dealt with football.
"I've trained Johnny in the past and he knows I'm here for him and that I couldn't be prouder of him,'' said Keith, who is sitting out the 2014 season to spend more time with his family in California. "At this point, he needs to make his own path, and the last thing he needs is another coach. The Rams have coaches, very good coaches, and I think it's important for Johnny to listen and learn from them.
"Johnny's strength is his intelligence. He's a tough kid who understands the game and I'm sure he's driving the coaches crazy right now, trying to learn all he can about playing linebacker and special teams in the Rams' system. He's in a tough spot as a free agent, but that just means he needs to work a little harder and be willing to do the dirty work. With every opportunity he's given, Johnny needs to rise to the occasion.''
Johnny Millard came out of Foothill High in California as an undersized linebacker. He drew some interest from his dad's alma mater, Washington State, and from San Jose State but opted for Cal Poly, where he was a four-year starter. He finished his career with 300 tackles, which is sixth all-time for the Mustangs.
In 2012, Millard was a key member of a Cal Poly squad that finished 9-3 overall, earned a share of the Big Sky Conference in its first season in that league and earned a berth in the NCAA Division I FCS playoffs.
A team captain as a senior, Millard played in a pair of all-star games early this year -- the inaugural Medal of Honor Bowl in Charleston, S.C., and the East-West Shrine Game in St. Petersburg, Fla. -- but was not drafted.
"I'd talked to a number of teams and had some goals and expectations,'' said Johnny, who graduated with a degree in business administration. "Not getting drafted is my motivation now, but it's not something I could dwell on because I needed to get ready to work.''
Following the draft, Millard was contacted by several teams before signing with the Rams.
"I just felt it was the best place for me,'' he said. "I know the Rams have a history of giving free agents a chance and that they like linebackers who can help on special teams. I'm excited about the opportunity and just trying to make the most of it.''
The 6-foot-2, 232-pound Millard has been working at both outside linebacker spots and spending a lot of time with his new playbook.
"There's a lot to learn, but (defensive coordinator Gregg Williams) has done a great job of breaking it down during installation,'' he said. "I want to learn as much as I can about playing all the linebacker spots, to add as much versatility as possible. At this level, it comes down to how you produce on the field, how quickly you can learn and how valuable you are to the team. I've always played with a chip on my shoulder and hopefully I can keep learning and improving enough to impress the coaching staff.''
Keith Millard added: "I don't care if you're a first-round pick or a free agent, it's a privilege to play in the NFL. The Rams have given Johnny a great opportunity; the rest is up to him.''
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