Matt Miller remembers the night it all went black.
At least everything before the third quarter of a 2011 football game between St. John’s Jesuit and Whitmer. Then, a Titans teammate accidentally whipped his leg into Miller’s helmeted head, leaving the offensive lineman dazed but trying not to show it. Miller continued to play.
“We were watching it on film the next day, and I was like, ‘Whoa,’” he said. “I didn’t even remember playing the rest of the game.”
Nor can Miller precisely recall the number of concussions he suffered in high school. There was the car accident as a sophomore, a couple that were diagnosed and treated with care by the St. John’s training staff, and several more he kept silent out of fear of being forced to sit. He missed only two Friday nights in all.
Never mind the times he vomited through the night after games. Miller’s focus was lasered on earning a scholarship to a big-time college program, and he did just that. A prized recruit like his older brother, Jack, a junior lineman at Michigan, he committed to Wisconsin over Miami (Fla.) and Michigan State, among other suitors.
Yet the dedication came at a price.
Miller’s football career at Wisconsin was over before it began, the result of one strike to the head too many — and a growing climate of awareness on the potential devastating long-term effects of brain injuries. The symptoms from the most recent concussion endured at the International Bowl all-star game in February 2013 never quite vanished, and soon after arriving in Madison, he signed a medical waiver that ended his playing days.
Today, he hopes to serve not only as a cautionary story, but an example of the possibilities of life after football.
Months removed from the pangs of depression that left him on the brink of returning home, Miller is healthy and at peace. The business major has an internship at a Toledo financial services company and is set to begin his sophomore year at Wisconsin, where he will remain on a full scholarship and closely involved with the Badgers’ football program. He helped in their recruiting office last year, and can see himself as a future coach.
Miller is also on a fitness kick. Once 285 pounds, the 6-foot-5 former tackle has shed 60 pounds — the result of a low-carbohydrate, low-sugar diet and a workout regimen no longer centered around football. He trains daily with family friend Dan Jones, who owns EAO Sports in Sylvania.
“I don't know if tragic is the right word, but losing football is something that was heartbreaking for me,” Miller said. “There was at least a six-month period where I was severely saddened and upset about it. But there’s a corner to turn, and I think I’ve turned a corner. ... You start looking toward other futures and seeing what else you can do.”
Looking back, Miller is conflicted.
He wishes more than anything his career had played out differently. He wishes he better appreciated the way one concussion made him susceptible to another, the way the damage mounted with each passing hit. He wishes he had taken the symptoms more seriously — the migraines, the light and noise sensitivity, the moments blacked out from memory, the spell his junior year where he struggled to focus in school.
“Part of me wishes I could go back to junior or senior year,” he said. “When we had a less important game coming up, I probably should have said, ‘Hey coach,’ or ‘Hey doc, I've got some headaches we should watch.’”
And yet ...
“It's tough to say how much I regret it,” Miller said. “Ultimately, I think I put myself in a pretty good situation to have a full scholarship at one of the greatest schools in the world. I love that place. That was the ultimate goal for me, to earn a scholarship.”
Miller also does not blame any of his former trainers or coaches, saying they treated him with as much care as possible, given the information he provided them.
“I would never play any kid who I suspected of having a concussion,” said St. John’s coach Doug Pearson, who remains in close touch with Miller. “There's just no way possible. So it's a tough deal.”
Miller, who continues to experience migraines, called walking away from the sport the easiest and most difficult decision of his life.
When he arrived at Wisconsin last summer, his head throbbed during preseason workouts — the fallout from his final concussion months earlier. The end game became clear as he laid bare his history of head injuries to team doctors.
“I looked at it as if that's my own kid,” Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen said in a phone interview Thursday. “We’re talking about a head. We're not talking about a wrist or an ankle. We're not talking about taking a chance, saying, ‘Hey, let's try this knee one more time to see what happens.’ With the head, you take zero chances.”
Miller struggled through his first fall without football, homesick and in a medicated haze. But his outlook improved after returning from winter break. He bonded with a group of close friends and stopped mourning what had been lost, embracing instead what could be gained.
“You want to talk about the carpet being pulled right out from underneath you,” Andersen said. “Football was very important to Matt and his family. But it gave him a tremendous opportunity to get a scholarship and, in the end, I told Matt the timing of this is really a blessing because it gave Wisconsin the opportunity to be able to take care of him. Wisconsin doesn't have to do that. They do that because that’s what we believe in. ... Matt is a tremendous young man, and I’m proud of him. I’m glad he’s here.”