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Character (Ac)Counts: Heath Miller

In which the author features one of the Steelers known for his sterling character as well as his on-the-field excellence.

"It's a bird!" "It's a plane!" "No, it's SuperHeeaatthh!"
"It's a bird!" "It's a plane!" "No, it's SuperHeeaatthh!"
Rob Carr

I'm thinking Katie Miller is a big part of the problem. She needs to do a better job of communicating with her husband, Heath. She has to remind him it's a look-at-me world in professional sports these days and he simply isn't playing the part. She needs to tell him to start tooting his own horn, banging his own drum, singing his own song ...

Thus begins a Ron Cook article titled "Team-first Miller makes his case with MVP play", written in early December of 2012. Cook naturally gives up the idea of Heath Miller taking the initiative:

You can stop right here if you're looking for Miller to sell himself as a Pro Bowl candidate, which he surely is. He leads the Steelers with 56 catches and seven touchdown receptions. He's big as a blocker in their run game. He frequently stays in to help the tackles in pass protection.

Miller acknowledged none of that, of course, preferring to talk of the great job rookie offensive tackle Kelvin Beachum did against the Ravens in his first NFL start. He talked of big catches by wide receivers Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown. He talked of how hard running backs Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman ran. Most of all, he talked about quarterback Charlie Batch, who led two fourth-quarter scoring drives to help the Steelers climb out of a 20-13 hole. "I'm happy for him," Miller said. "He deserves a lot of credit. I'm sure he took way too much blame last week."

Heath Miller is a great example of a whole lot of things, beginning with how to play the tight end position. (Offensive Coordinator Todd Haley said early last season "I'm not sure he's not the best player I've ever been around".)

What is more extraordinary to me, however, is the way he has managed to stay completely grounded through good times and bad, apparently without ever losing his spirit of humility.

In December of 2011 the Dean's Dairy Women's 202 Event fell on my birthday. I considered that to be a sign, and registered to go. You can read about the experience here, including a description of Heath Miller's locker. The point for this article, though, was a comment I heard in the team cafeteria.

The event was in the Steelers' Southside practice facility, and we were fed dinner in the cafeteria the team uses. While I was waiting in line one of the women in front of me asked a cafeteria worker who he thinks is the nicest player on the team. He didn't hesitate for a second as he answered "Heath Miller."

It's one thing to be nice to people like Ron Cook who write about you. After all, it is in your best interests. (Nonetheless many players are known among the press corps to treat them with indifference or contempt.) It's another to be kind, day after day, to the service staff.

Throughout his career those who have interviewed Miller have come away impressed with his sincerity and self-effacing manner. In a 2009 article for USA Today, writer Gary Mihoces begins this way: "There is nothing flashy about tight end Heath Miller."

The author suggests that perhaps tatoos, an exotic hobby, or an intimidating nickname would help up the flash factor. He then notes that Miller has no tattoos. When asked, Heath said "I couldn't think of anything that I would want for the rest of my life." His hobby is hiking with his dogs, and as we all know "HEEAATTHH" is all the nickname he needs.

As one would expect from such a quiet person, many of Miller's charitable endeavors are done sub rosa. For example, he has used his endorsement money to buy sports equipment for his hometown schools in Swords Creek, Virginia, and has led football clinics for his old high school.

But he is also willing to put his natural reticence aside to help raise money for causes he believes in. He and his wife are active in the "Bid for Hope" foundation which raises money for breast cancer research. He hosts an annual mini-golf event to raise money for "Project Bundle Up", a Salvation Army initiative to provide winter clothing for needy children and seniors. He is a popular addition to the annual fashion show the Steelers present to support their various charities, and he also supports some of the events hosted by his teammates.

So how does a young man who has been feted all his life as a superb athlete keep his sense of perspective? A good home environment is definitely an advantage. His high school coach noted:

"There are athletes with talent, but you don’t often find athletes with a combination of good work ethics plus talent," said Miller’s former coach, veteran Doug Hubbard, who’s beginning his 27th year as Honaker’s head football coach. Hubbard is quick to credit Miller’s parents, Denise and Earl, for their son’s good morals and work habits.

"Heath is humble and hard-working," said Hubbard. "He took criticism and praise and applied both to the game."

The article this quote was drawn from is from a local newspaper, who reported on Miller's advice to area youth:

Miller is aware of and concerned with the toll that drug and alcohol abuse takes on many youth in the area, and he offered some pragmatic advice on resisting temptation. "I think it is very important for everyone to be comfortable with themselves. This includes having a set of morals and a strong conviction that goes along with this belief in right and wrong. If people don’t respect and honor your decisions and choices (not to use drugs, alcohol and tobacco), then they aren’t the right people to be associated with."

Knowing that many of the kids he encounters dream of also being stars, Miller said the following:

"If it is someone’s goal to become a professional athlete," said Miller, "then they should passionately pursue their dream. Along the way, you should take advantage of everything the sport will offer you. Sports can afford you the opportunity to get an education, establish self-discipline, form good working habits, and learn about yourself in adverse conditions." Miller also noted the very small chance of playing sports for a living, thereby giving the education route the highest priority.

Quiet, self-effacing, kind, and pragmatic. One could hardly ask for a better set of off-the-field attributes. On the field, as all of Steeler Nation knows, Miller gives his all, whether it is blocking or receiving. At the moment he is giving his all to his rehab, and I have little doubt he is focusing all of his MVP-caliber work ethic on the task. We all look forward to welcoming him back to the field.