Tuesday, October 4, 2016

He was All-Everything that Bradshaw wasn't

     He is the answer to a trivia question, and he laughed when I suggested that to him.
     In his senior season of high school football (1965), Terry Bradshaw was not All-City (in Shreveport-Bossier), All-District (1-AAA) or All-State (Class AAA in Louisiana). Who was the quarterback who earned those honors?
     The answer: John Miller, Fair Park (Shreveport).
     When I asked him if he tells people, some five decades later, that he beat out Bradshaw for All-Everything, Miller answered, with a laugh, "It depends who I'm talking to."
     What he remembers is that "a good time in my life" and that receiving the all-star honors was "kind of a shock" considering that he was a junior and Bradshaw, at Woodlawn, had a strong senior year.
     Their statistics were almost equal that season; their teams each advanced far in the state playoffs. But as Miller noted when we talked a week ago, "I got the (Shreveport Journal All-City) Cotton Bowl trip."
     But he was gracious about it. Bradshaw, he said, "was a fantastic athlete. His pro career was tremendous. Such a great arm, and he threw the hell out of the ball."
     He wasn't all that big for a quarterback (5-foot-9 1/2, 160 pounds) -- Bradshaw was five inches taller -- but Miller too had a strong right arm. He had a young offensive coach just starting his coaching career who liked the passing game; a smart, capable offensive line; two future LSU signees as teammates (guard Robert Davis and linebacker Bobby Joe King); and two  talented wide receivers named Smith (Jerry at split end, Vitamin T. -- V.T. -- at flanker).
     Jerry, also an All-State choice, went on to play at Baylor. The fleet V.T., son of a 1949-53 Los Angeles Rams star running back (same name), played at Abilene Christian.
     As several people described him, Miller was "very smart," able to run an offensive system which -- rare in those days in high school -- could audible plays at the line of scrimmage.
     He was junior class favorite that year, "Mr. Fair Park" the next year, and a smart enough student to earn a scholarship to Vanderbilt University -- known much more for producing real student-athletes than football success.
     His Vanderbilt football career was injury-curtailed, but he had his moments. One significant fact: He started only one season (1968, as a sophomore). But the 5-4-1 record that season was the only winning season Vandy had in a 14-year period.
     And the degree he earned as a geology major set up his future.
     Fair Park, in the fall of 1965 and again in 1966, was a perfect setting for John Miller to throw the football.
     "I enjoyed that so much, the way we played," he said. "We had great receivers -- I was lucky to have those two -- and an offensive line that could call out blocking assignments, and help me call audibles. It was great timing, great fun."         
     We know what happened to Bradshaw. Whatever happened to John Miller?
     He is 67 now, has lived for 15 years in Oak Ridge, Tenn. -- just west of Knoxville -- an upscale community started in 1942 as home of the "Manhattan Project" (development of the atomic bomb). It was home base for the oil and gas company he joined as an engineer a couple of decades ago.
     Two recent developments: (1) He retired from business and (2) now settled in one place after a life and career of constant travel, he re-married. After 34 years of being a couple while Carolynn lived in Franklin, Tenn., they're together in Oak Ridge.
John with daughter Kelly at her wedding.
     The son of an Air Force pilot, the third of four brothers,  they made -- oldest brother Don remembered -- 42 moves while in their growing-up years. John kept traveling in business.
     Now the traveling is for pleasure -- recent trips to Portland, Ore., where his daughter Kelly and granddaughter Arisa, 6, live, and to North Carolina for a weekend golf outing (that delayed our talk for a couple of days).
     "I've always loved golf," he said. "Now I've got the time to really play some."
     It's been a while since he played some football. 
     "He always was a tough kid growing up, real quiet," said Don Miller, five years older. And it was Don -- a longtime coach at Northwood High near Shreveport -- who was John's first coach. Retired, he now lives in Ormond Beach, Fla.
     "Don was my mentor," said John. "He was a coach from the day he was born." He recalled throwing footballs at tire swings in backyards from coast to coast, and beyond, working on quick releases and accuracy.
     The Millers' Air Force journey/stops included Riverside, Calif., Savannah, Ga., Albany, Ga. (where Don went to high school), Germany, Ankara (Turkey) and then Barksdale Air Force Base (Bossier-Shreveport).
     It was in Savannah where Don got John involved on a neighborhood football team, an 11-12s team (but John was younger). He started as a defensive back. A move later, in Albany as a fifth-grader, he came home one day and announced he was a quarterback.
     "A quarterback?" Don remembers saying. "That coach doesn't know anything. You can't be a quarterback. I'd always made him play defensive back because he was a hitter."
     In Germany, John got more QB work on the American Air Force base. And, as Don liked to recall, at age 8, "he was [water] skiing barefoot in Italy [on vacation]."
     Then from Turkey, it was on to Barksdale, where Ray Miller eventually retired as a major.
     Instead of living in Bossier City, the Millers found a place on Curtis Lane in Shreveport because, said Don, they "found a great deal on a rental property where they could have a horse and there was a swimming pool."
     And Midway Junior High had a new student. John wanted to play football, but coach Ab White was reluctant to give him a uniform because he was so small. Ricky McNabb was bigger and set at QB. But once John had the uniform, he also proved to be the best QB.
     As a sophomore at Fair Park, Miller again found skepticism because of his size. Head coach Roy Wilson -- the decades-long, old-school, rough-and-tough "Bull" -- wasn't sure, but James Farrar -- the Indians' varsity defensive line/linebackers coach -- was coach of the "B" and sophomore teams and knew John could throw the ball.
     Another plus: Jimmy Orton, after a pro baseball career, had just come back to coach and teach at Fair Park -- where he was a three-sport All-City, All-District star in the mid-1950s. He had quarterbacked the Indians to the state finals (1955), then played two years at Louisiana Tech.
     Farrar and Orton convinced Wilson. Orton liked what he saw.
     "He didn't have a lot of height, but he had a great arm," said Orton. "He had a knack of throwing the long pass, and the Smith boys could get down under it. John had a lot of ability."
     "It was a great opportunity for me," Miller said. "Coach Orton took me under his wing. He was my biggest fan. We rocked and rolled in that offense. He molded me as a quarterback."
     Miller dressed with the varsity as a sophomore, but he had an inauspicious debut. The only game he entered was as a PAT kick holder and, taking his eyes off the snap, "the ball hit me in the head."
     Before the '65 season, it looked as if senior Tom Shea would be the starting QB, with Miller playing defense. But they switched spots early in the fall.
     The Indians had an 8-4-1 record and scored 314 points (24.2 per game). What is significant: No Fair Park team the last 50 years has scored that much. Only two Fair Park teams scored more -- the 1952 state champions (334), the 1955 state runner-ups (348).
     "We were running the offense Coach (Joe) Aillet used at Tech," Orton said. "Basically it was Wing-T sets, run-oriented, but we had split receivers and we threw a lot. Lee Hedges was doing the same at Woodlawn."
     Miller passed for 1,727 yards and 20 touchdowns (Bradshaw, in one more game, threw for 1,372 yards and a state-record 21 TDs.)
     One of the rare off nights in that season for Miller, though, came in the season's second game -- a 28-7 loss to Woodlawn and Bradshaw, who was the star of the game. That was the difference between first and second place in the district.
     The Indians boosted their point total with three high-scoring victories -- North Caddo 60-0, Bossier 55-14 (the Smith points scored 42 of the points) and West Monroe 46-38. But they also proved they could win the low-scoring ones, beating city rivals Jesuit 6-0 and Byrd 13-0 (their first win over their old rivals since 1958). 
     It also clinched Fair Park's first state playoff entry since '58. When it rallied from a 12-6 halftime deficit to beat Jesuit (New Orleans) 19-12, it was the school's first playoff victory in 10 years.
     The season ended the next week in the state semifinals with a 29-7 loss to Sulphur, which returned to State Fair Stadium the following week to edge Woodlawn 12-9 in a hard rain for the state championship.
     Don Jones was president of the Fair Park Student Council in 1965-66 and is now an orthopedic surgeon in Eugene, Ore., and a team doctor with the University of Oregon football team.          
      Miller, he said, "was very smart. One example of how smart he was is that I started every game at tight end my senior year and he only threw to me once.  That includes practice. And on top of that, it was in the last two minutes of the state playoff game which we lost. 
      "Actually he was very smart. I respected him and really enjoyed playing with him."
      "He was a thinking man's quarterback," said Jerry Smith, who now lives in Wylie, Texas, and owns/operated a factory automation company based in Plano. "The coaches gave him credit for changing plays at the line of scrimmage more than 50 percent of the time the last part of the season.
       "Miller was one of those guys who had no fear. He had a strong arm -- not like Bradshaw, though -- but he could put the ball where it needed to be. He'd throw it into places you'd think he couldn't get it there.
      "Very intelligent guy," Smith added. "He'd get us up to the line of scrimmage quickly, and just call a play before the coaches would send one in. ... And he was cagey, too, and he wasn't afraid to run the ball."
      Before the season, Miller had told his mother he thought he could make All-City. She had her doubts and promised they'd buy a new ski boat if he did.
      "Sure enough, I was, and we did [get the boat]," John said. "She thought that was a long shot."
      No question: He was confident.
      Orton recalls one of Miller's early starts -- he thinks it was at LaGrange (Lake Charles) -- when the Indians began with a couple of yards on two running plays, then threw incomplete, and punted.
      "John came to the sideline and said, 'Coach, we can score on these guys any time we want,' " Orton said, laughing at the memory. "I said, 'OK, why don't we try that next time we get the ball.'"          
      Art Walker was a basketball guard at Fair Park and lived across and down the street from the Millers. He was good friends with John, and they were pals with two other neighbors who were athletes -- Ronnie Burns (baseball) and Dennis Dans (halfback in football).
      "John was very quiet, and very confident in his ability," said Walker, who lives in Benton and is the father of former LSU and major-league baseball star Todd Walker. "It was amazing for someone like me to watch him throw the football.
      "He was just a good guy. Being military, it was a close family [Marshall was the second-oldest brother, three years ahead of John, and David was considerably younger]. They stood up for each other and protected each other."               
      John had another good season in 1966, and Fair Park was 8-3, but missed out on the playoffs. Wayne Haney was a standout receiver, but said John, "We didn't have the same  weapons." 
      One of the nice elements of that season was that Don Miller, having graduated from Auburn University, was in Shreveport, starting his teaching/coaching career at Linwood Junior High. He joined the Fair Park staff the next year, Wilson's last year as head coach.
      "He [Wilson] was heading into his retirement phase," John Miller said of his senior year. "But I admired him, respected him. He pretty well left the [offensive] coaching to Coach Orton."
      Miller repeated as All-City and All-District. But the Class AAA All-State QB selection was Butch Duhe of Holy Cross (New Orleans). He was one of LSU's prime recruits ... and his death of a brain hemorrhage in late summer 1970 was a stunner.
      By then, Miller was about to be a senior at Vanderbilt.
      "He lived football," Don Miller said of his brother in the 1960s, and it was obvious in late 1966 that he was going to get a chance to play in college. His size didn't deter the recruiters.
      Tulane pushed hardest, and John signed a letter-of-intent (multiple "intent" signings were permissible then). LSU coach Charlie McClendon came to Shreveport twice to visit with him, but LSU's pass-hesitant offense wasn't appealing to John (sound familiar?). Baylor, with a passing offense, was interested.
      Vanderbilt -- a football weakling, an educational beacon -- became a late option.
      "It was a weird way that it happened," John said. When his grandfather passed away in Stevenson, Ala., near Chattanooga, then-Vandy linebacker star Chip Healy was at the funeral "and he started talking to me about Vanderbilt."
      When he visited the school in Nashville, he felt comfortable, and his parents had just moved to the family farm in Stevenson. "So Mom had some influence in my decision" to play closer to where they were living.
      He got an introduction to SEC football in 1967 on the freshman team (freshmen were not eligible for varsity in Division I then). It was only four games, but one was against Ole Miss and a quarterback named Archie Manning. Final score: Ole Miss 80, Vandy 8. Oops.
       Bill Pace had been an assistant to Frank Broyles at Arkansas before becoming Vandy's head coach in 1967. Miller gained his confidence before his sophomore year ('68).
       "It was like my junior year in high school; I progressed really fast," Miller said. He didn't start the first two games, but when Vandy struggled in game two at Army, he came off the bench and sparked a 17-13 comeback victory.
       "We weren't doing much when I came in," he said. "They were playing a loose-six defense, so they were loose in the flats. Coach Pace was a good offensive mind; he could find the weaknesses in defenses."
      Miller set a school record for completions in a game and was named SEC offensive back of the week.
      With one "above average receiver," Curt Chesley, Miller set a Vandy sophomore season record for passing yards (1,164), although some numbers weren't pretty (49.3 completion percentage -- 99 of 201 -- with 18 interceptions and five TDs).
      A three-game winning streak near season's end clinched a rare -- rare -- Vandy winning season. But a 10-7 loss to arch-rival Tennessee in the finale was a bummer, and a lesson for Miller.
      Tennessee had two future All-Americans and NFL stars at linebacker, Steve Kiner and Jack "Hacksaw" Reynolds. "A long day," said Miller, who recalled running for 5 or 6 yards "and they knocked me plumb over the bench."
      Disaster struck in the off-season. Playing tennis with a teammate on a cold night in February 1969, Miller felt a sharp pain in his right shoulder.
      It was a badly injured, maybe even torn, rotator cuff. His throwing arm and motion was badly compromised.
      It was a few years before surgery for that injury and repair/rehab was common, and Vandy's team doctors "were reluctant to operate. They felt I would only be at 70 or 80 percent strength after that," Miller said.
      So the option was shots of novocaine and cortisone, "and it would get a little better. [But] it would make everything feel heavy, and tired. I could throw in practice one day, then it hurt badly the next day."
      Still, he gave it a try and started the season in The Big House at Michigan -- Bo Schembechler's first game as Michigan head coach. In the 42-14 Vandy loss, Miller said, "I played decently."
      But the difficulty continued and Pace soon put in a triple-option offense, "so I saw the handwriting on the wall."
      Watson Brown, older brother of Mack Brown and a future longtime college coach, took over at QB, and Vandy started 1-5. But that one victory was extremely memorable -- Vandy 14, Alabama 10, in Nashville.
      Since 1959, Vanderbilt is 2-44 vs. Alabama, 1-35 since Brown sparked that victory in 1969. 
      The Commodores finished 4-6 that season, and Miller played sparingly (24 of 56, 310 yards, four interceptions, one TD).   
      As a senior, he was still listed at QB on the depth chart, but at his suggestion, Denny Painter had been moved from center to QB the year before and emerged as the 1970 starter. The team went 4-7.
      "Coach Pace wanted to find me a position," so Miller played some at safety. But his lack of size made it tough and it was "unfamiliar."
      He did get some shots at quarterback, threw a couple of TD passes and nearly led a comeback against nationally ranked North Carolina.
      "I think he (Pace) let me play QB out of kindness," he said. "Even in the [season-ending] Tennessee game, he put me in at the end just to be nice."
      The Vandy experience, though, was a good one, especially with teammates such as tailback (and future coach) Doug Mathews (SEC's leading rusher in 1969) and defensive end Pat Toomay (of Dallas Cowboys fame).
      Plus, that victory against Alabama ... and the education.
      After his Vanderbilt graduation, he took a job with Dresser Industries and went to Alaska for a year to work on the Northern Slope, then was transferred to California, where he met his first wife in Bakersfield. Art Walker also was there at the time in his first job after graduation from Louisiana Tech.
      Then it was back to Louisiana, to off-shore jobs in the Gulf, where he was a mud engineer -- and a pilot (just like his father, who was a flight instructor on gliders). "I flew a float plane out to the rigs," he said.
      When people he knew from his Vanderbilt days got involved in the Dixie Oil Co., he joined them and that brought him to the Appalachian basin and stays in Corbin, Ky., and Oneida, Tenn.
      "The business goes up and down, like a yo-yo, especially in this area," he noted. He supervised the drilling and completion of wells, and "I never hit the big time, but I enjoyed it."
      Just as he enjoyed those long-ago days at Fair Park.
      "Fondest times I had was in Shreveport, with my friends," he said. "That was a close community. It was not the same in college."
      As for Bradshaw, coincidentally, "I never met him. Saw him at [Fair Park and/or Woodlawn] basketball games, but we never had any conversation.
       "I remember thinking he was so big, and he looked like Chuck Connors (The Rifleman")."
       That he did. And for a couple of seasons at Fair Park High in the mid-1960s, John Miller looked much like a passing quarterback named Bradshaw. It was not a trivial matter.
John, with Arisa and Carolynn a couple of years ago




  1. From Cathy Bonds: Wonderful blog! I really enjoyed reading it. It brought back so many wonderful memories. You did a great job of getting in touch with so many. It was truly a wonderful time in Fair Park sports with football, basketball and baseball.
    Those were good years!
    I was telling current students about your article this morning and we were looking at old yearbooks before school. They really enjoyed hearing about that time in Fair Park history.
    The photos were great too.

  2. From John Miller: Thanks so much for taking the time to produce such an in-depth and accurate account of my past. It brings back the fondest memories of my teammates and friends during the good days. I was truly blessed to have had such a great offensive line and outstanding receivers and a coach that gave us the best chance for success.
    Wish I could have taken them and Coach Orton to Vanderbilt with me. I would have liked our chances.
    PS: I don't think Terry will be too offended about missing the Cotton Bowl. He always has the four Super Bowl rings to fall back on.

  3. From Joe Ferguson: I remember watching John play. He was a good one.

  4. From Tommy Youngblood: Enjoyed reading this one. I knew or played against a lot of those guys. We [LSU] played Reynolds and the Tennessee guys the year before, I believe. How do these guys remember so much detail? I'm going to reread my [Fair Park] yearbook and try to remember some games. I do remember the Smith guys and Miller. Good blog.

  5. From Herman Garner: Thanks. John Miller has always been one of my trivia questions, too. It is always interesting to see what happened to the athletes I watched back in the day.

  6. From Ross Montelbano: Being from Woodlawn, I still remember thinking that Miller deserved to be picked ahead of Terry. If I recall, in addition to more yards per game and only one less TD in one less game, he had a higher completion percentage.
    As always, great job.

  7. From Jimmy Russell: This was good. I remember John Miller. He kind of slipped off the radar screen. The Shreveport schools all had pretty good teams in those days, as you well know. Those days are long past.

  8. From Mickey Lowe: Great story, brings back some memories. He was a great QB. But as with Terry (and Kenny Lantrip, at La. Tech) you got to have the receivers to catch what you throw.

  9. From Harlan Alexander: Thanks for the memories. As a FP '65 grad, a reminder of good times.

  10. From Steve Ferguson: Great story. I had the privilege of knowing and playing with John at Midway under Ab White. Both were class acts.

  11. From Stan Tiner: As always, superb. Great fact-filled reporting and a surprising story that tells your readers something that most did not know. As an old FPHS guy, I was really glad to find out about John Miller's life. Quite a success story.

  12. From Bobby Joe King: Thanks for the research and great story about John, Fair Park football, and a reminder of a wonderful time in my life. John was an obviously smart, confident QB and teammate who never flinched in the face of adversity. One example I'll always remember in the Jesuit New Orleans playoff game: When a play was sent in from the sidelines, John said something to the effect "naw, I've got a better idea." He called 'his' play and it worked. If I recall correctly, it was a crucial play that either won the game or set us up to win. Coach Wilson and Coach Orton both, maybe not so jokingly, commented more than once about how long the walk to Shreveport would have been had the play not worked.

  13. From Louis Cascio: Enjoyed the article. We played against John and Bobby Joe my junior year at Jesuit. Not pretty!

  14. From Stan Powell: Wow! Indeed a great article. Thanks for writing and posting. You may know that Wayne Haney was my brother-in-law(he passed away 19 years ago). He and my sister Sharon were dating back then. I was a little guy so I don't remember much, but I grew up hearing a lot about John Miller. Was just talking to Coach Orton about two weeks ago asking whatever happened to John. Now I know.

  15. From Leo Leon: I got goosebumps reading this article. Some really great memories back in the day.

  16. From Winston Ebarb: When I read this article I was thoroughly impressed. You knew more about John than I did and I played ball with him at Midway and Fair Park. Well done.

  17. From Ernie Roberson: That one brought some wonderful memories. Really was a magical time in so many ways.

  18. From Richard Thompson: Wow, great job. I played at Midway and we had already been practicing over a week when Miller showed up for the first practice. I confess we all laughed at him. His borrowed pads, pants, and helmet made him look like a hobo football player and we thought he was too little to play. I was a receiver and I remember the first day of practice he nearly broke my finger when I tried to catch his pass. I had never been around anyone that could throw that hard but accurate.

  19. From Thomas Stahl: John Miller was a good quarterback. When I was a sophomore, he was the man taking the snaps. When I went to Fair Park, we always had a good football team. Indian football was so much fun back then, especially Indian Day when we BEAT those Jackets. Great article.

  20. John was not only a great QB, he was very intelligent. We went to six flags together on Honor Society trip and we were in the same room together. I worked with John's two brothers, Don and Marshal at the Fair Grounds swimming pool in the summer and like John they were certainly class acts. I will never forget John Miller. I never saw anyone throw a football with the accuracy and distance that he could. John was not a big guy but he was tough as nails when he put that helmet on. I will always have fond memories of John. He was not only athletic but super intelligent which put him in a class all by himself. He had character and integrity and was a great friend. All the best to him and his brothers. I hope maybe one day to see him again in this life. Give Don and Marshal my best if you talk to John and tell him that I miss those old days at FPHS. He was one of the best.