NEW YORK – Keith Miller was a bruising fullback out of the University of Colorado who never quite made it to the National Football League. He has, however, become a star at the Metropolitan Opera.
How Miller made the unlikely transition from football to the pinnacle of opera is an all-American story of reinvention, made all the more amazing by the fact that he had no formal musical training when he set out to become a singer.
"This is the real thing, this is the juice," says the 38-year-old Miller. "Instead of a number, you're a character, but the spirit of competition is the same, and you do it for the love of the art versus the love of the game."
It began almost by chance in 1994, while still at Colorado, when he took his girlfriend to see a traveling production of the Broadway musical "The Phantom of the Opera." He was so enthralled that tears rolled down his face. He bought a CD and learned the songs.
Then he got some real opera recordings, singing along in his bass-baritone voice, "kind of like karaoke."
But it was still nothing more than a hobby. Singing along to "The Marriage of Figaro" and "Don Giovanni" was something he did to pass the time while the 6-foot, 265-pound Miller lifted weights, ran sprints and studied playbooks in pursuit of a pro football career.
Miller, a three-year starter at Colorado best known as a blocking back for 1994 Heisman Trophy winner Rashaan Salaam, bounced around the fringes of professional football. He played in the European league, the Arena Football League and U.S. spring football leagues, always keeping in shape for a possible shot with the NFL.
In 2001, he was in Fargo, N.D., training for a workout with the Denver Broncos, when he saw a flier announcing an open opera audition for the Pine Mountain Music Festival in Michigan.
On a whim, he showed up.
"I figured, what the heck!" he says, his voice rippling into a low laugh that echoes his rich singing bass.
He performed the only aria he knew, from Mozart's "Don Giovanni." To his surprise, he got the job, plus four other offers.
Miller then had to learn the whole part, poring over the score and picking out notes on a piano late into the night.
"It was like a baby learning to walk," he says.
He still had to be formally trained — for four years at Philadelphia's Academy of Vocal Arts, a top grooming ground for future stars. Then, days before his 2006 graduation, came the decisive break.
He auditioned for the Met's Young Artist Development Program and didn't get in. Instead, the company actually hired him for Puccini's "Madame Butterfly," broadcast live in high definition to movie theaters worldwide.
He has now sung with the Washington National Opera, the Seattle Opera, and other companies across the country and in Italy, England and Canada, plus the New York Philharmonic and at Carnegie Hall.
This season, Miller appears at the Met in Verdi's "Un Ballo in Maschera" ("A Masked Ball"), opening Nov. 8, followed by a global high-definition broadcast Dec. 8.
As his career grows in a competitive field, "it's like looking at an opponent in football — even if I have flaws or things I need to work on, I will outwork the other person," he says. "If somebody is quick, I'm quicker, and no matter what their best card is they lay on the table, you still have the ace."
From home in New York, he travels — 10 cities in nine months last year — with his wife, Sage, and baby Josephine.
In summer, Miller directs Colorado's Crested Butte Music Festival, which includes training children to perform. He pumps up their spirits with inspirational talk — the kind he has given himself through the years.
"This was me," he says, pulling out a current driver's license with a 1996 photo showing him at 265 pounds, with a thick, almost 20-inch neck and a 52-inch shoulder span. He's now a relatively svelte 200, with 44-inch shoulders.
The singer stays fit, running about five miles a day and lifting weights, but looking so different from his fullback days in the ID picture that "sometimes, I have trouble with airport security."
Miller has helped create a new workout they call "Puissance Training" — for singers and others to get into shape for stressful careers.
His athleticism matches roles including the dynamic, high-leaping devil in the Met's production of Rossini's "Armida," or Mozart's quick-moving, jack-of-all-trades Figaro.
At Opera Colorado last year, his agility came in handy for contemporary Mexican composer Daniel Catan's "Florencia en el Amazonas," a Spanish-language work of magical realism in which Miller plays a character who vanishes into the sea and returns as a superhero, flying above the stage on ropes.
"We hired him for his Denver debut because the role required a very commanding voice with a rich, dark tone, and a personality that has a certain charisma on the stage," says Greg Carpenter, Opera Colorado's general director.
Miller was raised in Ovid, Colo., a town of 250 where he helped his father tend to their cattle and crops, waking up before dawn.
"I thought, there must be more to life than cattle," says Miller, who went to Colorado on a football scholarship.
"Keith was a devastating blocker," says Larry Zimmer, the longtime radio voice of Colorado football. "He learned the discipline and focus to memorize all those opera roles from football."
As a singer, Miller hopes, as he puts it, for decades more of "running arias" and "tackling operas."