The best team in franchise history. The biggest win. The most heartbreaking loss. The most hated rival. You get the idea. But over time, some absolutes have emerged, and in those few instances there is agreement – or at the very least, acceptance – that there is but one answer.
The greatest coach in Steelers history? Duh. Chuck Noll. The best player? Unless you want to argue with Chairman Dan Rooney and about a half-dozen of his Hall of Fame teammates, the answer to that one is Joe Greene. The best trade? The one on draft day in 1996 that brought Jerome Bettis and a draft pick from the St. Louis Rams in exchange for a draft pick.
Now we can add another category as one of the few with a definitive answer:
The best tight end?
Heath Miller announced his retirement on Feb. 19, after an 11-year career with the Steelers that began as a first-round draft choice in 2005, that included three conference championships, two Super Bowl championships, and two trips to the Pro Bowl, and it ended with Miller being the most productive tight end in franchise history for what he accomplished on the field and a beloved teammate and highly-respected man for the way he carried himself off the field.
“He was still a valuable part of the offense,” said General Manager Kevin Colbert. “Could he run like he once did? No. Could he stretch the field? Absolutely not. But could he provide us with 5 yards when we needed 4? Absolutely. Could he provide Ben with an awesome outlet receiver? No question. Those are the things we will address as we try to retool our team in free agency and the draft. On the field we’ll miss the body, but it’s also part of our soul that’s leaving. Even though Heath is not a man of many words, he was definitely a respected leader, not only within his position group but for this entire team and this organization.”
Miller once said, “I was a Steelers fan growing up. I had a couple of favorite players. Walter Payton, so I liked the (Chicago) Bears when he played. I met with the Steelers at the (NFL Scouting) Combine. And then coming to a team that went 15-1 the year before and was in the AFC Championship Game, coming to a locker room full of veterans who knew how to do things right … this was the perfect spot for me.”
His given name is Earl Heath Miller, and he was born and raised in Swords Creek, Va., a tiny mining community surrounded by the Appalachian Mountains. It is a place where everybody knows everybody and fundamental family values still rule the day.
His father, Earl, is a home builder, and his mother, Denise, is a counselor at Southwest Virginia Community College. Earl Miller never missed a day’s work. Never.
“I know it’s a cliché, but actions do really speak louder than words,” said Miller in a 2011 interview. “My dad did his job to the fullest, and I think I learned from that. He didn’t expect a pat on his back, he was just doing what he needed to do for his family. Neither he nor my mom ever took me aside and talked to me about the value of hard work – that’s not the type of people they are – but their actions taught me everything I needed to know. That’s what I try to apply to my job everyday: To do what’s expected of me.”
Heath Miller became a sports legend once he got to Honaker High School. He was the quarterback on the football team, a power forward on the basketball team, and a first baseman on the baseball team. Local legend has it that Miller struck out just once in his entire high school baseball career. In basketball, he was fierce around the hoop. But it was football that was Heath Miller’s game in high school, and he was good enough at it where it soon became his occupation.
In high school he accounted for 6,182 yards and scored 77 touchdowns, totals minimized by a broken arm that ruined his freshman year as well as a magnanimous nature that always had him looking to involve teammates in many situations when he easily could have handled things himself. In high school, in college at the University of Virginia, during 11 seasons with the Steelers, it was never about numbers for Heath Miller. It always was about the team.
QUARTERBACK TO TIGHT END
Miller’s dominance on the football field earned him a scholarship to the University of Virginia, but a coaching change and the presence of Matt Schaub combined to orchestrate a position change from quarterback to tight end. A change from the most glamorous position on a football team to one of the most anonymous might have sent a more self-centered individual looking for another scholarship opportunity.
“With George Welsh (as the coach), I was going to be a quarterback,” said Miller. “At least that’s what they told me. Once I got to college, I thought I’d be holding a clipboard (as a backup quarterback) for four years, then I would graduate and become a teacher and a high school football coach. So when I made the move (to tight end), I was happy. I thought I would get a chance to play some special teams, things like that. It turns out, it ended up working out for the best.”
Miller redshirted as a freshman, a year during which new Coach Al Groh and his staff began the process of converting the high school quarterback to tight end. The student quickly made the teachers look good.
Miller was a second-team all-ACC pick as a redshirt freshman in 2002, and he developed to the degree that he was voted the Mackey Award winner after his final college season in 2004. He left UVA with 144 receptions for 1,703 yards and 20 touchdowns.
“I definitely enjoy the physical part of football. It'd be hard to find a football player who doesn't,” said Miller in 2013. “I think you kind of get the best of both worlds (at tight end). Every once in a while you get to run with the football and catch it. Other times you get to mix it up in the middle. It's a fun position.”
It was early 2005, and even though Heath Miller still had a year of college eligibility left, he already had his college degree and so he decided it was time to become a wage-earner. But even with all of his talent, it wasn’t a smooth transition because of a sports hernia. Miller decided on surgery to fix the problem, but the result was that he wasn’t going to be able to work out at the NFL Scouting Combine or at Virginia’s pro day.
In what has become typical of Miller, he still attended the Combine, met with the teams that were interested in talking to him and did what he could do. He also took the Wonderlic test, and his score of 39 was the second-highest among all the players who were eligible for the 2005 NFL Draft.
To put Miller’s score of 39 into some context, the average score on the Wonderlic for everyone who takes it – not just football players – is a 24. The average score for a chemist is a 31. The average score for a computer programmer is a 29. The average score for an NFL quarterback is a 24. The highest score ever recorded on the Wonderlic by an NFL player was the perfect 50 by Harvard graduate Pat McInally in 1975.
“I knew I did pretty well on it, but I’ll just say that I had a lot of practice, and I was very prepared for it,” Miller said. “If you were to hand me that test on a random day, I’m sure I wouldn’t have gotten that many right. I studied and prepared for it like it was a football game. Also, at the Combine, that’s all I could do. So, it gave me a little bit of an advantage.”
Colbert remembers that 2005 Combine.
“Heath was an underclassman, and even though he was graduating on time he still had a year of eligibility left,” said Colbert. “He had a sports hernia, which prevented him from participating at both the Combine and also at his pro day, because he never was 100 percent. We had to make a decision on whether to draft him, and we did decide to draft him without ever timing him. We never timed him, but we won’t ever look back at that decision with any regrets. He helped us win two championships, but more than that he’s such a solid combination of talent and character. Those are the type of guys we hope we can continue to add to our roster, because he’s so special.”
The Steelers were coming off a 15-1 regular season in 2004, a season that ended with the disappointment of another loss to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. Looking at a depth chart that had Jerame Tuman, Jay Riemersma, Matt Cushing, and Walter Rasby at tight end, Colbert and Coach Bill Cowher decided it was worth the gamble to use the 30th overall pick on the Virginia tight end who was still recovering from sports hernia surgery.
In the first quarter of his first regular season NFL game, Heath Miller caught a touchdown pass. He then caught touchdown passes in four of the next five games, including two in a 20-19 win over the Baltimore Ravens. He finished 2005 with 39 catches for 459 yards, and six touchdowns in the regular season, and Miller added seven more for 107 yards and another touchdown in the three victories in the AFC Playoffs that earned the Steelers a trip to Super Bowl XL.
“I was blessed to be in that locker room, to come into a locker room full of veteran leaders who knew how to play the game, knew how to be on top of their game for many, many years,'' said Miller. “I was probably even more quiet my rookie year. I was trying to feel my way and follow the lead of the other guys and just kind of find my place here.”
Miller’s place in Steelers history is secure. He retired as the Steelers’ all-time leader among tight ends in receptions (592), receiving yards (6,569) and receiving touchdowns (45). Among all Steelers, Miller is second in career receptions, and fourth in both receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. He is one of four Steelers players to record 500 receptions, one of five Steelers to record 6,000 receiving yards, and one of five to record 40 receiving touchdowns in the 83 seasons that make up franchise history.
“The most important thing to me is winning games,” Miller has said often. “I’ve never worried about the other things.”
Never someone who sought a spotlight or a live microphone, Heath Miller’s retirement never leaked via social media. He had confided in a teammate or two that 2015 could be his final season, and Colbert and Coach Mike Tomlin had some idea what might happen, but the final decision was a family matter. When the family decided, only then did Heath Miller make a telephone call to the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex and inform tight ends coach James Daniel and Steelers President Art Rooney II of his decision. Word then was passed to Colbert and Tomlin, who were in personnel meetings in preparation for the 2016 Combine that’s set to begin on Wednesday, Feb. 24.
“We wanted to let him sift through his thoughts,” said Colbert. “We knew it was a possibility, and so when he came to us today and told us it was time to retire, we certainly wished him the best and thanked him for all of the great contributions he has made, not only on the field but also off the field. He has been as solid a combination of a player and a person as we could’ve dreamed of when we drafted him.
“He was definitely at peace with his decision. Heath is a very thoughtful person, and he gave this the proper amount of time for himself, but he also wanted to give us some leeway in terms of going about the business of possibly adding another player at his position. We thanked him, we reminisced a little bit, and I think everybody is at peace with his decision. As unselfish as they get is what we think about when we talk about Heath Miller.”