ST. LOUIS Early in a punt return that produced a life-long memory, journeyman St. Louis Rams wide receiver Nick Miller saw an opportunity. On Sunday, he gathered the ball at his own 12-yard line with a little more than nine minutes left in the first quarter. He started right, then cut left, freezing Arizona Cardinals safety Sean Considine enough to sprint toward a coverage wall that began to form near the sideline.
A roar at the Edward Jones Dome grew louder. Considine was blocked near the 21. Then linebacker O'Brien Schofield, one of the few remaining defenders close by, lost his angle before he was pushed aside at the 39.
Five Rams players had sealed a path to the end zone by the time Miller reached Arizona's side of the field. He lifted the ball in his left hand as he crossed the plane, giving St. Louis a 7-0 lead and its first punt return for a touchdown since Dante Hall had one for 85 yards on Sept. 30, 2007.
"As soon as I caught the ball, everything set up the way it was supposed to set up," Miller said Wednesday from his locker at Rams Park. "It couldn't have been more perfect."
The play could help Miller as he tries to carve out an NFL career. The Rams signed the 5-foot-9, 180-pound Southern Utah product last Wednesday after wide receiver Mark Clayton was placed on injured reserve because of issues with both knees. Miller is no stranger to St. Louis the Rams signed and released him within a three-week period in October and he hopes to gain more lessons from his latest stay.
On Wednesday, Miller sat in front of his stall as a typical post-practice scene carried on around him. Feet away, quarterback Sam Bradford and defensive end Robert Quinn walked around the locker room. Bradford and Quinn represent the Rams' last two first-round draft picks, and they enjoy security as they grow as professionals. Miller's experience has been different.
The Oakland Raiders signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2009. He made the Raiders' 53-man roster, but didn't play as a rookie because of a shin injury. Last season, he appeared in nine games and caught three passes for 40 yards, but was mostly used as a punt returner.
This fall, Miller played in two games for Oakland until he was released on Oct. 1. Five days later, the Rams signed him to strengthen their receiving corps after Danny Amendola was forced to undergo season-ending triceps surgery. But Miller was waived on Oct. 22 after Pro Bowl wide receiver Brandon Lloyd was acquired in a trade with the Denver Broncos.
"It's frustrating," said Miller, 24. "It's a hard business. It's not for the weak-hearted. I could have not been picked up the rest of the season. All you can do is stay positive, keep working and stay ready because if I wouldn't have been ready, they would have released me again."
But Miller was prepared when he received a call from the Rams last week. He was at his home in Gilbert, Ariz., when the team showed interest. He enjoyed his first stint in St. Louis, and he had heard positive reviews about his contribution.
That evaluation does not surprise Ed Lamb, Miller's former coach at Southern Utah. Lamb spoke to Raiders officials when they considered Miller during free agency. Lamb told them Miller has a positive attitude without an ego that hurts some gifted young players.
"He's relentlessly positive and optimistic," Lamb said in a telephone interview. "I think one of the keys to optimism is being able to realize the individual's part in making those dreams come true. He's kept his body in shape. He looks like he has continued to stay strong and fast. When that opportunity arrived, he made the most of it. That's what he did for us. He took advantage of every opportunity."
But there is a personal toll involved with a nomadic NFL life. Miller lives in a hotel, and he knows few people in his new city outside Rams Park. He tries to study the playbook to keep his mind busy.
The isolation can be frustrating. Miller is thankful to have his job, because he knows it can be taken away at any time. But there are moments when he wonders what the future will hold.
"Every day is a fight," said Quinn, who was selected 14th overall in April's NFL draft. "No matter where you were picked or however long you have been here, you're fighting for your job every day. It's 'What have you done for me lately?' That's what they say this league is about."
"It's a constant grind," said wide receiver Brandon Gibson, a third-year player. "You've got to do what you can and keep getting better every day."
On Sunday, Miller did what he could to make himself known. And, like other young players in the Rams' locker room, he will enjoy the journey as long as he can.