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A Hamlet and Its Prince

Steelers' rookie tight end is royalty to grade schoolers, grandmas and all ages in between in Swords Creek, Va.

February 03, 2006|Jerry Crowe | Times Staff Writer

SWORDS CREEK, Va. — 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."

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."

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