Once the playing days of a football player have ended, occasionally he will continue in organized athletics by venting his energies in the direction of another sport.
Such physical sports as rugby, soccer, wrestling, baseball and basketball are common choices for such endeavors.
Craig Miller is an athlete who recently underwent just such a transition, but his case is slightly peculiar.
During his athletic career at Foothill High and Saddleback College, Miller was an outstanding quarterback and all-purpose kicker, with prospects of continuing on at the four-year level.
Along with his talents in football, however, he combined an unlikely interest in--of all things--tennis.
Having since abandoned his pursuit of football glory, Miller is currently the No. 5 singles player for Cal State Long Beach, the 20th-ranked tennis team in the country. As a junior, he has compiled a record of 30-5 this season, often substituting in the No. 4 and 5 spots.
Larry Easley, Long Beach coach, believesthat by next season, Miller has the potential to be the 49ers’ No. 1 player, and eventually could emerge as one of the top 50 amateur players in the world.
“He’s a very talented person,” Easley said. “He’s playing No. 5 for us, but potential-wise he could go as high as (No.) 1. I’ve held him back a bit this year because I want him to get his confidence. In fact, he’s upset at me because he knows--and I know--that he easily can be No. 2 right now, it’s just that those guys have more experience.”
Although Miller has played tennis since he was 9, his preoccupation with football throughout high school and junior college put limitations on the amount of time and energy he could invest in his court game.
In the fall of 1980, his senior year at Foothill, Miller was named to the first team all-Century League as a kicker and second team as a quarterback. He also did the punting for the Knights.
He was also the Knights’ No. 3 singles player and an outstanding doubles player his junior and senior seasons. He was an all-league performer both years.
In addition, Miller was a four-year letterman on the Foothill soccer team. He was first team all-league in his junior and senior years and played in the 1981 Orange County All-Star Game. In fact, he originally thought that his future would be in collegiate soccer.
“As a senior in high school, I thought I’d get a soccer scholarship,” Miller said, “because I started for four straight years, so I thought it was my best sport.”
Despite his accomplishments as a soccer player, no colleges showed any interest in him.
“I didn’t get one letter or phone call or nothing,” he said incredulously. “In fact, I was on the Orange County All-Star team and I scored the only goal for our team, but I didn’t even get offensive player of the game.”
Saddleback College had showed an interest in Miller as a football player during his senior season for the Knights. So, realizing he had no future in soccer, Miller chose to play football for the Roadrunners.
As a freshman at Saddleback, he handled the kicking and punting chores as a backup quarterback. In his sophomore year, he moved into the starting role as quarterback and continued as the kicker. He was an all-Mission Conference selection at both positions.
In tennis, Miller was all-conference as the Roadrunners’ No. 6 singles player in his freshman year. Initially, he didn’t participate in tennis as a sophomore because he had planned to transfer in the spring of 1983 to a four-year school to play football.
“I was hoping to get a football scholarship,” Miller said. “I had a good year, so I thought I’d get some offers. So I hadn’t expected to play tennis that semester.”
But halfway through the tennis season, he still hadn’t received a solid offer to play football, so he joined the tennis team. He had played only five matches when Cal Poly San Luis Obispo finally offered him a scholarship to play football.
When asked about his experience at Cal Poly, Miller hesitated for several moments before responding: “It didn’t work out. I didn’t get along with the coach too well, and they didn’t seem that interested in me. I didn’t think I had a good shot at playing that much.”
So he returned that fall to Saddleback to complete his AA degree, still searching for a school at which to play football. It was then that UCLA contacted him, showing considerable interest in him as a kicker.
“It was pretty funny because I was trying to get accepted at UCLA--and they seemed really interested in me--but San Luis Obispo didn’t seem to care,” he said. “They were very encouraging (at UCLA). They felt I could walk on.”
But Miller’s frustrations continued when his application to the UCLA engineering program was refused, despite a 3.5 grade-point average, Miller said.
Fortunately for Miller, he had prepared an alternate plan.
“I had applied at Long Beach State,” he said, “just in case. And when I came here, I was thinking of maybe playing tennis, but first I asked the football coach (Mike Sheppard) if I could walk on, and he just kinda laughed.
“He said to try Cal Lutheran,” Miller said, laughing. “I mean, he was getting a free athlete, and he didn’t even want it . . . I don’t blame him, though. He wanted to start things out the right way (in his first season as the 49ers’ coach) and didn’t need some guy he’d never heard of come in there.”
At that point, he finally abandoned all hopes of prolonging his football career. He talked to Easley about playing tennis this semester.
Said Miller: “He said, ‘Yeah, yeah, come on out and we’ll see if you can make it, but we only keep 10 guys.’ You know, the same old talk. And he was surprised when I made the top six.”
“He came out as a walk-on,” Easley said, “and I didn’t know who he was. Let me tell you, if I had more walk-ons like him, my job would be really easy.”
He said that although Miller’s concentration on football limited the amount of time he could spend playing tennis in previous years, it has actually helped his tennis game in certain ways.
“He has a certain toughness you don’t see in many tennis players,” he said. “Most tennis players are such prima donnas. If you don’t look at them and talk to them every 10 minutes, they say, ‘Why don’t you like me?’ Craig isn’t like that at all. He stoically accepts his lot.”
Ken Swearingen, Miller’s football coach at Saddleback, echoed many of Easley’s sentiments.
“He is an outstanding, all-around athlete,” Swearingen said. “Not many quarterbacks could punt, pass, and run as well as him. He has great ability. And he was always very calm and collected on the field. He did it with confidence and poise.
“He was a strong team leader,” Swearingen added. “There are certain qualities you have to have to be a leader, and he had it. He was the kind of person who did a lot of leading by example. He was always cool in adversity. That’s leadership.”
Easley said that Miller’s only drawback was the occasional flare-up of his temper.
“He has a temper . . . If he’s winning, he crushes. But if he starts slow, he can get himself in trouble. He has enough ability that most of the time, he finds a way to win. But if we’re talking about professional play, that’s it. If he can work that out, he can be a great player. If not, he’ll be a very good collegiate player.”
Upon drawing contrasts and comparisons between tennis and football, Miller said: “Football stresses competition so much, where the only thing that matters is winning. And I think that really helped me (in tennis). It gives me that mental toughness that you need on the tennis court.
“In football, if you have a bad day, there are 10 other guys to help you out. But in tennis, if you have an off-day, you’re pretty much alone. That was always kind of a joke with me. I told my coach it’s too bad everyone on the tennis team didn’t play football once in their life, because most tennis players are into ‘I wanna be No. 1 and it doesn’t matter what the rest of the team does, as long as I get my wins and stuff.’ ”
But, he added, there are aspects of tennis he prefers to football.
“In tennis, when you win a match, it’s because of you,” he said. “Your record speaks for itself. No one can argue with you about it. It takes the subjectivity out of it.
“In other sports, you can just be a good athlete and get away with it. But in tennis, some of these guys have been playing since they were 9, 10 years old. It’s more of a challenge for me because it hasn’t come as easily to me as other sports.”
Now that his football playing days are over, does he harbor any regrets about the past?
“I’m happy with the way it worked out. Sure, there’s some days I’ll miss football and I kinda wish I was still in it. I’ll always kinda look back and think about it,” he said. “You know, it was always my life’s ambition to play (football) for a big college, and then to have it not work out . . .”
It appears that things have worked out for the best, though, for Craig Miller. s
“I should have a great year next year, hopefully,” he said. “I just have to go out and play the same way every day and try to work hard. It worked pretty well for me this year.”
‘Football stresses competition so much, where the only thing that matters is winning. And I think that really helped me (in tennis). It gives me that mental toughness that you need on the tennis court.’