Recalling the Punch : Matt Millen Doesn’t Look Back in Anger

Times Staff Writer

It was a Raider season like any other. They didn’t lose many but when they did lose, there was hell to pay. The tolls were often collected before the other guys made it to the safety of their dressing room.

On a bad day in the Coliseum, the light at the end of the tunnel under the stands is probably the headlight of an oncoming Raider. So meet the most famous of them, Matt Millen, heretofore known as a run-stuffing inside linebacker, now celebrated as the Raider who belted Pat Sullivan.

Not Pat Sullivan, the former Auburn quarterback. Pat Sullivan, the general manager of the New England Patriots.


Since this was the Raiders’ third postgame incident in nine home games, and since Millen was captured in his follow-through in a dramatic photograph, and since there was a weight difference of about 100 pounds, Millen reaped a whirlwind of publicity.

He had a career choice to make: Go on the talk show circuit or live down the incident.

He may have cost himself a shot at his own sitcom, but he chose the second.

“Hey look,” he said the other day, “I was a fool for doing that. But you react, so what are you going to do?

“I got hundreds of letters. It was funny. If you look at it geographically, from the Northeast, they were positive. Not all but most of them. From everywhere else, they were mostly negative.

“It kind of made me feel bad, to be honest. All the kids see that and they think it’s all right. It isn’t right, but that’s in retrospect.

“I got letters from parents, from mothers. Here I’ve got two little boys and I’d think the same thing. Contrary to what the public thinks I am, you know I’m completely different.

“I can put on my uniform and say, ‘Who cares?’ But I care.”

In real life, Millen is among the friendliest and most approachable Raiders. Although on the field he looks as if he has studied under Conan, he rarely swears, on it or off. He swore once all season, he says, at Sullivan.

Disappointing losses have been known to take their toll before. In San Diego last season, where Lionel James had just cut back inside him on an overtime touchdown run, Millen stamped at the toe of a writer who had pushed in too close in the packed dressing room.

The loss to the Patriots made that one look inconsequential. The Raiders had been picturing themselves on the way to the Super Bowl for what they were already alluding to as the “match-up that everyone wanted to see” with the Bears. All the Raiders’ playoff games were scheduled for the Coliseum.

Then, after leading, 17-7, they lost the first one, to a Patriot team they had beaten earlier in Foxboro, Mass.

It was then that Sullivan, 32, son of owner Billy, brother of team president Chuck, started needling Howie Long from the sideline. Long, a Boston native, had earlier observed that there may be true Celtic fans and Red Sox fans, but Patriot diehards?

“I don’t think anyone back there bleeds red, white and blue,” Long said.

“We’ve got pride, too,” Sullivan said later.

When the game ended, Sullivan went over to Long, who was not glad to see him. They argued.

Millen came by. Millen says that Sullivan swung at him. Beyond dispute, Millen swung at Sullivan, rapping him across the top of the head. There were reports that he had hit Sullivan with his helmet, but Millen insists he didn’t.

Millen didn’t even know whom he had hit until he was told later in the dressing room.

“Good,” he said.

Millen got a lot of heat in Los Angeles. Sullivan got at least as much in Boston. The league office investigated but so far has taken no action.

Sullivan later regretted his actions. In response to a large number of queries before the Super Bowl, he said he intended to watch the game from the press box.

Millen has his own regrets, but . . .

“A season-ending loss, it’s just terrible,” he said. “It took me three months to get over it. I’d lay in bed thinking about it and feel sick.

“When the whole thing comes down to one loss . . . you wake up the next morning and there’s nothing to do. Oh my. It wasn’t just me. Howie would call me. I’d talk to Pick (Bill Pickel), Jamie Kimmel. I called Rod (Martin).

“Did we let down against them? Of course. Maybe we took them lightly in the beginning, but there comes a point out there where every individual has to say, ‘Hey, we’ve got to take these guys seriously.’ Hopefully, that happens before the game, but sometimes it doesn’t.

“The whole thing was on the defense, too. The defense blew the game. We had an opportunity to totally dominate them. We had the chance when it was 17-7. If we pin them down and get another three points or seven points. . . . “

Instead the Patriots drove 80 yards, mostly on running plays, and began turning the game around against the defense that hadn’t allowed a runner 100 yards all season.

There were also key fumbles, of a punt by Fulton Walker and of a kickoff by Sammy Seale that the Patriots recovered in the end zone. The offense had had better days. Call it a team nightmare.

But three months have passed, the sun is shining over another camp and the famous Raider inside linebacker is making friends again.

“Vance Mueller (a rookie halfback) came up to me,” Millen says, beaming. “He said ‘You’ve got an image of being like Ivan the Terrible. You’re not even close.’ ”

Most days.