Finally, Some Actual Steelers News, and It’s Breaking My Heart…

via Helath Miller.com

I was browsing a list of available Steelers-related articles a few days ago, and they looked something like this:

  1. (Insert position) (Insert draft prospect name) Might Be a Fit for the Steelers!!!!
  2. (Insert pundit name) Final (or Semi-Final, or Penultimate) Steelers Pre-Combine Mock Draft!!!!
  3. (Insert former Steelers player name) “Not a Lock” for First-Round Hall of Fame Ballot, According to (Insert Pundit Name)!!!
  4. (Insert name of player no one has ever heard of) signs future/reserve contract with the Steelers.
  5. (Insert name of player everyone has heard of) a good fit for Steelers in free agency!!!! [Forget about the fact that said player is almost certainly too expensive for the Steelers]
  6. Steelers (insert number of millions of dollars) under salary cap!!!
  7. Steelers (insert number of millions of dollars) over salary cap!!!
  8. Kevin Colbert says Team Looking to Upgrade at Player Hydration Acquisition Sub-Manager [that would be the guy who actually hauls the Gatorade into the facility, or insert name of other low-level support staff]!!!

Okay, so I made that last one up. But you see the problem. There is basically nothing of substance to talk about, except for the very unexciting No. 4.

Until yesterday afternoon. The Steelers issued a statement announcing Heath Miller’s retirement. And all of a sudden I realize I would have been okay to not have any real news for a while.

Part of me is thrilled for Heath that he went out his way, when he wanted, hopefully before any hope of leading a relatively normal life is gone. I hope all players are feeling increasingly comfortable with doing this. (Which means, of course, that they leave before their team and/or their fans are ready to see them go.)

Part of me is one of those fans who wasn’t ready to let him go. He was a favorite of mine, just for the dreamy blue eyes, long before I had any idea what a good player he was, or what a kind and caring human being.

And part of me is bracing for the various comments that “he was washed up anyhow, better to save the cap space.” Football may be a business for the league and the owners, but it always grieves me to see people treated as expendable.

But before I pen a quick tribute, here is the official statement he gave to the team to release:

Today, I informed the Steelers of my plans to retire. I realize how extremely fortunate and grateful I am to have spent my entire career as a Pittsburgh Steeler. I would like to thank the Rooney Family, Kevin Colbert, Bill Cowher, Mike Tomlin, James Daniel and the rest of the Steelers organization for giving me the opportunity to live out my childhood dream. I will always cherish and value the special bonds that I formed with my teammates. It was truly an honor for me to take the field with them. I am also appreciative of my entire family and all of the coaches who helped me along the way. Additionally, I want to thank Steelers Nation, the best fans in the NFL!

Lastly, I owe the biggest thank you to my wife, Katie, and our four children for their unwavering support.

Not too surprisingly, Miller is going out the way he lived during his entire career—with class.

Heath has long been a favorite of mine. I started to take a bit closer interest in him when I went to a team event in December of 2011 at the Steelers Southside facility. We ate lunch in the team cafeteria, and as we shuffled through the line one of the women near me asked one of the men serving the food who was the nicest guy on the team. He didn’t hesitate for even one moment before saying “Heath Miller.” I’m guessing those workers are pretty anonymous to a lot of the players, but obviously not to Miller.

We were given a tour of the locker room, and I jotted down some of the things that struck me at various lockers—Dennis Dixon’s locker bristling with shoes, or David Johnson’s stock of arginine and other powdered supplements, sufficient to set up his own shop. In Heath’s locker, I found—mail. One of those white Postal Service plastic crates, full to the brim, and more stuff in the mailroom.

I didn’t have the chutzpah (or presence of mind) to go through it, and indeed the contents might have been disappointing. “To Our Neighbor at Locker” from Comcast, or travel brochures, that sort of thing. But as I’ve read and written more about Heath through the years, I feel quite convinced that he maintains a voluminous correspondence with sick children and so on.

Which may be romanticizing on my part. But I know he has been involved with the outreaches at Children’s Hospital, and more to the point, he seems to have his priorities in order. Back in 2009 he was interviewed by CBN, and there was an interesting exchange in it, noting his reaction to being on a Super Bowl-winning team in his rookie year:

As a kid you dream of playing in the NFL, win the Super Bowl, and, first year, I did that. You realize this isn’t all there is to life—there’s got to be more to life than the game of football or winning the Super Bowl.

And while Heath clearly devoted himself to being the best football player he could be—and that was awfully good—he never lost touch with reality. In my article “Humility and How I Got It: Brown, Bryant, and the Evolution of “Humble” I suggested that Miller might be a suitable role model for some of the younger players. I quoted a few bits from Jim Wexell (of scout.com), who had written a piece in 2012 after Miller was injured and out for the rest of the season titled Heath Miller & The Art of Humble Maintenance.”

Wexell noted:

[After Miller blew out his knee in the previous game] he was voted MVP by his saddened teammates a few days later. I had hoped to ask Heath then about the importance of humility in sports as some sort of positive way to end a negative season. But he wasn’t around.

 

So [Troy] Polamalu attempted to take on the topic, [noting] ”

Heath to me is someone who’s innately humble. He doesn’t struggle to be humble…Heath is humble in its purest form.”

I’m sure there will be an outpouring of accolades from teammates and the press in the next few days, detailing stories about Miller and what he meant to various people. There isn’t anything I can add to it, except this observation:

We get the feeling we “know” the players, because we watch them, think about them, and in some cases write about them. And while there is most likely a concerted effort on the part of the team to keep us from knowing what some of the players are really like, generally the truth comes out eventually, especially in these days of 24/7 coverage and social media.

But I have never, ever encountered any stories about Miller which contradict the soft-spoken, thoughtful nice guy we see. When we see him at all—he is one of the most self-effacing players ever, apparently.

The media see these guys on a very regular basis, and there is no doubt they have their own thoughts about the players which they can’t, in many cases, share. But Ron Cook of the Post-Gazette, who has covered the Steelers for, well let’s just say a really long time, had no problem sharing his thoughts about Miller yesterday afternoon on 93.7 The Fan.

He spoke about Miller with genuine regret. These were not remarks he had time to prepare. The news about Miller broke at the beginning of the show following his 10-2 pm slot, and Joe Starkey and Chris Mueller asked him to stay for a few minutes longer and talk about him:

It’s a sad day for those of us who covered him and knew him. Such a quiet guy. Never really helped you out with great quotes or anything because he absolutely refused to talk about himself… In a “Look At Me” world he was just the total antithesis of that.

He played one of those unselfish positions where you never get the credit. I compare him to Aaron Smith. Same thing.

He’s going to be missed. He’s a very important part of that locker room. I don’t think there’s any question his teammates absolutely adored him… [As a football player] he was as dependable as it comes—so technically perfect with what he did. It was big news if he dropped a pass…

He’s walking away from a lot of money, but that’s not what he’s about.

Heath, we will all miss you. May your “life after football” be as rich and fulfilling as your time with the Steelers.

 

11 comments

  • cold_old_steelers_fan

    “Heath to me is someone who’s innately humble. He doesn’t struggle to be humble…Heath is humble in its purest form.”

    I hesitate to call Heath a class act because that would suggest that it was just that, an act. Everything I have seen, heard and read about the man implies that it was not an act. It merely was what he was. Class. He is the one Steelers I always pointed out to my kids as a role model. Someone who did everything he could for his teammates and team while never letting it go to his head.

    The Pittsburgh Steelers are richer for having had Earl Heath Miller in their organization and poorer for his leaving. I know it isn’t possible to hire every ex-player but it would be nice to know that the organization was able to find a role for Heath in their organization.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good point about “Class Act.”

      But about the “innately humble,” I’m not sure that’s entirely true. One video interview with Heath I ran across indicated that he realized he had strayed rather far from his moorings, if you will, and the whole thing about the 2005 Super Bowl win really brought him up short. I think it’s unlikely he had turned into someone outwardly obnoxious, because I don’t think he’s enough of an extrovert for that, but who knows what was going on inside (or is going on inside even now?)

      I believe, intellectually, that choral singing is a “team sport” and it is more about the singers than it is about the conductor, aka me, and I’ve ingrained it into my neural ruts to remember to share the glory, as it were. I also believe it in my heart. But there are always the little men jumping around in the back of my head yelling “Don’t say that, look at me, I’m awesome.” It’s possible Heath is truly an innately humble person, and if anyone could recognize one it would be Troy (who admitted the same struggles), but I think they are awfully rare. And if Heath isn’t, it says more about him that people would think that, if you see what I mean…

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      • cold_old_steelers_fan

        I think I do understand. Mac Davis may have been trying for humour when he sang “it’s hard to be humble” but it likely is very difficult if you have been exceptional for many years and I doubt many players make it to the NFL unless they were exceptional for most of their football careers.

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  • Rebecca, you nailed it.

    Heath is beloved by his teammates and Steeler Nation because he’s been the perfect teammate and a dependable blue collar guy. He was a perfect fit in Black and Gold because this is an organization that stresses the qualities that come natural to him.

    There was something wonderful about Ben to Heath — the completed pass for the first down — Ben pointing at Heath — Heath pointing back — and 50,000 fans shouting Heeeeeath! Or, on the road, 35,000 fans shouting Heeeeath!

    There was also something comforting looking at Ben in the shotgun, with Heath in motion, resetting in the backfield, and we knew that Ben had his bodyguard to protect against the blitz. In an uncertain world, Heath was Mr. Dependable.

    How is it possible that we took him for granted, even when we didn’t?

    He enters the Pantheon of those Steelers for Life who are the select few needing only one name. That group includes Bus, Hines, Troy, Franco, MeanJoe (go with it), a few others, and now Heeeeath. Just the mention of their names invokes pride and brings a smile to our faces.

    Thanks, Heath. You did it all, so thanks for everything.

    Liked by 1 person

  • It’s a tough thing because until now, the retirements had been primarily on the defensive side of the ball. Hines and Jerome retiring, to me, wasn’t the same because they were both ‘Pre-Ben’ players. Heath is a ‘Post-Ben’ player…and nothing will remind me that this era is closing more than the retirement of those guys.

    Like

  • Great article, you never truly appreciate anything until its gone….

    Like

  • I will openly admit that the news of Heath’s retirement on Friday literally took my breath for a moment. I was expecting Troy to call it a career, so it wasn’t as tragic-feeling as Heath. Heath’s announcement felt like such a punch to the gut. The two of them were by far my favorite Steelers of this era, and it’s not even close. However, Heath was my favorite. He was such a force on the field, and I always wondered if he would have had a more statistical career if he has been drafted by another team. I truly think he is the best all around tight end of recent memory, and would have been a possible HOF player had he been somewhere else. Unfortunately, the HOF is a stats-driven entity, and I doubt Heath will ever get a gold jacket.

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  • Has anyone noticed how suddenly the mock draft experts are saying that the Steelers need to draft a tight end in the first round. Your not going to replace a Heeeeath Miller so why not give Jessie a chance to show what he can do so why waste the pick…

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  • Mock drafters have short memories. Heath retiring leaves the most recent hole for the Steelers….so that’s what they’ll mock.
    James isn’t a Miller. If there’s a game-changer in the first round, you would not hesitate to grab him. It’s an offensive passing league, after all.

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