Oct. 11, 2012

By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

CHARLOTTESVILLE — Not long after the University of Virginia football team opened training camp in 2010, Jake McGee, then a true freshman, switched from quarterback to tight end, telling his coaches he wanted to be next Heath Miller.

If he’s fortunate, McGee will get to spend some time this weekend with the first Heath Miller — the soft-spoken Southwest Virginian whose clutch catches as a Cavalier earned him the nickname “Big Money.”

Miller, now in his eighth season with the Pittsburgh Steelers, is coming back to town for UVa’s Homecomings game. At 3 p.m. Saturday, UVa (2-4 overall, 0-2 ACC) meets Maryland (3-2, 1-0), and at halftime Miller will become the 22nd former Cavalier to have his jersey retired at Scott Stadium.

“I’m excited to be able to have the opportunity to come back and see some familiar faces,” Miller said by phone from Nashville, Tenn., where the Steelers were preparing to face the Titans on Thursday night.

Miller will fly back to Pittsburgh with the team after the game, then drive to Charlottesville on Friday with his wife, the former Katie Bunch, and their sons: Chase, 3, and Jake, who’ll be 2 in December.

The family’s ties to UVa are strong. Katie played soccer for the Cavaliers, and she and Heath find it hard to believe that eight years have passed since they graduated from the University.

“It went by fast,” said Miller, who turns 30 this month.

He keeps in touch with many of his former UVa teammates, Brian Barthelmes and Alvin Pearman among them, and he’ll have a sizable cheering section at the game Saturday. Miller is especially eager to see his friends Marques Hagans and Kase Luzar, each of whom celebrated the birth of his first child in April.

As for the ceremony in which he’s obligated to take part Saturday, Miller said he hasn’t given it much thought. That’s probably because, even as an NFL star, he hasn’t lost his aversion to the spotlight.

“I guess I haven’t let myself focus on the part I’m not looking forward to,” Miller said, laughing.

After growing up in Swords Creek and starring in three sports at tiny Honaker High School, Miller enrolled at UVa in 2001. His roommate during training camp was Hagans, a quarterback from Hampton High School who had spent the 2000-01 academic year at Fork Union Military Academy.

“We hit it off right away,” said Hagans, now a graduate assistant who works with UVa’s wide receivers. “I could just tell he was going to be one of my friends for life, and I wasn’t wrong,”

Back then, the 6-5 Miller was a quarterback. Like Hagans, he redshirted in 2001 — Al Groh’s first season as Virginia’s head coach — and they worked together on the scout team.

At a practice early that season, Hagans recalled Thursday, the scout team needed another tight end, and Miller switched positions.

“He ran down the seam and I threw him a ball that was over his head, and he reached up and caught it with one hand,” Hagans recalled. “That was his last day as a quarterback.”

Miller wears jersey No. 83 for the Steelers, for whom he is the all-time leader in receptions by a tight end. He wore No. 89 at UVa, where in only three seasons he became the greatest tight end in the program’s history.

After the 2004 season, Miller opted to enter the NFL draft, and the Steelers selected him in the first round.

“It was the right decision,” Hagans said. “He was just ready. Even as a junior, he was the best tight end in the country.”

As a redshirt freshman in 2002, Miller caught 33 passes for 327 yards and nine touchdowns and made the All-ACC second team. A year later, he set UVa and conference records for receptions in a season by a tight end, catching 70 passes for 835 yards and six TDs, and rose to the All-ACC first team.

In 2004, Miller became the first ACC player to win the Mackey Award, which is presented annually to the nation’s top tight end. He finished his college career with 144 catches for 1,703 yards and 20 touchdowns. Miller also was a punishing blocker, and he did it all with a humble demeanor that endeared him to fans, teammates and coaches.

“He says very few words, but one thing you knew from his performance, from his attitude, was that he hated to lose,” Hagans said.

Miller’s most memorable game as a Cavalier came against Virginia Tech on Nov. 29, 2003. He caught 13 passes for 145 yards — both career highs — as the `Hoos rallied for a 35-21 victory over the Hokies at Scott Stadium. One of his receptions came on a fake field goal on which holder Matt Schaub, who also played a little quarterback, pulled the ball away from kicker Connor Hughes, rolled to his right and then passed to Miller, who rumbled for a 10-yard gain and a first down.

“The thing about Heath was, what you saw on the football field was the same thing you saw off the field,” said Hagans, who started at quarterback for UVa in 2004 and ’05.

“He would pancake a guy, then at the end of the play help him up. In the weight room, he was one of the hardest workers on the team. He never complained. He’s just one of the great people in my life, and I’m lucky to know him. He’s been true to who he is. He loves his wife, loves his kids, loves his family.”

When they were still in college, Miller spent a weekend at Hagans’ home in Hampton. The next weekend Miller and his family hosted Hagans in Swords Creek, a small town about 50 miles north of the Virginia-Tennessee state line.

“When you get about 15 miles from his house, you don’t even lose a signal, your [cell] phone just goes dead,” Hagans said, laughing.

In Swords Creek, they went fishing and four-wheeling, and Miller showed his guest some of the family’s favorite hunting spots.

“It was awesome,” Hagans said. “My phone didn’t work for three days, but it was one of the best times I’ve ever had. I’d love to go back.”

The Steelers have twice been crowned Super Bowl champions since Miller joined the team in 2005, and his old-school style has made him enormously popular in a city known for its blue-collar mentality.

That Pittsburgh was the perfect place for him to play pro football might not have been obvious to Miller on the day he was drafted, he said, “but certainly over the course of my career I realized how fortunate I’ve been to be drafted by Pittsburgh and to be able play my whole career with the Steelers.”

The Rooneys, who own the Steelers, are revered for their stewardship of the storied franchise, “and I’m proud to be a part of their organization,” Miller said.

“There’s not much that I could complain about at all or change at all. I feel like a lucky man.”

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