Heath Miller, member of two Super Bowl winning teams and tight end for the Pittsburgh Steelers, is afraid of heights. “He has always been afraid of heights,” said his mother, Denise Miller, of Swords Creek, Virginia.
It’s hard to imagine this 26 year-old, 255 pound, 6’5” human locomotive is afraid of anything. From the outset, when he played football, basketball, and baseball for Honaker High School in the Black Diamond District, Miller seemed destined to stand out.
An All-State quarterback for the Tigers, he also scored double digits during his three seasons of basketball. In 2001, Miller’s senior year, he was selected as the Bristol Herald Courier’s Southwest Virginia’s Player of the Year in baseball.
“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.”
Recently Mountain Peeks had the opportunity to interview Miller. Asked if coming from a small school like Honaker gave him an advantage as far as academics and discipline were concerned, he had this to say. “I’m not sure if smaller high schools have an advantage over larger high schools in college preparation. The best attribute a student can learn and carry into college is time management. If you can prioritize your time properly, you will be much more productive all the while taking advantage of your newfound opportunities that a college experience can offer.”
One of those opportunities came when he transitioned from quarterback to tight end while playing for the University of Virginia, making him a poster child for the adage “love what you do and the money will follow.” He was a 2005 NFL first-round draft pick and has been a starter for the Steelers since his rookie year that same year.
“I’m not sure that I would have done anything differently growing up,” said Miller. “I always enjoyed athletics, so I feel like I would be in a career that would somehow be associated with sports, maybe a coach or trainer.”
Akin to deer or elk locking antlers in a frenzy of dominance, pro football is serious business. It’s nice-guy Miller’s job to run full-bore toward another human, even if it means knocking the living daylights out of him. Or vice versa. “It amazes me just how tough Heath really is,” said his father, Earl Miller.
It’s that dichotomy – what he does for a living versus the man he is at his core – that keeps his parents on edge.
“A lot of the fears that we have are what normal parents have,” said Mrs. Miller. “One that we worry about the most is that he is kept from an injury that would affect him for the rest of his life. I pray continuously that God keeps him safe from harm and helps him to stay strong in his beliefs.”
“Heath has a large (family) support group that is so full of loving and beautiful people inside and out,” said Mrs. Miller. “Our church family is also a big part of our lives and has been there for both of our children.”
Calling it “a mommy thing,” she praises both Heath and his sister, Amanda, 23, equally. “They are both loving, caring, giving, respectful, talented, smart, self-motivated, and hardworking. We just raised them to believe that they could accomplish anything if they wanted it bad enough and worked hard enough,” she stressed. “I’m a true believer that God has a plan for all of our lives and this is the plan for Heath.”
Miller’s plan includes spreading his sunshine around when he comes home. “He doesn’t realize the influence he has on young people around here,” said Coach Hubbard.
However, 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.”
According to Coach Hubbard, Miller led a football camp at Honaker last spring that attracted almost 400 kids. “He also used his Reebok endorsement money to buy supplies for the high school football and baseball programs,” said Hubbard.
Miller knows that his one-time dream to play pro sports is the cookie-cutter dream of hordes of kids who wish to follow his footsteps into athletics. “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.
Miller has proven he walks the walk. “The Steelers organization gives Heath and his teammates many opportunities to give back,” said Mrs. Miller. “Heath and his wife, Katie, are now very involved in a charity that raises money for breast cancer.” (A Glimmer of Hope Foundation www.symbolofthecure.com)
According to Glimmer of Hope founder Diana Napper, a charity event called Bid for Hope was hosted last October by Heath and Katie Miller. The event raised $100,000 for one of the premier women’s hospitals in the world, the Magee-Womens Research Institute in Pittsburgh. (institute.mwrif.org) “The money will be used to fund the only under-40 study in the country of premenopausal breast cancer, which is five times more aggressive in younger women,” said Napper.
Taking Miller’s celebrity status into account, Napper said, “If I didn’t have people like Heath, people wouldn’t think it as big a deal.” Calling Miller and his wife “very sincere people,” Napper also said, “Heath is really conscientious of how he can take his position in sports and use it to help others in need.”
Miller’s self-effacing attitude was noted recently in an article by sports writer Gary Milhoces in USA Today. “There is nothing flashy about tight end Heath Miller.”
A laid-back Miller enjoys spending time with his wife when he gets the chance to relax. After his second Super Bowl appearance in a Steelers’ win against the Arizona Cardinals this year, Miller said he just enjoyed the festivities that went along with winning the game. “I didn’t do anything too extravagant,” he said. “I just enjoyed getting some much-needed rest.”
Like other athletes with staying power, Miller is careful not to let only his career define him. “There are many ways to define success,” he said. “I feel like as long as you are doing your best and passionately approaching whatever you are doing, whether it is a job, sports, education, or a relationship, then you are successful.”
“The trophies and accolades come and go, but the person that Heath is will make a difference in other people’s lives,” said Mrs. Miller. “One of the desires that I have for us and our children is to leave the world a better place because we were in it.”
Miller believes his life has unfolded just as it was meant to. “I’m not sure I would have done anything differently growing up,” he said. “I realize that I am very fortunate to be blessed with the circumstances that I was given. I know that there is always a reason that things happen. So, with that in mind, I don’t think I would change anything.”
There’s no doubt that Heath will get over his fear of heights. He’s going to have to. He is rightfully on top of the world.