The street gangs didn't scare Anthony Miller. Mostly, they left him alone. He was the fastest homeboy in Pasadena's Pop Warner football league. So they cut him some slack.
The knee injury his senior year at Tennessee didn't scare Anthony Miller, either. He knew right away he would need an operation. And he knew the rehabilitation would be about as much fun as an illegal chuck. But he figured he would outwork the pain. He would come back stronger and faster.
And he did.
But watching his sister sustain a seizure and almost die in his arms scared Anthony Miller. She was six years older. There was no one closer to him. Growing up together, they had shared food, friends, time, memories and a lot of love.
An estimated 3 million Americans suffer from epilepsy. According to the history books, epilepsy was the reason the painter Van Gogh cut off his right ear. There are now several reliable medications to treat the malady that occurs when nerve cells in the brain suddenly synchronize their electrical activity.
But all Anthony Miller knew the first time his sister Jamie started shaking like the leaves on a tree was that something was seriously wrong. When she began to swallow her tongue, he instinctively thrust his hand into her mouth and grabbed it.
"It was scary," he said.
Fortunately, she lived.
She's better about taking her medication now. She's gaining back much of the weight she has lost. And at 28, she's hoping to find employment as a model in San Francisco. She is the unmarried and struggling mother of a 3-year-old boy named Brandon. But she's hoping the income from her new job will allow her to visit her brother in San Diego.
"I guess I'll try to go see him," Jamie Miller says. "But the doctors say I can't get too excited."
That may prove difficult. You see, Anthony also has a new job.
Starting this fall, the San Diego Chargers will be banking on him to stretch opposing defenses by sheer dint of his world-class speed. In 1983, running for Pasadena's John Muir High School, he won the 400 meters at the CIF Southern Section meet. Two years later, competing for Pasadena City College, he was the state junior college champion in the 100 and 200 meters.
For three days, Miller has been the focal point of the rookie camp that concludes today at the Chargers' practice facility. A strained right hamstring muscle has limited his participation, but he hopes it will clear up by Thursday when the veterans report for the team's annual mini-camp.
Miller still is unsigned, but Bruce Allen, his agent, doesn't anticipate any problems. Allen says he hopes to have Miller under contract to the Chargers by the end of June.
The Chargers made Miller their No. 1 pick (15th overall) last month in the NFL draft. He is the player they hope will force the rest of the league to stop ganging up on all-purpose Gary Anderson, the team's only legitimate and consistent deep threat in 1987.
Not surprisingly, Miller is not scared.
Still, it's a tall order for a quiet, 5-foot 11-inch kid who was two inches shorter than that when he decided to go out for football for the first time. It was the summer before his senior year at Muir.
"He looked like the original Gillette razor blade," says Jim Brownfield, then the football coach at Muir. "He was just a little will-o'-the-wisp guy who was spanking wet when it came to football. But he always had a smile on his face. He was very coachable. And he could run."
Lord, could he run.
Jamie Miller's earliest memories are of Anthony dragging her out of the house to run. When that failed, he would wait for his mother, Jean Miller, to get home from the local bakery where she still works as a cake decorator. He would badger her into running with him.
"We would run around the track together," his mother says. "I enjoyed it. But I never would have gotten into it if it hadn't been for Anthony."
Jamie started calling Anthony the "Roadrunner."
By the time Anthony Miller was 11, Sonny Shaw started coming around the house on a regular basis. When Shaw wasn't working in the post office, he was recruiting neighborhood kids for his youth basketball and football teams. If there was no game on the day's schedule, Sonny would take Anthony and his friends go-carting or to McDonald's or to Disneyland or to Magic Mountain. Anything to keep them away from the gangs.
"It wasn't no best neighborhood," is the way Miller describes the area in which he lived during that period.
Sonny had no immediate family of his own. Just a grandmother and a nephew.
"He didn't even have a girlfriend," Miller says. "I guess we were his kids. I was lucky to have him. He kept me out of a lot of things."
Shaw couldn't make Miller grow. So Miller gravitated toward basketball, and he became an excellent point guard at Muir. But speed is less important in basketball than it is in football or track and field. And since Miller wanted to go to college, he decided he would have a better chance of earning a scholarship in one of those two sports.
Unlike some schools where coaches fight over players, the athletic department at Muir has always encouraged participation in more than one sport.
"Nobody hordes athletes here, which is why we win everything," Brownfield says.
Brownfield, now Muir's athletic director, took a leave from coaching football after the 1986 season. The Mustangs had won back-to-back Southern Section championships his last two years. And they continue to have one of the highest football winning percentages (better then .850) of any school in Southern California. Muir has won nine Pacific League titles in the last 10 years. During that period, more than 50 Muir football players have earned athletic scholarships to NCAA Division I schools.
It was in that climate that Miller learned football. At the beginning, says Brownfield, "he went deep much better than he went shallow."
By the end of his senior year, Brownfield says, Miller was just beginning to get the hang of it. "He was a classic late bloomer."
But because his playing time had been limited by his inexperience, there wasn't enough available game film to sell his skills to the people who hand out football scholarships. So San Diego State signed Miller to a track scholarship. Miller wanted to run track and play football at San Diego State. Later he admitted that track was boring him. He says Dixon Farmer, then the San Diego State track and field coach, didn't want him to play football. Coming from Muir, Miller couldn't understand why.
Worse, according to Miller, Farmer had promised a financial aid scholarship to go along with his partial athletic scholarship. Suddenly, Miller says, Farmer told him he didn't qualify for the financial aid anymore. He would have to make do on the partial scholarship.
"I was running with guys who were on full scholarship and beating them," Miller says. "I just felt like I was getting cheated."
"When Anthony got down there (San Diego), everything was completely different," Jean Miller says. "It wasn't anything like he (Farmer) said."
Miller's mother and grandmother began sending money from home to make ends meet. But that put a financial strain on them. Farmer said he would find a full scholarship for Miller the next year. Miller said no thanks. He left after one semester.
Attempts to reach Farmer, who still lives in the San Diego area, were unsuccessful.
Immediately after Miller's departure from San Diego State, no one would have dared predict that he would become a junior college All-American wide receiver at Pasadena City College less than a year later. It helped that he enrolled at PCC in time for the valuable remedial skills provided by spring football. He also had started lifting weights and growing bigger. He was no longer Miller light.
He caught 47 passes for 881 yards and nine touchdowns in his one junior college season. The University of Tennessee dispatched offensive coordinator Walt Harris to recruit him. Miller and his mother listened very carefully for Harris to make a promise they didn't think he could keep.
But Harris said all the right things. He talked about Tennessee's two-sport tradition and the NFL success enjoyed by sprinter/receivers Willie Gault (Bears) and Tim McGee (Bengals).
In his first year at Tennessee, Miller caught 36 passes for 667 yards. His sister traveled to Knoxville for the Alabama game, in which she saw Anthony grab six passes for 159 yards, including a 70-yard touchdown reception. Moments after that score, chest pains related to her epilepsy became so acute that she had to leave the stadium in an ambulance.
She begged doctors not to inform Anthony about the incident, and she recovered shortly. Similarly, when Miller tore a posterior cruciate ligament in the first game of the 1987 season, he kept the details to himself.
It was left to Jamie's boyfriend, a San Francisco singer named Andre Freeman, to call a Knoxville newspaper to find out how serious the injury was. Miller was back in uniform before the season ended.
Freeman says he was the first person to tell Anthony he might become a first-round pick. Freeman was a fan. As such, he read all the literature available to draftniks. The NFL scouts were drooling over Miller's speed because it was football speed. Not just track speed.
"He's got the best air speed I've ever seen," Harris said. In other words, Miller had that same innate ability to outrun the ball that distinguishes all the top defensive center fielders in baseball.
But fair or not, former track athletes in football will always fight the stereotype that they are susceptible to muscle pulls and various other leg injuries. That's why Miller's current hamstring problem is worrisome. Miller insists he has no history of hamstring troubles.
Even though he has not signed a contract, he has managed to procure a BMW. He will add another car to his collection, he says, after he signs.
More important, Miller says the contract will enable him to assume his mother's house and car payments. He also plans to enroll Jamie in a medical insurance program that will properly protect her from the bills stemming from continued hospitalizations that have resulted from her seizures.
Epilepsy, which is not hereditary, developed in Jamie five years ago during a period in which she was trying to lose weight. Miller says the seizures happened because she repeatedly induced vomiting in her desperate attempts to diet.
(Dr. Arnold Krickstein, an associate professor of neurology at Stanford University's Medical School, confirms that a person predisposed toward epilepsy can accelerate its onset by inducing vomiting.)
At one point, Miller even considered moving Jamie and Brandon to San Diego so he could care for them on a daily basis.
That's how close they are. And that's how straight the priorities are in his family.
"People used to tell me that football was a dangerous sport," Jean Miller says. "And I would tell them I never think about Anthony getting hurt because you can get hurt anywhere. I can get hurt sitting here in the house. All I can say is I'm pretty sure Anthony's gonna be the best."
In several important respects, he already is.