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A Hamlet and Its Prince

Times Staff Writer

There is a downside, apparently, to making it big in the NFL after growing up a local hero in a tiny town.

In Heath Miller’s case, everybody for miles around seems to know exactly where your parents live and work, including some people they’ve never even met. They all buy souvenirs linking them vicariously to your success: Pittsburgh Steeler jerseys, T-shirts, caps and miniature helmets, footballs, rookie cards, you name it. And some drop them off at your mother’s office, expecting to have them signed by you and returned by your folks after their next trip to Pittsburgh.

Miller, a rookie tight end, and his unfailingly polite and uncommonly accommodating parents, Earl and Denise, know all about it.

“When he was on the cover of the game-day program in Pittsburgh,” his mother said last week, “people around here were ordering them by the boxful. And they would send them over to us to have them signed.”

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Finally, in December, the Millers decided enough was enough.

“Before Christmas there was a flood, just too much stuff,” Denise said. “I basically had to leave work after half a day because it was just too much.”

To say that Miller’s success has created a stir in this little corner of the world -- the unincorporated community of Swords Creek and the neighboring town of Honaker, map dots in the southwestern corner of Virginia, surrounded by coal fields and the Appalachian Mountains -- would be a gross understatement.

“It gave it new life,” Denise said of the communal effect.

Like everyone else in the family, she’s not one for bragging. But the signs are literally everywhere, well wishers dotting the landscape with encouragement for Miller against the Seattle Seahawks in Sunday’s Super Bowl at Detroit.

Outside an insurance office: “It’s Miller Time in Detroit.”

Outside Swords Creek Elementary School, where Miller first stood out as an athlete and student: “Go Steelers. Good Luck Heath.”

Outside Honaker Elementary School, where students donned No. 83 Steeler jerseys every Friday this season and adopted Miller as a role model even though he never attended classes there: “Go Pittsburgh Steelers.”

Outside another office: “Good Luck Heath and Steelers.”

Outside Bucks & Bass, a sporting goods store: “Go Heath.”

At Honaker High, where Miller was a three-sport star and graduated third in the Class of 2000, the former state player of the year in football and baseball was honored by no fewer than four displays.

One was titled “83 Reasons to Love Heath and the Steelers,” the reasons having been solicited from students and including: “Gives HHS a sense of pride,” “Couldn’t happen to a better person” and “Pride and joy of our community.”

Chris Musick, the pastor at Swords Creek Community Baptist, is no fan of Sunday sporting events, but at a Bible study last week he noted with a nod toward Miller’s mother that a local boy would be involved in a large-scale event this Sunday and asked that the congregation remember him in its prayers.

“It’s overwhelming how the community has come together to support him,” said Miller’s father, surveying the halls of Honaker High. “You see kids and grown-ups wearing those jerseys, it’s unbelievable.”

When Miller played at Virginia, where he was converted to tight end after having been recruited as a quarterback, scores of fans from among the 2,000 or so residents of Honaker and Swords Creek bought season tickets.

Traveling by bus, church groups from the area routinely made the 4 1/2 -hour trip to the Cavaliers’ games at Charlottesville.

They’d make the 5 1/2 -hour trek to Pittsburgh too, the Millers suspect, if Steeler tickets weren’t so hard to come by. Denise said that, judging by conversations with neighbors, orders for satellite TV service surely must have spiked in the area, the locals doing whatever they could to closely monitor the Steelers.

Why the adulation?

“We’ve never had another hero here, to make a long story short,” said Betty Hall, who worships at the same church as the Millers.

Others believe that the reasons run deeper, that Swords Creek and Honaker, separated by about five miles of rolling hills and connected by a two-lane road, have rallied behind Miller, 23, because he embodies many of the old-fashioned values that the church-going, plain-spoken folks in this area hold dear.

Miller, hale and wholesome, came by those values naturally.

“It kind of made me the type of person that I am just growing up in that atmosphere,” said Miller, whose immediate family, including younger sister Amanda, lived on the same land as his maternal grandmother, three aunts and an uncle, each of their homes separated by no more than about 100 yards. “Everybody knows everybody else and you don’t really get away with a lot as a kid because everybody knows your parents and everybody knows you. You’re aware of that growing up.”

Unassuming and humble -- some would say shy -- the 6-foot-5, 256-pound Miller was named for Heath Barkley, a rawboned character portrayed by Lee Majors in the 1960s TV Western “The Big Valley,” and in Honaker and Swords Creek is seen as sort of a towering role model for the area and a virtuous way of life.

“Heath would be popular even if he had never made it as a college or pro athlete,” said Honaker Mayor C.H. Wallace, owner of the area’s only hardware store and secretary-treasurer of the 30-person volunteer fire brigade. “It’s just his demeanor. Even when he was a small-town quarterback he would take time to talk to the elementary school kids, go out and read to them.

“He’s just a low-key, work-hard, get-it-done type of guy.”

And nothing plays better in these parts, where the nearest movie theater is an hour away, “so sports is what everybody done,” Miller’s father said.

Around here, nobody ever did it better than Heath Miller.

“We knew at a young age that he was very talented,” said his mother, recalling that as a fourth-grader her son scored 41 points in a basketball game against fifth- and sixth-graders.

“But even then he wasn’t the selfish type,” she added. “He would seek out a child on the team that hadn’t scored and he would make sure to get him the ball. He just kept on giving it to him until that child scored and felt good about himself.”

Miller, though, wasn’t shy about wearing out opponents.

In baseball, he finished his four-year varsity career with a batting average of over .500, his coaches said, and struck out only three or four times. Changing into his uniform after class each day in a locker room built for no charge by his father, a contractor, he made only one error in three seasons as a first baseman, then switched to shortstop as a senior and was state player of the year.

Tom Harding, Honaker’s varsity baseball coach for 34 years, said he had “no doubts whatsoever” that Miller could have played in the major leagues.

“He is the best high school baseball player I have ever seen, bar none,” Harding said. “I’ll make the argument with anybody who wants to argue with me: In high school, he was a better baseball player than he was a football player.”

Said assistant coach Alex Zachwieja, unabashedly wearing a Miller jersey last Friday while teaching a world geography class: “His size, natural eye-hand coordination and work ethic were just ideal for baseball.”

But football is king in the South and it was in football that Miller captured the people’s imagination, drawing fans from miles around to the Tigers’ games, paw prints painted right on the road leading them to the off-campus stadium.

“He could control a game,” said his high school football coach, Doug Hubbard, a longtime family friend and former classmate of Miller’s parents, who were high school sweethearts at Honaker. “He got the community excited about football.”

Miller passed and ran for nearly 5,000 yards and 65 touchdowns during his final two seasons, carrying the Tigers to the state championship game as a senior and attracting scholarship offers from Virginia, Virginia Tech and Iowa.

At Virginia, he was moved to tight end and was no less a threat. A two-time All-Atlantic Coast Conference selection, he caught 144 passes for 1,703 yards and 20 touchdowns in three seasons, all conference records for a tight end.

He left after his junior year and was the 30th player taken in the draft last April, despite concerns about a hernia that limited his effectiveness in 2004.

Also a better-than-average blocker, he helped the Steelers to the Super Bowl by catching 39 passes for 459 yards and six touchdowns during the regular season and seven more passes for 107 yards and a touchdown in three playoff games.

And back home the buzz about him grew ever louder.

“These grannies that had never watched football would watch Heath at Virginia and now will watch the NFL,” Hubbard said. “Elderly ladies in our church are sitting down watching football and know what’s going on. That tells you something about the influence he’s had. And a lot of that is because they’ve met him and they like him. That’s got a lot to do with it.”

Kathleen Taylor, an older Honaker resident and unofficial town historian, has not met Miller and said she knows little about football. But that didn’t stop her from sitting down with three other women and a visitor last week at the Honaker Heritage Museum and talking about the area’s most famous and favorite native son.

She said she was glad to hear Miller say recently that he enjoys milk because when her young nephew heard that, he started drinking milk too.

And, she added, “I liked it when they interviewed him after a game. He wasn’t uppity. He let it be known that the whole team has to play together to win a game. And he not only helps his own teammates up, he holds out a hand to his opponents and helps them up too.

“Now what that means, I don’t know, but I like it.”

Times staff writer Sam Farmer contributed to this report.

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

THE SERIES

For glitz, glamour and overkill, perhaps no sporting event in the world can match the Super Bowl. But many of the game’s participants are products of humble, small-town environments far from the bright lights. Today is the last of four profiles.

* Part 1: Josh Brown, Seattle, kicker from Foyil, Okla.

* Part 2: Willie Parker, Pittsburgh, running back from Clinton, N.C.

* Part 3: Shaun Alexander, Seattle, running back from Florence, Ky.

* Part 4: Today, Heath Miller, Pittsburgh, tight end from Swords Creek, Va.

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Population: less than 1,000

Square miles: unincorporated

Nearest big city: Knoxville, Tenn., about 130 miles southwest.

Best known for: Being Heath Miller’s hometown.

Fun fact: There isn’t a stop light in either Swords Creek or nearby Honaker.


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