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Normal for Clint McMillan, a third year sophomore defensive tackle for the Florida Gators, was the surreal world of his dad, David McMillan, a world renowned wild animal trainer whose life story is a movie just waiting to be made.
"Most people were playing with dogs and cats and I just played with lions and tigers," says Clint. "A lot of people didn't believe me, but we used to have field trips to my house."
The McMillan compound in Oviedo is home to David McMillan's production company. He's got lions, tigers, leopards, a few snakes, alligators and even a couple of parrots that he trains for movies, commercials, advertisements and shows. If you saw the movie "Gladiator" then you've seen David McMillan's big cats. Remember the photo in Rolling Stone of Nastassia Kinski with the huge boa constrictor wrapped around her otherwise nude body? That was David McMillan's snake. Remember the photo of Tiger Woods on the cover of Sports Illustrated with the real tiger? That was another of David's big cats.
David McMillan and his lion named Poncho
At 14, an age when most kids are trying to figure out facial hair, changing voices and things like that, David McMillan hopped a freighter out of his native Liverpool, England. He didn't know where it was going but he really didn't care. He was running away from home. Little did he know that his life would become an adventure that just doesn't seem to end. In the 44 years since he bid farewell to England, he's lived with African tribes, traveled the world, worked as George Foreman's sparring partner and become the foremost wild animal trainer in the world.
Forty-four years later, life remains an adventure only for David only nowadays he's far more fascinated with Clint's football career at the University of Florida than he is with getting lions and tigers ready for another movie or television commercial. He admits he doesn't know football very well, but he's learning on the fly and he's excited that the Florida Gators seem to be on the verge of something great.
Coach Urban Meyer is the reason for the optimism. David McMillan liked Coach Ron Zook, Florida's previous coach, but he thinks that Meyer has that something extra that will translate into greater success on the field.
"Urban Meyer is the kind of man that I want my son to be around," said David. "I've raised my son to be accountable and to never make excuses for himself. I like a coach who says that you are accountable to yourself, to your teammates and to me. I think that's the way it should be and I think it makes the team strong when players are made to be accountable to each other."
Growing up in England, David McMillan's idea of football was soccer. Living in Africa with a tribe outside of Dakar, Senegal, he played soccer barefooted on dirt fields. When he moved to America, he was too consumed with his lions and tigers to learn the game. It wasn't until Clint took up the sport around the sixth grade that he started learning how Americans play their version of football.
"What did I know about football?" said David. "I played soccer all my life. When Clint got to high school, that's when I realized that football is a serious business. You can't just want your son to play football. I went to his practices and saw what goes on and I realized that if Clint wanted to play this game, he had to train for it. He had to be big enough, strong enough, fast enough or he just wouldn't have a chance."
So David McMillan hired Darnell Harrison to train Clint. Darnell coaches Arena Football and he trains football players to become bigger, faster and stronger. It was shortly after Darnell began training Clint that David really began to understand the kind of size and strength that is needed to play at the next level.
"Now I'm in the entertainment business and I've performed at Madison Square Garden, Caesar's in Vegas and before 60,000 people in the Astrodome with my tigers," said David. "Basically, been there, done that. I'm pretty much past the point of being amazed or awed by anything but the first football game I went to at Florida I have to admit, I was in awe.
"I'm sitting there in the end zone with Clint on the recruiting bench and I'm looking at Ian Scott and I see his calves and thinking 'what the hell's that kid been eating? This isn't a college kid, this is a tree trunk!' I knew right then that if Clint wanted to play at this level we better get a lot more serious about his training."
So the workouts with Darnell intensified. Darnell and Clint bonded easily, so much so that Clint began spending every weekend working and training with Darnell instead of making trips with dad.
"From Clint's junior year in high school, Darnell's the one who's really spent the time with Clint," said David. "Darnell spent two years with him, every weekend from nine in the morning until nine at night, training him, getting him ready.
"Clint used to go to all the shows or movies or commercials that I would do. I never believed in baby sitters. I raised four kids taking them with me everywhere I went. Clint had already been around the world a couple of times by the time he was 12. But Darnell … I trust him and know him and he's been the one who's gotten Clint ready for the next level of football."
David McMillan with a Siberian Tiger
Because David had knee surgery in May, Clint spent what would have been Summer A at the University of Florida back home in Oviedo, helping dad with the rehab. Darnell's been there every day, too, so the training regimen given to Clint by UF's strength and conditioning Coach Mickey Marotti has been followed to the letter.
"Clint's 286 right now," said David. "They wanted him at 285. Darnell's timed him at 4.67 in the 40 and he's consistently breaking 4.7. I think they're going to be pleasantly surprised when Clint gets back on campus for Summer B. This has been a real blessing for me because in the past few weeks I've had the privilege of seeing my son grow and mature as an athlete."
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David McMillan will tell you that he was an angry young man and quite a bit naïve when he hopped that freighter out of Liverpool 44 years ago. This was a spur of the moment decision to run away from home. Little did he know he would only see home two more times in the next 44 years.
"I didn't know where it was going at the time," he said, "I only knew I was leaving home. The ship went to Marseilles in France and then to Dakar. They said I had to work which was fine. I told them I was 16 but I was only 14. When the ship went to Darar in West Africa, I got off thinking ships come and go all the time and hey, I'll just get on the next ship."
Only there wasn't a next ship. With no money, no food, no place to live, he found himself on his own in a world unlike anything he had experienced or prepared for in England. Fortunately, there was an American movie production company that had just arrived in Dakar. He got a job as a gopher and went west of Dakar on location.
"We stayed right outside of a village," he said. "It was a Bedouin village right outside of Dakar. I played soccer with their kids. I spent my days with the American and nights with the Bedouins. I got to know everybody and as I started to know something about the village, when the Americans needed something, they'd ask me and I would arrange it. They'd need 30-40 men for transportation or they'd need warriors… things like that."
The Bedouins were so fascinated with the Americans that they were doing things for free. That's when David realized that he had some leverage that would be mutually beneficial for everyone involved.
"I started negotiating for the tribe," he said. "I told them they should start asking for stuff and they started getting things in exchange for the work they were doing. The chief had this real fascination with cowboys. He told me he wanted cowboy boots. I told him I would get him a crate of cowboy boots, but I would also get them things they needed and could use like rope, knives, cement, things like that. I got the Americans to dig them a well."
David McMillan and a rare Florida Panther
By the time the Americans finished their shoot, the entire village had been transformed from West Africa to the American West.
"The chief had cowboy boots, a cowboy hat and two guns on his hips," he said. "The women wore their cowboy hats and cowboy boots everywhere. It was quite something to see."
He remained in the village until he was 18. He learned to hunt lions and leopards. He learned to hunt for food. He learned to fight and the fights in this village were for real with spears and shields.
"By the time I was 18 I was hardened like a 30-year-old man," he said.
When he was 18 he left Dakar with another production company that went on to Ethiopia.
"They figured that Africa is Africa and since Ethiopia is in Africa, I probably knew all about Ethiopia," he said.
From Ethiopia he went to southern Africa and eventually to Zaire where he became a sparring partner for George Foreman who was preparing to fight Muhammed Ali in the "Rumble in the Jungle."
He formed a friendship with Foreman that has lasted for more than 30 years. When David married Clint's mother in the 1980s, Foreman, who is an ordained minister, performed the ceremony.
* * *
India was the next stop. He learned to work with tigers and elephants there, eventually landing a job with Gunther Goebel-Williams training lions, tigers and elephants with the Ringling Brothers Circus. That's the gig that got him to America, but the story isn't all roses once he got to the U.S.
When Goebel-Williams and his wife had a son, McMillan knew that his days were numbered with the circus.
"In the circus, family is everything," he said. "You can forget all promises when family is involved in the circus."
He left the circus with no place to go and no money. He lived out of the bus station in Los Angeles for six months. On days when he couldn't find any work, he would make the rounds, checking out all the telephone booths for loose change.
"There was this one restaurant that had happy hour from four to seven," he said. "I would get enough change to go in there and sometimes I only had enough for one beer, but that was all I needed. They would bring out the h'ordeurves and I would eat chicken wing, shrimp, whatever they brought out. That was the meal for the day."
One day in the bus station, McMillan was walking around, wearing a necklace with a tiger claw when he was noticed by a man who was a director at a theme park. That conversation led to a job in the park in which he walked around with baby tigers that people would pet and with whom they would have their photos taken. Eventually the tigers got big and he continued to train them.
From there he went to another theme park in San Francisco where he got to train lions and tigers for a show. That led to a gig at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas, which in turn led to the big break of his career.
"I got offered a three-year contract by Great Adventure Theme Park in New Jersey," he said. "They offered me three million dollars, so many zeroes I couldn't tell how much money it was."
The job was great but he couldn't stand New Jersey --- "worse weather than Russia and I've lived in Russia so I know." When Ringling Brothers opened their Circus World theme park in Haines City, Florida, McMillan leaped at the chance to be their star with his lions and tigers.
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Circus World has since closed down. David McMillan has his own production company now. He's considered the top animal trainer in the world and his company is in constant demand for movies, commercials and advertisements. He never knows who will be on the phone when it rings. Calls come in from Jennifer Lopez or from Tiger Woods. He's been to the White House and his lion Poncho was on the cover of George Magazine along with Newt Gingrich. He has a good life, but these days, the real joy and satisfaction comes from Clint.
"He's my youngest and he's just the best kid in the world," he said. "I wanted him to go to a school where football and academics are the best. Clint turned down Michigan and some other schools that have a great combination of football and academics because Florida has the best of everything.
"I'm excited about Florida football and I'm excited that Clint's got a chance to play for a man like Urban Meyer. I liked Ron Zook a lot. I thought and still think he's a fine man, but there's something special about Urban Meyer. You can just feel it with that man. Clint's always been a very motivated kid, but you see the way he is now and it's because Urban Meyer has got him and the rest of the team believing it can be done. I think it's going to be a very special year."