Heath Miller, a force of consistency
He rarely spoke. But those chants of "HEATH!" at Heinz Field said all anybody needed to hear. For "Tight End Days," we caught up with the Pittsburgh Steelers great.
Good afternoon! And welcome to Tight End Days. Through the release of my book — “The Blood and Guts: How Tight Ends Save Football,” out Oct. 18 — I’ll be dropping stories and Q&As and columns here at Go Long.
Of course, I’m incredibly grateful for everyone who has already pre-ordered.
You can get your copy of “Blood and Guts” right now at Amazon.
First up in this space, a conversation with the best Pittsburgh Steelers tight end ever: Heath Miller.
The fan favorite caught 592 passes for 6,569 yards with 45 touchdowns through his 11 seasons with Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers. Of course, in true Steelers form, he relished life in the trenches. I’ve got a lot more on this concept from Mark Bruener in B & G. In the meantime, here’s a chat with the tight end who won two Super Bowls in the Steel City.
What legacy do you hope you left in Pittsburgh? And the league?
Miller: I tried my best to be an every-down tight end. I tried to be equally as effective in the running game as I was in the passing game and I took a lot of pride in that. As the position evolves, I think there’s still a lot of value in the guys who can do that. So I tried to be that player for the Steelers 11 years. I think they found a lot of value in that, too.
It’s a mentality — you’ve got to want to be an all-around tight end.
Miller: It definitely has to start with a mentality. Blocking is not a glamorous thing. You could be the best blocking tight end in the NFL or the guy who catches 80 or 90 balls and no one’s going to know about the best blocking tight end in the league. So it’s not a glamorous thing to do. You’ve got to be willing to do it. Yeah, it takes a concerted effort. But that was my makeup as a player. If you asked me to protect in the backfield, I wanted to be the best pass protector in the backfield. If it was a run, I wanted to be the best run-blocking tight end in our room or the best pass-blocking tight end in our room. Whatever they asked me to do, I tried to be the best at it.
Where does that humble nature, that bust-ass, do-what-you’re-told nature come from for you personally?
Miller: I’m sure it has something to do with the way I was brought up. Not only in my household, but the smaller-town thing. But also, it speaks to just being a competitive guy. A guy who wanted to compete and be the best at whatever I was asked to do. If it was “Who can get to the water jug first?” I would try to be the best.
And you were a quarterback through your upbringing, from high school on to college.
Miller: Yeah, I was a quarterback until college. I started dabbling a little bit at tight end my redshirt year. They needed some tight ends on the scout team, so I jumped in. Volunteered. The rest is history.
What about the position was calling you?
Miller: Well, a coach was calling me. That’s who was calling me. (laughs) It chose me. I was a big guy. I was about 230, 235 when I came to college. So I think in the back of the coaches’ minds, they knew I had the body of a tight end. Fortunately for me, we had a coach on staff at Virginia named Andy Heck who had just retired after playing in the league for 10 years as an offensive tackle. And he wanted to get into coaching. He was a graduate assistant coach on our team at Virginia. I don’t know how much you know about tight ends in college — oftentimes tight ends don’t have coaches in college, just because of the staff limitations. So for me to have him — and he was also the scout-team coach — so he was like, “You’re going to be a good tight end. I know it. I know it.” So not only did I jump in to help at tight end, but he encouraged me to do that. And then he spent a lot of extra time with me, teaching me the position, teaching me how to block. So a lot of things aligned for me to develop as a tight end. And he coaches in the NFL now. He’s the offensive line coach for the Chiefs. So to be able to be taught how to block, from the ground up, the fundamentals… he was a tight end in high school and moved to offensive tackle at Notre Dame. So for me to have that wisdom and guidance from an early fundamental stage was monumental for me as a player.
What was the hardest thing to learn when you’re learning how to block for the first time?
Miller: Probably being 230 pounds and blocking defensive ends. Bigger guys! Being low, all the fundamental stuff. I was an offensive guard in seventh grade because I weighed too much to play in the backfield. So that was my only prior experience blocking in football. I had to learn everything. I wanted to do everything I could to just get on the field as a player in college. That opened the door for me to do that.
When you think of someone switching from quarterback to tight end, you think they’ll have to swallow their ego and come to grips with not being The Guy. But you were never like that. Every player claims to be humble but it really sounds like you lived it. To your core. What are the roots of this?
Miller: In college, I had to be honest with myself. After I got to college, I surveyed the quarterback landscape and said, “You know? I’m going to be holding that quarterback clipboard for quite a while. Maybe I’ll get to play at the end of my career. Maybe. But I was the second guy to go to a Division I college from my school. It was a small school. So I’m like, ‘I want to get on the field! A lot of people are following me. A lot of people are supporting me.’ Even if I run down on special teams, I want to be on the field. And they’re not going to let quarterbacks play special teams. When I had the chance to play tight end, I dove in headfirst and didn’t look back.
What made you and the city of Pittsburgh a perfect fit? A lot of fans yell players’ names, but it was up a few octaves when they yelled your name. You were beloved to a level few players in general ever reach.
Miller: The city of Pittsburgh is awesome in the way they support their sports’ teams. I always think of it as a city with a small-town feel because whether it’s the Steelers or the Penguins or even the Pirates, everyone bleeds black and yellow from Pittsburgh. If you were raised there and you moved somewhere else or if you live there now, you’re a part of a sports culture there. It’s huge for the city. No. 1, they had a huge fan base. No. 2, the city just embraces that blue-collar, hard-hat culture and I fit in perfectly for that.
Day to day — when you’re putting on that proverbial hard hat — what does your process look like?
Miller: It’s keeping things simple. There’s no shortcut to hard work. It’s giving it your all, whether it’s in film study or the weight room. Just being fully dedicated to your craft. I never wanted to look back on my career and say, “Man, if I just did this maybe I could’ve done X, Y and Z.” Don’t over-complicate it. Come to work and do your best and see where that lands you. However far you make it, success or failure, you’ll be OK with where you’re at.
You played in 168 games out of 176. You never missed more than two in a season. Even with the ACL, you tore your ACL late in a season and then came back. How did you come back so soon from that?
Miller: The timing was a good thing. We only had one game left so I only missed one game that season. And then I think I missed two the following year. But that was a tough one to come back from, especially later in my career.
What was the hardest thing you had to play through?
Miller: I would say that first year back from the ACL was tough because you have to manage so much. I knew the formula that made me a good player so when I had to physically manage throughout the week and not do everything I’m used to doing to prepare for the games—just to be fresh enough and have the knee ready to go for the game—that was tough. As much mental as physical.
What made it tough mentally?
Miller: As players, you’re creatures of habit. Creatures of routine. Just making sure you’re ready for the game physically when you’re not taking the reps you’re used to getting or getting in the workouts and preparing your body. Maybe you have to spend more time on treatment or therapy and manage your load a little bit. That was always a tough balance for me.
Plus, you’re not exactly avoiding the pile. You’re in the thick of it. Did you take pride in playing during an era where a lot of tight ends are moving all over the place — they’re not really tight ends — but you’re such a throwback, such an old-school player that did it all, did that mean anything to you? Playing in such an era?
Miller: Yeah, I always took pride in being an every-down tight end. I didn’t like it when I had to come off the field. For the most part, I played every snap of every game I played.
Your rapport with Ben Roethlisberger. I know it’s cliché to throw around the term, “security blanket.” But talking to Drew Bledsoe, he’d go to Ben Coates as much as possible. How do you get to that level with a quarterback where he’s going to go to you in every clutch situation?
Miller: I think it’s developed through a number of years. Ben was drafted the year before me. My entire career was with him, and how fortunate was I to be able to play with a quarterback of that caliber my whole career. Instantaneously, we saw the game in very similar ways. Oftentimes, it was unspoken but we were on the same page. That was always a natural thing between us. Fortunately for us. Because in some cases, it takes work to get on the same page. It was seamless for us.
Is it a matter of staying after practice? Watching film together? How do you get to the level you got to?
Miller: For us, it was just a natural thing. Ben always played this schoolyard style. Especially when he was outside of the pocket. He was naturally so good at that. I just knew if I could get open, he’d find me. There weren’t a lot of rules or premeditated thoughts that went into it, but nine times out of 10 we were on the same page and it worked out well.
I was just watching some of your highlights and had forgotten about the hits you’d take. Imagine those stung a little.
Miller: I always joke that I’ve forgotten the hardest ones. But I had a few concussions. Some at the hands of the Ravens. Those were always physical games. That brand of football isn’t allowed to be played anymore, and I guess rightfully so. Those were games I’ll always remember and I’m certainly glad I was able to be a part of that rivalry.
We’re the same age, but you’re right. As recent as those games feel, the game really has changed so much even in six, seven years. How do you think it has changed since your heyday?
Miller: The peak of the Ravens rivalry was the beginning of things starting to change with the league. As more information becomes available — the long-term effects of concussions, some guys are really struggling that took a lot of hits — it’s right to make the game safer. I think the league and the player’s association are taking steps to do that.
You had a concussion in 2010. That one looks rough. What was it like to work through this one?
Miller: There was one that took me a while to get over. The hard thing as a competitor, and it’s hard in implementing these rules, as a competitor you want to be on the field. So, it’s hard to be honest about your symptoms when you know it’ll make you ineligible to play. You want to be there for your teammates and all that stuff. But I think the education on everything has made it easier for players to be honest, and say, “Hey, I’m not feeling right. I know my teammates need me, but my head, I don’t feel right with my head. I shouldn’t be there.” It’s changing that culture. I think it’s slowly beginning to change.
What was the worst one for you?
Miller: One in Baltimore. Maybe it was 2010. I was out on the field for a while. I missed a couple games for sure. It was a linebacker. He blindsided me after the pass.
Miller: Yes, yes, yes.
That was vicious. That was brutal.
Miller: Yeah, I saw a replay. I don’t remember it. Nor did I remember it at the time. Everyone is telling you how they felt, and they had these varying emotions. You have people on the sideline and your loved ones and your wife at home. So, I wanted to see it. I had no recollection of what happened.
And you were out. Blacked out.
Miller: Yeah, I don’t have the details of that. I walked off the field and everything but that was a tough one.
You suffer this concussion. You take time off. Football players are a different breed but how do you go back onto the field of combat after that kind of collision?
Miller: It’s definitely in the back of your mind in the beginning. Once you get into the flow of the game, you’re focusing on your job, your assignment. As a football player, you’ve got to be able to compartmentalize things and block certain things out. Whether it be crowd noise, whether it be someone trying to talk trash to you. That’s one of those things you need to mentally put in the back of your mind and move forward.
Easier said than done. Not easy. Day in, day out, maybe that’s what you take most pride in: You kept showing up. It’s one thing for players to dream of this, and another to actually live it.
Miller: A goal of mine when I came into the league was to reach double-digits. Coach Heck was a mentor of mine, and I knew he played 10 years. So I made that a goal. Double-digits. I want to get to 10. I wanted to show up every day and be what my team needed and be the best that I could be. That was to be the best tight end on our team but also to be one of the best in the league. That was my goal as a player.
When you’re sitting around with your boys — and thinking back to the glory days — are there any war stories that come to mind that you like to relive?
Miller: My kids aren’t that impressed. I probably find more joy in being able to brag to them with the guys I was able to play with and against. They find that interesting. To them, I’m just Dad.
For you, there has to be something you take pride in. Maybe not that forearm to the face. Anything else that you think epitomized your career?
Miller: Being known as an all-around tight end who could do both. It was important for me to earn my teammates’ trust and respect. I think I was able to do that throughout my career. When the guys you go to work with every day admire and respect what you do and what you give toward the team, that makes you feel pretty good.
The tight end position can preserve real football. So much has changed, as you put — justifiably so. Nobody wants decapitations. I feel like there’s been an overcorrection and the game often doesn’t resemble what we love about it. Maybe the tight end position, with the catching, the blocking, the sport can still live and breathe right there. How can this position preserve what we love about football?
Miller: When I get a chance to watch football now, I really appreciate and enjoy the guys who do both and take pride in doing both. That’s always fun for me to watch those types of guys. They’re dinosaurs in the game today. Throwback players.
Who do you admire most?
Miller: I don’t want to leave anybody out. But I do know that Gronk does a great job. George Kittle is also a lot of fun to watch. He’s an animal in the running game, and the passing game.
When you retired, all you did was put out a statement. There wasn’t a social-media team putting a video together. You didn’t have a farewell tour. There was nothing. I don’t even know if you had a press conference and gave anybody an interview.
Miller: No, I just did the statement.
What went into that thinking? That’s your personality but, usually, guys want a pat on the back on their way out.
Miller: I knew it was my time and I was most comfortable releasing a statement so that’s the route I chose to go. Just wanted to personally thank — face to face — the people who helped me along my journey.
Nothing wrong with face-to-face communication.
Miller: That’s right.
What did you do behind the scenes?
Miller: I called my tight ends coach up and let him know what I want to do. Actually went over to his house and had a talk with him. He encouraged me. He said to come to the facility tomorrow and let people know: Mr. Rooney, Coach Tomlin and I’m really glad he encouraged me to do that. I was able to show my appreciation for the people who believed in me and gave me a lot of opportunities throughout my career.
Still to come…
Dallas Clark Book Excerpt
Lee Smith Profile
Frank Wycheck Q&A
Column: Who’s the greatest tight end of all-time?
Happy Hour: Let’s chat all things “Blood and Guts”