Mediocrity Makes Millen Mad, and Losing Makes Him Livid

Times Staff Writer

The sun finally rose last week above the Raiders’ encampment in El Segundo, even if it did seem as if it had missed a day or two, and that half the roster had been awake that long.

Even in the best of times, a segment of the Raider roster sleeps like Dracula: fitfully, with intermittent missions to bite someone in the neck. When the midweek press breakfast rolled around, the Raiders trotted out one of their foremost experts in the art of taking it hard, the prototypical throwback, linebacker Matt Millen.

Until this week, a reporter began, the Bengals’ Boomer Esiason was the NFL’s No. 1-ranked passer . . .


Millen pounded the table, so that the dishes jumped.

“We changed that, didn’t we?” he said, laughing.

The NFL’s new No. 1 quarterback is Dan Fouts, fresh from throwing for 436 yards against them. As a crowning indignity, Fouts rattled off two late drives through the Raider defense, which includes most of their leading personalities and thus tends to set the tone.

The tone this week is pain.

“Anytime you get beat like that, it’s pathetic,” Millen said. “It just makes me sick.

“I didn’t sleep the whole night. . . . It’s hard to swallow. If it doesn’t bother everybody, something’s wrong.

“At some point, you have to check yourself, and say, ‘What am I doing here? Am I out here to get a check and say I play in the National Football League?’ Which is a joke. I mean, who cares? There are 1,499 other guys who are playing and more who want to take your job. . . . Are we just here to put in our time, go home and tell everybody what a stud you are? That’s a joke.

“I mean, what are we here for? You get together every season and say, ‘Look, we’re going to go to the Super Bowl.’ To some people, it might be words, just lip service. That’s fine. But to some people, it better mean more than just words.

“You don’t win the Super Bowl, you don’t have a successful season.”

On that standard, it is noted, lots of players go home failures.

“They do,” Millen said. “Maybe they can take it. I can’t take it. A lot of guys on our team can’t take it. There better be enough guys on our team to do something about it. Which we will do.”

Millen pounded the table once more. The dishes jumped. He laughed.

“It’s not a job. It’s an adventure.”

Millen was wearing his Matt Millen uniform--flannel shirt, jeans, a baseball cap. This would not make him au courant on the West Side, but it fits in nicely in Hokendauqua, the small eastern Pennsylvania town to which he and his family repair when the season ends.


“I get out of here as fast as I can,” Millen said. “I have to get away. During the season, I can’t sleep at night. I can’t do anything. I can’t eat right. I’m a wreck.

“I don’t sleep after any game. I come down here and meet the film guy, as soon as the film is processed, and watch it. I’m here all alone. Sometimes Vann McElroy comes down with me. After home games, I’ll be here at 11 at night. After away games, I’ll come down here at 4 in the morning. I’m not sleeping. I might as well come down here.”

Personable, gregarious, quick to laugh, fond of strays, Millen still goes his own way. Few athletes have to function within a system as do football players, and Millen has worked in two highly successful ones, but always in his own way. If he doesn’t exactly buck the program, he is just off to the side.

At Penn State, where he was a much-honored three-year starter, he and Coach Joe Paterno had a relationship that Millen describes as not very good.

Basically, Millen was not as much into taking orders as Paterno was into giving them.

Even among the Raiders, where the program is a good deal less structured, Millen manages to put his own stamp on everything he does. He wears a quarterback’s number in practice--because he likes the mesh jerseys and those are the numbers on them, he says. He stands alone on the sidelines--because he wants to be downfield where he doesn’t have as far to run when the defense goes back out, he says.

And when half the roster is celebrating in the newspapers over a string of victories, Millen is asking: What have we done? Who have we played? What’s the big deal?


“Maybe it’s because I’m a pessimist,” he said. “I’m so afraid to have something good happen. Maybe it’s not the healthiest way to be.

“I’ve always been a nonconformist. My philosophy is, if everybody’s doing something, it can’t be right. I’m an analyzer. I always have a reason for doing something.”

There was a time this summer when it appeared that he might be destined to work closer to home, like in Philadelphia, where the papers were full of Matt Millen-for-Jerry Robinson rumors.

The Raiders gave public no-comments and private denials, but Eagle General Manager Harry Gamble said later that Millen had been offered.

Says Millen, matter-of-factly: “Whatever.”

He was coming off a 1984 season that he played with a groin injury so severe that he had trouble getting into and out of his car.

The Raiders said they realized that he was playing hurt, but . . .

Millen said: “When I came back this season, the consensus seemed to be, ‘Let’s see if he’s as good as he was. If not, then let’s get rid of him.’ ”


He played well and he’s a Raider, still.

But the better he plays, the more he worries.

“This season, I’m even worse,” he said. “I’m running well, making plays I couldn’t come close to a year ago. All of a sudden, they want to know about the plays I don’t make.

“Which is fine, That’s the way it should be.”

Sometime in the not-too-distant future, in December or January, the season will end and he’ll go home to Hokendauqua, to winter alongside his six brothers and four sisters, none of whom have moved away. Halfbacks will stop racing through his mind.

“It’s not a moving-away type of family?” someone asks.

“It’s not a moving-away area,” Millen says.

Until he gets home, nobody better get too cocky.

This isn’t just a job, it’s a crusade.