The Nov. 12, 1978, game between the Los Angeles Rams and Pittsburgh Steelers was widely regarded as a Super Bowl preview. Playing for the Steelers that night was Rocky Bleier, whose inspiring story was well known. The running back had served in Vietnam, where he was wounded when an enemy grenade peppered his lower right leg and foot with shrapnel. Lucky to survive, though he lost part of his foot, Bleier returned stateside, rehabilitated his body, and returned to the Steelers just as they started their long championship run. He eventually won four Super Bowl rings with Pittsburgh, and in 1980, the NFL would cooperate with ABC in the production of a made-for-TV movie titled Fighting Back: The Story of Rocky Bleier.
But on that night, on the Los Angeles Coliseum’s muddy turf, Bleier could do little. He carried the ball two times for seven yards, and the Steelers—who would go on to win the next two Super Bowls—managed a measly 174 yards on offense. The Rams defense, which employed future Hall of Famer Jack Youngblood and All-Pros Jim Youngblood, Fred Dryer, and Isaiah Robertson, completely shut down Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, and the Steelers juggernaut. But the Rams couldn’t get much going either. The game finally turned in the fourth quarter, when quarterback Pat Haden threaded a laser between two Steelers and into the hands of wide receiver Willie Miller.
You probably haven’t heard of Miller. He was an undersize wide receiver with shifty moves, quick feet, and strong hands who played for the Browns and Rams. In 1978, he led the run-first Rams in receiving with 50 catches for 767 yards. His solid seven-year NFL career ended in 1982.
Just like Bleier, Miller fought in Vietnam. And just like the white running back, the black wide receiver was wounded in combat (in Miller’s case, the bullet passed through the back of his thigh) and awarded the Purple Heart. Miller was a member of the Special Forces, and unlike any other NFL player, he voluntarily served two tours of duty in Vietnam, where he was awarded the Silver Star for his courage in combat. But nobody’s ever made a TV movie about Miller. And when the Department of Defense and the NFL celebrated “Players Who Have Served in the Military” in 2016, Miller’s experience went missing.
That’s because, though Miller’s story is every bit as heroic and compelling as Bleier’s, it’s far more complex. It speaks to problems Americans and the NFL continue to struggle with—such as the ways race informs American memory, how the residual trauma of combat can silence veterans, and the thorny issues arising at the nexus of patriotism, sports, and social justice.
Willie T. Miller was born in Birmingham, Alabama, on April 26, 1947. He graduated from Hooper City High School, where his athletic prowess and high grades earned him numerous college scholarship offers. But in 1965, he turned them down to join the military. “The truth is,” Miller told the Cleveland Plain Dealer a decade later, “I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. I had to try to find myself—to see what kind of person I really was.”
In 1965, when Miller joined the Army, the number of U.S. combat troops in Vietnam was only just beginning to ramp up. After training with the Special Forces, he shipped out to Southeast Asia. What happened to him in the jungles of Vietnam forever altered his life, but it wasn’t something he enjoyed discussing.
Years later, when Miller earned a spot as the NFL’s oldest rookie with the Cleveland Browns, sportswriter Hal Lebovitz was excited to profile the team’s new player. Miller wasn’t enthusiastic about cooperating. “If I had to write about myself,” Miller told Lebovitz, “I wouldn’t.” So Lebovitz, who died in 2005, obtained Miller’s Department of Defense records, using them as fodder for a story in the Plain Dealer. Lebovitz recounted how Miller had won his Silver Star (the third-highest U.S. military combat medal) by retrieving his wounded platoon sergeant while under heavy enemy fire. After euphemistically “eliminating some of the opposition,” Miller dragged his sergeant to safety and administered first aid.
Miller declined to elaborate on his war experience. “I want to put it out of my mind,” he told Lebovitz. “You don’t like to talk about killing.” Miller did admit to being plagued by nightmares. “Anybody who doesn’t have them over such events is either a fool or a liar. I don’t care how many years have passed,” he explained. In 1979, after Miller signed with the Rams and became an NFL star, Dave Anderson of the New York Times profiled “The Ram From Vietnam.” But Miller remained reticent. Anderson asked the receiver what he told teammates who inquired about Vietnam. “I tell ’em the truth,” Miller explained. “Death isn’t beautiful. When it gets gory, they drop the subject.” When asked specifically about combat, he told Anderson that “we had to kill a few of those [Viet Cong] … or they would’ve killed us.” He also described the feeling of having a sniper’s bullet pass through his thigh. “That lead burned like a hot poker,” he said.
When reading the 1975 Lebovitz article and the 1979 Times profile, one is struck by the dignity of Miller’s laconic responses. In both cases, sports writers came looking for a great story, but Miller would only cooperate so much. It was his story, not theirs, and it wasn’t an easy one to tell. Miller’s attitude seemed to be that sports writers, and their audiences, couldn’t imagine the truth about combat—and it wasn’t his job to educate them. In sports journalism, war is too often considered nothing more than a metaphor. In Willie Miller’s life, the war he fought was literal, real, and searing. And given his constant nightmares, it was never-ending.
Miller wasn’t supposed to make it to the NFL. After 5½ years in the military, he enrolled at Colorado State University in 1971 at the age of 24. Three years later, he was named the school’s Athlete of the Year. But despite his blazing speed and impressive college stats, Miller’s age cost him on draft day. The 27-year-old fell to the 12th round, where the Houston Oilers selected him, trading his rights to the Browns shortly afterward. The naysayers didn’t bother Miller. “Age doesn’t mean anything,” he told the Times. “No matter how old I am, can’t fool that stopwatch.”
Miller, who turned 28 before the start of his first NFL season, made the Cleveland Browns with a stellar training camp. He played two years in Cleveland, primarily as a return specialist, but after dislocating his elbow in a 1977 preseason game, he missed that entire year. The Browns cut him, and after fielding offers from several teams, Miller chose the Rams. He thought Southern California’s warmth would allow his body to recuperate from injuries more quickly. In 1978, he emerged as the team’s top receiver.
The Rams were an outstanding team. In Miller’s first season in Los Angeles, they nearly made it to the Super Bowl before the Cowboys beat their injury-depleted squad for the NFC Championship. But that 1978 team remains one of only two in the Super Bowl era—the other being the 2008 New York Giants—to defeat every other team in that season’s conference championship games. (The Rams beat the Oilers, Cowboys, and the eventual champion Steelers.) In 1979, the veteran Rams stumbled through the regular season before getting hot in the playoffs and earning the team’s first Super Bowl appearance. Though they led in the second half, the Steelers eventually rallied to deny them the title.
Miller didn’t play in that Super Bowl, as injuries kept him off the field. He’d come back and play three more years for the Rams before retiring from professional football. Upon returning to Birmingham, he took a series of coaching jobs, culminating in his tenure as head coach of Erwin High School (now known as Center Point High School). He finally retired after almost three decades in 2013.
When it came to interactions with sports writers, Miller remained reserved. He “could drive cub reporters at The Birmingham News mad some times,” recalled the News’ Jeff Sentell in an appreciation of Miller published upon the coach’s retirement. “Miller had the gift of giving the driest of interviews during a formal question-and-answer period but also leave that same reporter feeling they’d still enjoy a round of golf with him if the tape or later the digital recorder wasn’t running,” Sentell explained.
It’s difficult to say with certainty why Miller remained disengaged from the media, but his reticence is understandable when considering his life experience. He’s a member of two groups—black Vietnam veterans and retired NFL players—who have been notably wronged. In both popular culture and in reality, the black Vietnam veteran has never been offered the same level of sympathy, assistance, or celebration as the white Vietnam veteran. Rocky Bleier was surely deserving of the adulation he received. But the acclaim Bleier received makes the silence about Miller’s sacrifice even more glaring. Then there’s the NFL, which has proved remarkably callous toward those who helped generate the game’s massive popularity. Particularly galling is the retiree benefit system, which shortchanges players who retired before 1993. “We’re the ones that built this, and we’re forgotten,” Hall of Fame player Elvin Bethea recently told NPR’s Only a Game.
It seems likely, then, that Willie Miller, Vietnam hero and NFL star, has been doubly wronged. That’s my conjecture, because I couldn’t get Miller to speak to me for this piece. I contacted the Los Angeles Rams, the Colorado State University sports information office, and the high school where he coached. I was able to locate phone numbers for him, and I left multiple messages. I contacted a relative through Facebook. I emailed Jeff Sentell, the reporter who wrote a piece on Miller in 2013. All of those avenues turned out to be dead ends.
Given his long-standing reticence with the press, it shouldn’t be a surprise that I couldn’t get Miller to agree to a conversation. Nevertheless, I worried that this piece wouldn’t make sense without Miller’s input. I wanted to know what it must have felt like to fight in Vietnam as Muhammad Ali objected to the war and black athletes protested at the 1968 Olympic Games. I wanted to know what Miller thought of Colin Kaepernick and all the recent controversies involving the flag, patriotism, and sports.
But then I remembered something Miller told Lebovitz back in 1975: “I’d rather hear about people who have lived spectacular lives. I don’t mean important people. I look at small persons no one seems interested in. To me, they’re the ones worth listening to and hearing about—the unsung heroes. Like high school coaches, people who develop athletes. Like ministers who try to steer people in the right direction.”
Miller spent many more years coaching high school football than he did in Vietnam and the NFL combined. That quote wasn’t just prophetic. It also contains wisdom drawn from Miller’s life and experience. Although he wasn’t yet 30, he’d already learned that we should be judged on the relationships we build rather than on fame or awards. He understood that heroes are everywhere, if we just take the time to look for them. That’s a powerful message. And we all owe it to Willie Miller to remember it.
*Update, Jan. 29, 2019: This article has been updated to reflect that military decorations are earned, not won.