The news didn't drop like the typical bad news on a Friday afternoon.
Bad news loves that black hole in coverage, but Heath Miller merely loved the lack of fuss we were able to make.
I can just hear him telling his wife now, "I hope Wexell doesn't write one of his ghastly tribute columns after I retire."
I've had to write a few of those in recent years, but Heath's wrong if he thinks he's going to walk away without a few of my tears falling on the keyboard.
Not that Heath would think so diabolically, of course. As Troy Polamalu once said of him, "Heath is someone who’s innately humble. He doesn’t struggle to be humble.”
Polamalu said that he himself struggles with purity of heart, but not Heath. No way. And that's the biggest reason he'll be missed.
Forget about his greatness on the field. Heath's mark, at least to me, will be his character.
Someone said to me the night of his retirement, "I'm sure you know him a lot better than I do." I answered that, yes, I've traveled to Heath's hometown, had dinner with his mother and father, met his wife and have sat with Heath as he fussed over his four children. But I added that you know him just as well I do.
We all do. What we see from Heath Miller is what we get.
I sat in on Heath's first interview in Pittsburgh in April of 2005, the day after he was drafted by the Steelers. I was working on a book at the time, specifically the most challenging chapter of "Men of Steel," the chapter on Bill Dudley.
Dudley was with the Steelers only a few years so there wasn't much information about his time in Pittsburgh. The archives revealed him only as simple and old school and team-oriented, just as the phone interview had. And when Heath stepped to the podium, I felt as if I was trapped in a 1940s time warp. I wasn't surprised to learn that Heath was born and raised in western Virginia, in the heart of the Appalachians -- in the heart of Bill Dudley country.
I pretty much had to visit that part of the country to get to know Heath a little better. The first NFL game he ever attended, I learned, was in Cleveland. He sat in the "Dawg Pound" with his dad, Earl Miller, and his high school coach, Doug Hubbard.
Hubbard was an avowed Steelers fans. Heath was a rabid Walter Payton fan.
"He was a very good high school quarterback. Very good," Hubbard told me. "And he was a safety. He’d come up and hit. He doesn’t shy from contact. And when you’ve got someone like that playing, everybody around him becomes better. They have to play better, and they did."
"One time he went to the huddle," Heath's mother Denise remembered, "and he said something about being lackadaisical. One of the players said, ‘What does that mean, Heath?’"
We chuckled and she added, "But he’s always been quiet."
I told Mrs. Miller that Heath's quiet demeanor tended to frustrate reporters, that we always want more.
"He won’t give it to you," she said with a smile. "And I’m so proud of him for that."
Mr. Miller, a farmer in Swords Creek, answered with a generality when I asked him to name his most proud moment regarding his son.
"Just when he's in the tunnel ready to come out onto the field," dad said. "That's when your eyes well up. That's when it hits you, again, that he's made it to the league."
And what a career it's been. In 11 seasons, Earl Heath Miller caught 592 passes for 6,569 yards and 45 touchdowns. He ranks second in franchise history in catches, third in receiving yards and fourth in touchdown catches. And he acted like he had been there 45 times, too.
One time, after one touchdown in Oakland, Miller gave fans a little more.
“He caught that touchdown and he looked right into the Black Hole and he gave them a little flex,” said Ben Roethlisberger. “That was awesome."
But those stats of Miller's didn't happen because Heath hounded his buddy Ben in the huddle.
“I’ll ask Heath if he was open and he’ll tell me no," Roethlisberger once said. "I’ll look at film, and he was wide open.”
Roethlisberger has called Miller the greatest teammate he's ever played with "at any level." But talk like that has always caused Heath to recoil. He hates the spotlight.
"You're not going to like this interview," Heath told me once.
I asked him why.
"I'm so boring," he said.
And in the middle of the interview I looked up and said, "You know what? You ARE boring."
"I told you!" he exclaimed with a guffaw.
And yet, so little to be humble about.
Roethlisberger no doubt can recount hundreds of third-down plays in which Heath bailed him, the Steelers, the city, heck, The Nation, out of trouble. Just this past season Miller took a brutal blow to the head at the goal line but held on to set up Le'Veon Bell's touchdown run against San Diego at the buzzer. Heath's third-down catches against Cincinnati put the team into the playoffs, and then advanced them once they got there.
One of my favorite Heath Miller plays was a block he made on Ray Lewis in the 2008 AFC Championship Game. Miller was in the backfield and stuffed the blitzing Lewis to allow Roethlisberger time to complete a 15-yard pass to Santonio Holmes, who ran and then reversed field and got a block from, well, Heath, of course, and Miller escorted Holmes the final 20 yards into the end zone for a 65-yard touchdown play.
There was the one we all remember from 2012, in Baltimore, when Heath dove for the pylon to score the tying touchdown in the fourth quarter. The Steelers went on to win that game at the buzzer, too.
There were also the headaches. Heath missed two games with a concussion after the most brutal hit I had witnessed since L.T. snapped Joe Theismann's leg on a Monday night. That hit came from one of the dirty Ravens as well.
Blows like that no doubt went a long way in Heath's decision to retire this week. Even though we all wanted to see this selfless superstar play forever, Heath -- with two rings and enough money to give four children more than a proper start in life -- no doubt relied on the wisdom of his wife Katie, who knows a thing or two about the athletic field herself.
She was a soccer player at the University of Virginia. Heath introduced us this past training camp, and I, father of a girls soccer player, was in fan-like awe.
"Do you know," I told them, "that getting a womens soccer scholarship to UVA is more difficult, more prestigious, than getting a football scholarship."
"Thank you!" said Katie Miller as she looked at her husband as if she'd been trying to tell him that for years.
Heath just smiled. And he agreed.
He's selfless that way.
He's beautiful that way.
Long may Heath run.null