Whether or not football will be played at any level in 2020 due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is unknown at this point, but this fall will mark the fifth straight season in which Heath Miller will not be on the gridiron.
How is retirement treating the guy who starred for the Honaker High School Tigers, University of Virginia Cavaliers, Pittsburgh Steelers and achieved Southwest Virginia legend status?
“It’s going well. … I was at peace with the decision to retire when I made it,” Miller recently said in a telephone interview. “I knew my career was over and I was ready to be done. Certainly there are parts you miss and will always miss, but it’s just one of those things where all good things have to come to an end.”
The 37-year-old Miller lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, these days with his wife, Katie, and their four kids: 10-year-old Chase, 9-year-old Jake, 7-year-old Cole and 5-year-old Morgan.
“I’ve really enjoyed spending a lot of time with my family and helping my wife raise our kids,” Miller said. “They are active and involved in a lot of stuff, so they keep us busy and keep us engaged. I’ve enjoyed going to their activities or sporting events or whatever they have going on.”
Far removed from a stadium’s bright lights and the notoriety that football stardom brings, Miller happily goes about the unassuming life of a family man. A guy who has spent much of his life in the spotlight has always preferred to live in relative obscurity.
When he announced he was leaving the game back on Feb. 19, 2016, there was no press conference at Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field. Instead, Miller issued a 142-word statement to the media.
He didn’t renege on his decision and make a comeback attempt.
Miller hasn’t appeared as a talking head on ESPN or the NFL Network.
He doesn’t have a Twitter account where he opines on the current state of the game.
That’s just not who Heath Miller is.
“I’ve never really felt comfortable being the guy with the attention thrust on me and that’s why I don’t really do a lot of interviews or stuff like that,” Miller said. “I always just like to go about my work and business and do it that way.”
There’s a clip from an NFL Films production several years ago where Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin loudly exclaims three times, “Always go to Heath Miller” following a clutch catch by the star tight end.
Meanwhile, Miller simply handed the ball to the referee and jogged back to the sideline.
“He was quiet and didn’t feel the need to speak up or stand out,” said Connor Hughes, a teammate of Miller’s at UVa. “He let his play talk and I think it was loud enough he didn’t have to talk much after.”
This fall will mark the 20th anniversary of Miller’s final football season at Honaker.
Fifteen years have passed since the Steelers selected him in the first round of the NFL Draft.
Come February, it will be the five-year anniversary of his final game.
“Time goes by really fast,” Miller said. “You don’t realize it at the time, but it really is a drop in the bucket with how fast time goes by.”
Yet, the memories never fade, especially those Miller made at Honaker.
“I’ve been on teams in college and the NFL, but those high school seasons – you remember those just as well as you remember the Super Bowls,” Miller said. “It was fun and it was great to see how our community supported us. Those were relationships that I will always remember.”
Miller was a game-changing quarterback and safety, leading the way as Honaker compiled a 13-1 record and reached the VHSL Group A, Division 2 title game during his senior season. He did it all while remaining a humble hero.
“One night we ran an option to his left,” Honaker coach Doug Hubbard said. “Heath could have walked into the end zone, but instead he pitched the ball to Joey Dye so he could score the touchdown. He was always being like that. His attitude and character has never changed.”
His position did change during his freshman season at Virginia as he shifted from QB to tight end at the urging of Cavaliers head coach Al Groh. He went with the flow as usual and it turned out to be a life-altering move.
“During our freshman year, I remember going home with Heath to Honaker for a long weekend,” said Alvin Pearman, a running back at UVa. “I’m from the city, so small-town Virginia was new to me. We four-wheeled, ate really well thanks to his mom [Denise] and spent a bunch of time with his family and friends. What I learned from that weekend was that Heath is hard working, humble and kind, in part because that is who the people of Honaker are – a small town of people with big hearts and strong hands.”
Miller had sure hands at UVa and won the John Mackey Award in 2004 as college football’s top tight end.
The Steelers selected him with the 30th overall pick in the 2005 NFL Draft. A local player hasn’t gone in the first round since.
“I was just really fortunate to go to a franchise with the history and reputation of the Steelers,” Miller said. “They have that history and reputation for a reason and they do things the right way. I couldn’t have picked a better place to go.”
In the first quarter of the first game of his NFL career, Miller’s first catch was a 3-yard touchdown pass from Ben Roethlisberger.
“I don’t remember a whole lot about it,” Miller said. “It seems so long ago. It was exciting, I do remember that. Being a high draft pick, there’s always expectations and a lot of talk leading into the season. It was more of a relief than anything.”
By the time it was all said and done, Miller caught 592 passes and scored 45 touchdowns in 168 regular-season contests over 11 seasons. The most productive tight end in franchise history also had 49 catches and four TDs in 15 career postseason games.
Of course, personal stats were never a priority for Miller.
“Heath was a guy that never complained about anything,” said Clint Kriewaldt, who played linebacker for the Steelers from 2003-07. “We never heard Heath complain during, or after, the game if he didn’t have any receptions or touchdowns. Heath was focused on what was best for the team and the team’s success more than his personal goals. Everyone always knew what kind of attitude and effort Heath would give, on and off the field, every day.”
Miller played in three Super Bowls, winning the ultimate prize on two occasions.
He never played on a team with a losing record during his pro career.
“Every year in the NFL is a new team as guys come and go,” Miller said. “Those title teams were two different teams for sure – unique and special in their own right. What a privilege it was to be a part of those two teams and it wasn’t bad to go to the Super Bowl in my first year.”
From his first season to his last and from a meaningless preseason contest to the Super Bowl, Miller approached them all the same.
“I remember sitting in meetings while we installed our offensive plays for the week,” said Bruce Gradkowski, a backup quarterback in Pittsburgh from 2013-16. “It was a play that Heath had run a million times, but he was still taking every single detailed note on the play. That really impressed me and showed why he was so successful and played so long. The guy never got complacent or felt like he was above anyone else. … Heath was the ultimate teammate.”
The end came on Jan. 17, 2016 in Denver with a 23-16 playoff loss to the Broncos.
Miller had one catch for five yards that day.
“I took some time after the season and just wanted to get away a little bit by myself,” Miller said. “I wanted to get my thoughts together and just make sure [retirement] was the right decision.”
His playing days might be over, but he certainly isn’t forgotten.
In unison, Steelers fans will still let out the “Heeeath” chant when a tight end hauls in a reception.
Those No. 83 jerseys with Miller stitched on the back are prevalent in the stands at Heinz Field.
Scott Stadium in Charlottesville has a plaque honoring his accomplishments – and those of other Virginia superstars – in one end zone.
A stretch of pavement near Honaker’s football field is known as “Heath Miller Circle” and his mementos take up some serious space in the trophy case at his alma mater.
“Being a friend, former teammate and growing up in the community together, I think I speak for everyone who crossed paths with Heath in life or sports when I say we couldn’t be happier and more proud of all the accomplishments he has achieved,” said Neil Sample, who was a standout at Honaker alongside Miller.
They hold their native son in high regard in rural Russell County and Miller has never forgotten his roots. His parents, Earl and Denise, still live in Swords Creek.
“I have watched him grow up from a small kid playing Little League football to high school, college and the NFL,” Hubbard said. “With all the awards and Super Bowl rings, Heath has never changed.”
Could Miller eventually earn enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio?
Some folks think so.
“As a player he knew where he needed to be, he knew what he needed to do and he would do it better than anyone else,” Pearman said. “He never called attention to himself and deflected praise to others. He inspired his teammates through his actions and sacrifice. He is a once in a generation talent and an even better person. He should be in Canton one day.”
One thing is for certain: Miller won’t be campaigning to make sure he gets his own bust alongside the game’s greats or appearing on sports radio to talk up his candidacy.
Does he even still follow professional football?
“My older two sons have gotten into it more,” Miller said. “My oldest son has the games on all day on Sundays and he keeps up with his fantasy team. I usually just watch it through him.”
Heath Miller and Chase Miller were in Minneapolis last April when the Virginia Cavaliers won the NCAA men’s basketball national championship with a thrilling overtime win over Texas Tech.
“That was a great experience,” Miller said. “To be able to be there with my oldest son and see the excitement on his face – it was the trip of a lifetime.”
Moments like that are more rewarding than any touchdown catch for Miller in his career as a low-key family man.
Judging from the comments of those who know him, he certainly made a positive impact over the course of all those years on the gridiron.
“In a season without sports,” Hughes said. “I hope everyone can understand that football was not the best part of Heath Miller.”