Meet DeGabriel Floyd’s “Austin Family”

Most know DeGabriel Floyd on the field. An All-American linebacker committed to the University of Texas who rakes in more high school awards and honors than most people even realize are out there.

However, few know the backstory, and it isn’t as flowery. DeGabriel’s mother is suffering from the after-effects of her battle with cancer, and at the age of nine, he lost his father to a heart attack.

Throughout these trials, DeGabriel has persevered and pursued his passion for football and was eventually named a top player in the nation and committed to play football at the University of Texas.

Along with DeGabriel’s birth family, he is blessed with another family, his “Austin Family.” However, since his commitment to Texas, there have been multiple rumors about his “Austin Family.” Nobody really knew much about them, and the rumors have been boundless.

The first time I met the “Austin Family” they told me stories about how they would sit in restaurants or go to high school games, and they would hear people talk about DeGabriel Floyd’s “Austin Family.” All kinds of crazy rumors — how they influenced his decision and worse. It’s always a weird sensation to hear somebody talk about you or read something that someone, who doesn’t know you, writes about you. It’s even weirder when everything they are saying is wrong.

As the “Austin Family” put it, “It was so much stuff and it was so off that we started laughing and stopped paying attention to it.” But that was before they realized that this was just the beginning.

I met with the “Austin Family” get their story.

WHO IS THE “AUSTIN FAMILY”?

The “Austin Family” is headed by Tony and Jeanne Miller with their two biological sons, Chance and Cameron.

The matriarch, Jeanne Miller, is a part-owner of a bookkeeping and accounting business in Austin. This keeps her busy, but since she works from home she has time to be there for her children, “I’m just a mom, running a business and this household at the same time.”

The patriarch, Tony Miller, grew up in a lower-middle class family with a view of the beach from his home in California. Much like DeGabriel, Tony was an athlete in high school. He was the first freshman to ever play varsity football for his high school and was rated one of the fastest athletes in track and field coming out of high school. He was recruited to play both sports at UCLA but ended up sticking with track and field.

He is still good friends with former teammates like Erick Turner (2nd overall pick in 1991 draft), his roommate Roman Phifer (31st overall pick in 1991 draft), and many other UCLA players who went to the NFL. Tony instead went on to travel the world in track and participate in the US Olympic Team in Barcelona. While in Barcelona an agent asked him to try out for the Raiders. To Tony’s surprise, this agent sent a plane to Spain the next day to take Tony to the tryout in California. He went on to have a career in the NFL playing for the Raiders, Rams, and Chargers.

After Tony retired from the NFL, he got into law enforcement focusing on juvenile crimes. When he retired from law enforcement he really began to focus on coaching Pop Warner football. Now he’s a referee for Texas High School Football.

There are also three children in the “Austin Family,” but only two currently live in Austin.

Jade, the oldest, was a world-class track star who ran for and graduated from Harvard. She now getting her master’s in communications from the University of Southern California.

Chance, the middle child, is the laid-back, quiet one. He is currently a sophomore at Glenn High School in Leander. Yet another track star (there is a trend here), who broke the 100M record for his school his freshman year.

Cameron, the youngest, is the night owl. Personally, I’ve never met Cameron when he wasn’t tired; however, he is the family’s “little philosopher.” Going into the eighth grade, Cam is a very smart student who also runs track and plays baseball.

The Millers are the classic California-to-Austin migrants, moving to Austin after discovering that it is a great city with mild winters, a very important point for Tony.

DEGABRIEL ISN’T THE ONLY ONE

Jeanne and Tony stress the importance of providing. Whether that be the role of a family figure or a pair of shoes as, Tony put it, “Growing up, if one of my friends was with me — even though we didn’t have a lot — and my dad took me to buy a pair of shoes he would also buy a pair for my friend.” Tony befriends and mentors every kid he coaches and that kids-in-need, “…I’m a surrogate dad to all of them whether they have dads or not.”

A story he told about his time in college drove this point home, “When I was in college at UCLA I volunteered at a group home. It was mostly girls, and some of these girls were in a bad place, so I would talk to them. I was in college, so I wasn’t that far from some of their ages. They were 14, 15, 16 at the time I was like 18 or 19. So, I would talk to them and let them know the struggles of how it was for me to grow up… I would provide them a support.”

As he grew up and went through life, he lost contact with these girls, yet one night everything came full circle, “We’re sitting in a restaurant with another couple… This waitress was just staring at me, and I felt uncomfortable… So, she finally comes over and she was like, ‘Are you Tony?’ and I was like, ‘Yeah?’ The waitress starts crying.” Tears were shed, and stories were shared. However, it was the impact that Tony had on this young lady’s life — helping her grow up — that stood out, “looking at her at 15 and now she’s like in her 30s, and she has kids. It was crazy.”

This theme rings true when you visit the Millers’ household. You walk into a packed house full of children from families all over the country. These children are dealing with their own problems but are welcomed to a seat at dinner and/or a talk on the couch. As Jeanne put it, “Our household is never empty… Our house has become the house for all of my kids’ friends. They just come to visit and hang out with us… and they’re part of my family…”

However, “…the relationship we have with these kids is different. It’s more like were an aunt and uncle… I’m not like a mom to them. They have their mom. They call their mom, ‘Mom.’ The relationship with Gabe is different. It’s special.”

THE RELATIONSHIP WITH DEGABRIEL

DeGabriel still has a biological family that he is close to, “He has two [biological] sisters.  He has a sister Suraiya, who is doing great, and Brittney who’s about to get married in Seattle… He loves them both to death. He has his mom – his biological mom – who loves him very much.”

So where does do the Millers fit into that? If you were to ask the Millers they would tell you, “We are his extended family.” Yet, it appears to be more so the case that they are an extension of DeGabriel’s family and he an extension of theirs: “[DeGabriel] calls [Jeanne], ‘mom.’ He calls [Tony], ‘dad.’ He tells everybody that Chance and Cameron are his brothers and Jade is his sister.” The Millers also refer to him as their son and treat him as such, “It’s just a big family. Taking a village to raise DeGabriel.”

HOW THE MILLERS GOT TO KNOW DEGABRIEL

DeGabriel and the Millers didn’t immediately have this bond. The relationship started out of coincidence, per Tony. DeGabriel and Tony meet in 2013 after another Pop Warner coach joined his staff and brought young DeGabriel along with him, “I come to find out he lived like five minutes from me, so he needed rides to practice. I started giving him a ride to practice. Then I started giving him a ride home.”

At the very same time they met, things started to get rough again for DeGabriel back home, “At that time his mom got sick in 2013-2014, and I noticed that when I’d bring him home either he would have to wait for his sister outside, until she got home because he didn’t have a key, or he lost his key. So instead of bringing him home right away, I would bring him to my house, and we just started to feed him. He would eat dinner with us. He would stay at the house until somebody got home, and I would take him home… So, he just started being over at the house more and more.”

Jeanne expanded, “Dinners came into weekends. Weekends came into a couple of days. A couple of days came into spending the nights and staying over swimming in the pool.”

He slowly started to become even more immersed or entwined in the family. He wasn’t just a friend who slept over, he was becoming more of a family member, “It went from there to joining our vacations. Hanging out more with [Jeanne’s] parents. We’d go out to eat dinner and say, ‘Gabe you want to come?’ and he’s coming.”

But for Jeanne, it wasn’t his on-field talent that endeared him to the to the family, it was his ability, as a 7th grader, to seamlessly integrate into their family, “The first time I met him I said, ‘this kid is phenomenal.’ I’m not really a football person. I wouldn’t know that. I’m talking about as a kid, his personality, the way he embraced Chance and Cameron was just amazing. The rapport they had and they’d just barely met and it’s like, ‘Wow! They’re hanging out as if they were siblings.’”

All during this time, the Millers were helping DeGabriel’s family during a difficult patch in their lives, “We started taking food to his sister. We’d help his mom out when it came to like season stuff for football. I would pay for DeGabriel to participate. She would contribute what she could, but I would try to keep the load light for her because being a single mom with two kids is not easy. It just went from there, and it hasn’t stopped.”

OPEN LINES OF COMMUNICATION

While DeGabriel was navigating the confusing age of thirteen, he faced one of the roughest times of his life with his mother being sick. The Millers were there to provide guidance, structure, and help him through his problems, “I think the communication part, the understanding and compassion part of it is something that he was really searching for at that age when we met. I think that’s what brought us really together.”

Tony and Jeanne have provided that communication and guidance to DeGabriel through many of the pitfalls teenager boys face — drugs, girls, the pains of growing up, and other personal issues. Jeanne made it a point that “…We’re open about it. We talk about it, we’re funny about it, and we joke about it.” Tony added, “I’d rather him hear the honest hardcore truth from us.” He gets the structure that a family can provide, “He gets in trouble just like [Cameron and Chance] get in trouble, he gets talking-to’s like they get talking-to’s, he has to clean up like they clean up.” DeGabriel also gets levity, playfulness, and compassion, that parents provide, from Tony and Jeanne. But most importantly, Tony and Jeanne provide something that DeGabriel lost, “With him losing his dad at an early age I think, we are that father figure that he doesn’t have…”

Tony’s uses his own father, who he characterized as “…My best friend. My Superhero. My everything,” to model himself for his children. He does his best to give his sons that same guidance, “If I can be half the dad to them as my dad is to me, then they won. I’m young enough to not forget what it’s like to be them. I’ve experienced everything in life that they try to or want to. And I hope they exceed what I’ve done in life.”

Tony does his best to impart the wisdom he’s gained throughout his life to his sons to help them through their problems. A relevant example was helping teach DeGabriel how to best make decisions, “When [DeGabriel] asks me a question or for help on a decision, I help him research all of the options, and then I’ll leave it up to him to make the decision.” Like all parents know, you have to let your kids fall down sometimes, “Sometimes he makes the wrong decision. And we have to fix it. But I need him to understand that this is his decision to make. I’m giving him the tools to make his own decisions.”

BLINDSIDE?

To the casual observer, this might hearken back to the story of Michael Oher and the Tuohy family which became popularized through the book and later the movie, The Blind Side. It’s a story of a family helping and guiding a child during a difficult time in their life and thus becoming family. Add to it the element of football and there would seem to be a number of similarities.

But the Miller family sees at least one very distinct difference. When I asked them if they see this as a parallel story they simultaneously replied, “No.”

To explain why they see themselves differently, Tony put it this way, “His mom is very involved. His mom loves him to death. His sister is in his life, and they talk all the time. So, I wouldn’t compare it to The Blind Side because he has a family, and we’re not trying to take the place of his family or anything like that. We try to all do it together.”

THE DECISION

With the Miller’s being in Austin now, one might ask, how much did the Millers influence Floyd’s decision to choose Texas?

Jeanne said, “None except getting him here because he said he needed to get a plane ticket to come out, and then he asked us to accompany him to Junior Day.” It didn’t even sound like they had really considered the possibility that DeGabriel would end up at Texas. As a matter of fact, DeGabriel had been to Austin a number of times before he was even offered by Texas. So visiting Austin was nothing new.

The line of communication was opened due to the fact that Tom Herman played football at Cal Luthern with  Tim Kirksey, the head football coach at DeGabriel Floyd’s high school, and DeGabriel Floyd and Eric Cuffee work out with the same trainer in Austin. Tom Herman learned about DeGabriel through Tim Kirksey and DeGabriel learned about Texas through Eric Cuffee.

The interest in Texas actually surprised the Millers, “Honestly, I was like, ‘Are you sure about this?’ because when it comes to Gabe’s things, we let him make his own decisions and do his thing. We stand back.”

While they did not sway him, they did help DeGabriel during the recruitment process, “The only role that we played was helping research the schools.”  Tony explained that DeGabriel had some specific things that he wanted in a school such as the ability to play right away, enroll early, wear number one, and know certain things, “What I did was, he gave me a list of schools, and I looked up how many linebackers they have, who they were recruiting, and who was wearing number one. I did all of that, and then I gave the information to him.”

DeGabriel also trusted Tony to be the point of contact for every coach, helping him set up visits, and plan them around their family calendar (which DeGabriel is a part of).

Tony and Jeanne realize that they are not the ones that have to go to practice, deal with the coaches, go to class, be at meetings, live on campus, or live the life of a student-athlete. They provided DeGabriel with information of hard numbers and facts, and let him make his own decisions, “We didn’t have a dog in the fight because wherever he decided he wanted to go, he knew we would we would be there in the stands.”

THE COMMITMENT

How Texas really won over DeGabriel was not through winning over the Millers (although they did), pressuring DeGabriel, or anything that the coaches showed him. It’s what they weren’t able to show him. DeGabriel got to see Texas in the works. School was still in session and the team had spring practice, so when DeGabriel visited “…There was no icing on the cake… They didn’t pull out all the super bells and whistles…” During those trips and Junior Days, DeGabriel got to hang out with guys like Gary Johnson and Ayodele Adeoye where he saw what the day-to-day life was like and bonded with the players more so than anywhere else: “He and Gary hit it off right away from Junior Day. He and Dele hit it off right away from Junior Day. He and Anthony Cook – who kind of knew each other from before – they hit it off,” and those players embraced him as a younger brother.

All of this happened without the Millers interfering in any way or even broaching the subject. All the Millers did, during this time, was provide the home and support that they always gave. If DeGabriel wanted to talk with them about it, they would listen and provide advice.

In late March, DeGabriel was living with the Millers for Spring Break. While he was there, he took the Millers with him to see practice, talk to the players, and sit in some meetings. It was at that point that something clicked in DeGabriel, “We come home Friday night, I’m sitting on a couch and he’s pacing and walking behind me. Then he stops and says, ‘I’m committing. I’m ready to commit.’” This was at about 10 or 12 at night. Tony and Jeanne both asked, “‘Are you sure. Why? We have all these trips ready. Why now?’” To which DeGabriel responded, “‘For the first time I feel like I’m where I’m supposed to be.’” With DeGabriel being right in the heat of his recruitment, Tony and Jeanne sat down with him and talked late into the night going through the pros and cons of each school that recruited him and dissected his reasoning, school by school. Afterward, they told DeGabriel to sleep on the decision. DeGabriel woke up early the next morning to tell them, “‘This is the best sleep I’ve had in months… I’m committing.’” DeGabriel called and texted his mother and sisters to let them know the decision and headed off to Texas to see Bryan Carrington.

Bryan Carrington brought DeGabriel and his family into the inside private facility to talk to them about recruiting and trips. At this point in time, Bryan didn’t know about DeGabriel decision. He was just talking and talking, and the Millers were laughing. Bryan got even more serious about his talk and the Millers kept laughing. Finally, Bryan looked over and asked, “‘What are you laughing about? I’m being serious!’” to which Tony finally let Bryan in on the secret, “‘Between you and me, you got him.’” According to Tony and Jeanne, Carrington got very animated and excited exclaiming, “‘Don’t tell TO [Todd Orlando]! don’t tell TO! And don’t tell Coach Herman! Don’t tell them right now! Don’t tell them!’”

DeGabriel and the Millers went through the day as planned until they were asked to join Tom Herman and Todd Orlando in Herman’s office to talk. Herman and Orlando began to question DeGabriel, asking if he liked the program and what it would take to get him to Texas. Tom Herman even offered to do cartwheels to get DeGabriel to sign on. Finally, they asked DeGabriel when he wanted to commit to a school, to which DeGabriel replied, “‘Right now.’” As Tony put it their faces lit up “…and they were like, ‘No. For real. When do you want to commit?’” When DeGabriel reaffirmed his decision and ran them through the night before, tears were shed, and then the office lit up, “There were other recruits in there and were walking down while all the coaches were coming out of their offices hooting and hollering and yelling ‘Hook’em’ and stuff. And you could see it in [DeGabriel] that the weight of the world was off his shoulders.”

Onwards and Upwards

Along with DeGabriel’s family in California, his family in Austin has played a huge role in shaping him into the person he is today. DeGabriel Floyd will walk into Austin with the weight of being the likely starter from the get-go. The expectations and responsibilities that will be suddenly heaped on to his shoulders are hefty.

Even though the prospect of being the immediate starter is a reason he chose Texas, it is a difficult challenge to take on alone. Luckily, his “Austin Family” is a short thirty-minute drive away, but DeGabriel told me that was only “fifteen percent” of the reason he chose Texas.

The main reason DeGabriel choose Texas is the support system he already has and will have through the team. With the relationships he’s already building with current Longhorn players like Ayodele Adeoye and Anthony Cook, former Longhorns like linebacker Gary Johnson, and the coaching staff, DeGabriel Floyd has been and will continue to be expanding his “Austin Family”