On the first day of school at Miami American High in 2005, a lanky freshman named Olivier Vernon walked into coach Morty Bernstein’s office and signed up to play football.
Even though he had never played organized football, Vernon soon found himself on the Patriots’ varsity team. The freshman got pummeled.
“I wanted to play safety because I admired Sean Taylor so much,” Vernon said. “They saw my size and put me on D-line. I was only 175 pounds. There were a lot of big dudes out there.”
No one, at least not then, could have envisioned Vernon playing down the road at Sun Life Stadium as a member of the Miami Dolphins just seven years later.
Last Sunday, the rookie defensive end had his best day as a member of the Dolphins, sacking quarterback Sam Bradford on the Rams’ final offensive play. After the 3-yard loss, St. Louis attempted a desperate 66-yard field goal. The kick drifted left and the Dolphins held on for a 17-14 win.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be playing in the NFL, much less for the Dolphins,” Vernon said. “This is a great opportunity for me and I truly feel blessed.”
Vernon and fellow rookie Lamar Miller, a running back, are both rarities within the Dolphins as both have been able to spend their entire football career — to this point, anyway — without leaving Miami-Dade County (aside from practices in Davie).
The only other player in Dolphins history to play his entire career within the 305 area code is recently retired offensive lineman Vernon Carey (Miami Northwestern).
Defensive back Bobby Harden, a native of Pahokee, played four seasons with the Dolphins after being a 12th-round pick out of Miami in 1991.
Randal Hill came close to being the first as the Miami Killian High grad was taken with the 23rd pick by the Dolphins in 1991. After one game, Hill was traded to Arizona for a first-round pick. Hill returned to Miami in 1995 and played in 26 games over the course of two seasons.
Even though South Florida is rich in football talent and the University of Miami produced 114 NFL draftees from 1992 to 2011, the Dolphins haven’t stayed local very often as Vernon was the first UM player drafted by the Dolphins since Carey in 2004.
Since the Dolphins’ inception in 1966, the franchise has selected 17 players from Miami — nine since Miami won its first national championship in 1983. The Dolphins have signed former UM players — such as Bernie Kosar, Craig Erickson, Cleveland Gary, Leon Searcy and Lamar Thomas — years after other teams drafted them.
Vernon and Miller say they appreciate the opportunity they have to suit up for their hometown squad.
“I can’t believe I’m playing in my hometown. To play high school, college and pro in one town is a true blessing,” said Miller, who played at Killian High before spending three seasons with the Hurricanes. “I used to watch the Dolphins and was a high school Player of the Week a few times, so I got to come to a few games. Having my family here at every home game is real motivation.”
Like Miller, Vernon has plenty of family support in the stands each week.
His father Lascelles — who is a Miami Beach police officer — and mother Bernette never missed a UM game once he joined the Hurricanes in 2009. And although they haven’t traveled yet this season, they are planning to do so. They have, however, been there for his four home games (including the preseason) with the Dolphins.
“The Dolphins believed in me,” Vernon said. “The funny thing was, just before I got picked, my mom hugged me and said ‘I hope you don’t go anywhere.’ I had no control over it. But then it all fell into place. My mom has been at every game I’ve ever played going back to soccer. She’s my No. 1 fan.”
Lascelles Vernon is known for his tailgate spread, something his son gets to partake in once his day is done. On Sunday, however, rainstorms rolled through and the party had to move indoors. Olivier celebrated his big game — he also sacked Bradford in the second — by polishing off a few of his dad’s famous chicken breast sliders.
The pride Lascelles Vernon has in his son is evident. Being able to watch his son play in the NFL not far from his childhood home is special to the entire family.
“I would have liked for him to go somewhere away from home to experience something else, but I’m real happy the Dolphins chose my son,” the elder Vernon said. “I’m happy to have him home. This has been good for him and I’m happy for him. He’s a self-made man. I may be the proudest father in South Florida right now.”