ATLANTA - Fred Miller is 70 years old.
His hearing isn’t what it once was, and he’s a bit stiff when he moves because of a knee replacement. That’s the collateral damage of a football career that started on the high school fields of Homer, Louisiana, and ended with Miller leaving pieces of his battered body across the NFL as an undersized 250-pound Pro Bowl defensive tackle.
It has been 38 years since he retired from the pros after 10 years with the Baltimore Colts, losing 16-7 in the historic Super Bowl III to Joe Namath’s New York Jets (“That was just a disgrace,” Miller says) and winning 16-13 in Super Bowl V over the Dallas Cowboys (“We were either going to win that or kill somebody,” Miller laughs). He also blocked for legendary Colts’ quarterback Johnny Unitas (“One of the greatest guys I’ve ever known, but he once used those big ’ol long cleats to stomp the hell out of our center’s foot to get him to shut up in the huddle,” Miller says).
It has been 48 years since Miller played both offense and defensive tackle for LSU as first-team all-American (offense), playing his final game in a 13-0 victory over No. 4 Texas in the ’63 Cotton Bowl.
But here Miller sits in a Hyatt Hotel ballroom, on the Friday night before the recent Southeastern Conference championship football game, about to be celebrated at the SEC’s 2010 Class of Legends awards dinner. His eyes are bright and his heart is full, amazed that anyone remembers him enough to bestow such an honor.
“This is a real treat, I never thought I was a legend anywhere,” says a thoroughly humbled Miller, who has lived on a farm outside of Baltimore since he retired from Colts. “But I guess when you get older, some people may think you were better than you were. So many great players have come out of LSU, so to be a Legend is a real honor.”
No doubt. For all 12 honorees, one from each SEC member, it is a wonderful night to recall a time in their lives that shaped them forever.
Other than Miller and 85-year-old former Arkansas athletic director and coach Frank Broyles, six of the nominees are still in their 30s, just several years removed from their NFL careers.
They have names that are still fresh to younger demographic fans like Al Wilson, the heart of Tennessee’s ’98 national championship team as a helmet-cracking linebacker. Or former Kentucky quarterback Tim Couch, who once attempted 67 passes in a ’98 game for then-pass happy UK coach Hal Mumme. Or former Mississippi State wide receiver/kick returner Eric Moulds, who led the NCAA in kickoff returns in ’94. Or former Florida defensive end Kevin Carter, who had an incredible 42½ tackles for loss and 21½ sacks in his college career from ’91-’94.
And there’s former Vanderbilt cornerback Corey Chavous, a first-team All-SEC choice in ’96 who never had a chance to play on a winning college team, which is why Chavous’ Legends honor meant so much to him.
“There was a lack of success for me when I was at Vanderbilt, because it’s a team sport, you win or you lose,” says Chavous, who played 11 years in the NFL for the Cardinals, Vikings and Rams through ’08. “There’s a void there that can never be filled. But I do appreciate this honor.”
The way Chavous played in his NFL career as Pro Bowl cover cornerback – in a receiver’s face, never giving an inch – was the same way he played from day one as a true freshman at Vanderbilt in ’94.
“I got beat for a touchdown in three of my first four college games,” says Chavous, 34, who now is a leading NFL, NBA and major league draft authority through his website draftnasty.com. “But it didn’t deter me from playing with confidence. I played with aggressiveness throughout my career. I was a bump-and-run corner. I pressed guys. I blitzed people.”
Seven players of the SEC Legends Class of 2010 were on SEC championship teams and one played on a national title squad. Ten played in the NFL, four were first-round NFL choices, five earned Pro Bowl honors, two played for Super Bowl champions and one played for a Grey Cup champion (Georgia linebacker Ben Zambiasi) in the Canadian Football League. Broyles coached a national championship team at Arkansas in ’64 and was a quarterback at Georgia Tech where he also was a second-team All-SEC basketball guard.
But it’s not Super Bowl rings, or SEC championship jewelry or national championship hardware that the SEC Legends Class of 2010 inductees remembers the most.
What they recall is the key people in their lives who made a difference, who pushed them, who wouldn’t let them quit, who believed in them, who motivated them to pursue careers and chase dreams far beyond their wildest imaginations.
For instance, Legend honoree Everett Lindsay had played one year of high school football in Raleigh, N.C. when he walked on at Ole Miss.
“I’d applied at several different schools, but when I visited Ole Miss and talked to the coaches, they were really open about guys coming to walk on,” Lindsay recalls.
By the time Lindsay left Ole Miss in ’92, he was a two-time first-team all-American offensive lineman, winner of the Jacobs Award as the SEC’s best blocker, and played on three bowl teams. He was picked in the fifth round of the NFL draft to start an 11-year career with the Vikings, the Ravens and the Browns.
It wouldn’t have happened if then-Ole Miss coach Billy Brewer and his staff didn’t believe in Lindsay.
“Billy made it fun and he always picked assistant coaches with extraordinary personalities who were good teachers,” says Lindsay, 40, who now lives in Minneapolis. “I loved playing for all the coaches I had there. I enjoyed the whole experience.
“And I owe so much to Langston Rogers (Ole Miss’ recently retired sports information director). I love that guy. He always promoted me, nominated me, got me selected to things like this (the Legends) and things like being on the Playboy All-American team, taking trips that I never thought I’d take. I’ve had some of the experiences of a lifetime.”
Fate played a part in the success of some of the Legends, like Kentucky’s Couch.
Couch was ready to transfer from UK after his freshman season in ’96. Couch, who set numerous national high school passing records for Leslie County (Ken.) High, clearly wasn’t a fit for UK coach Bill Curry’s run-oriented offense.
But when Curry was fired at the end of Couch’s first season, UK hired a Division 2 coach from Valdosta (Ga.) State, some guy named Hal Mumme, who believed the only time you should run the ball was on fourth-and-inches.
“If Coach Mumme hadn’t come to Kentucky, I wouldn’t have been around,” says Couch, 33, who retired from the NFL in ’07 after a string of injuries and who now does TV feature work in the Southeast. “He brought in a system that was right for me.
“I didn’t know much about Coach Mumme. Kentucky was his first Division 1 job. But in my first meeting with him, he sat me down and said, `I know you’re thinking about transferring. But if you stay, I’ll let you throw it 50 times a game.’
“I said, `That’s pretty much all I need to hear. I can work with that.’ I felt if I had that opportunity, I could get it done.”
In two seasons as UK’s starter in ’97-’98 in Mumme’s “Air Raid” offense before he jumped to the pros, Couch averaged 47.8 passing attempts per game. He threw for the bulk of his 8,435 career passing yards and 74 touchdown passes, finishing fourth in the ’98 Heisman Trophy balloting and being selected No. 1 overall by the Browns in the ’99 NFL draft.
“I had a great time those two years,” Couch says, “because Coach Mumme’s system was perfect for a quarterback. He put a lot on me to call plays at the line of scrimmage, and it really prepared me for the next level. We spread the ball around all over the place and I had a great group of receivers.”
Even 12 years later, with current offenses more sophisticated than ever, running no-huddle attacks with plays called at the line of scrimmage for entire games, Couch still dominates the SEC record book. He holds or shares six conference records, including records for most attempts and completions in a game, coming during a remarkable performance of 47-of-67 for 499 yards in a 27-20 loss to Arkansas.
“I was little sore after that game,” Couch says with a laugh. “The SEC had always been a running conference. But all of a sudden, (then-Florida coach Steve) Spurrier’s team started changing that, and then we started opening up at Kentucky. Now, you see spread offenses all over the conference. It’s neat to look back on that and know we were on the cutting edge.”
Tell Florida’s Carter about. He was relentless offense-destroying pass rusher who honed his skills going against Spurrier’s Fun and Gun offense daily in practice.
Carter, 37, says the sole reason he signed with Florida was the infectiously bold Spurrier, who pulled off the coup of signing Carter from Tallahassee, home of Florida State.
The Gators’ former Heisman Trophy winning quarterback returned as coach to his alma mater in 1990 and installed a flame-throwing passing offense that melted scoreboards and took no prisoners. Carter loved Spurrier’s bravado.
“When I graduated from high school, I did really well academically and I had decided I was going to Notre Dame,” explains the eloquent Carter, who played 14 years in the NFL for the Rams, the Titans, the Dolphins and the Bucs and never missed any of his 224 pro games. “But when I visited Florida, Coach Spurrier is the one that changed my mind. When he came to my house on his home recruiting visit, he spoke to my parents with conviction. That same love, conviction and commitment to excellence was there every day I was at Florida.
“Coach Spurrier ate lunch with us. He ran with us. He strove for excellence, and he set the bar high for himself and us. He just gave us a whole new mindset. We went into every game knowing that we were better prepared, better coached, we were just plain better than the other team. That’s a hard thing to say in the SEC.”
In Carter’s four years at Florida, the Gators were 40-10-1 overall, won 27-of-31 SEC games and three SEC championship rings in ’91, ’93 and ’94.
“Coach Spurrier made the game fun,” Carter says. “We had a certain swagger about us, because of the mentality we approached games. I loved watching our offense. It was like he (Spurrier) broke the rules by always calling the right play, compared to other coaches doing the safe thing by always calling their bread-and-butter plays. Coach Spurrier didn’t worry about that. He just cared about winning.”
It was a mere, but happy coincidence, that Carter collected his Legends award the night before his old coach, Spurrier, was back in the league championship game at age 65, this time with South Carolina.
“It’s ironic my Gators aren’t here, but my coach is,” Carter says. “I’m so proud for him, because he’s transforming South Carolina like he transformed Florida. I got there in his second year and I was proud to be a part of history.
“That’s why winning this (Legends) award is so special, to be a part of that history in the best conference in college football. There’s not a day that didn’t go by in the pros that I didn’t talk trash about my SEC.
“Winning this award means so much more now than I ever thought it would. When you’re playing in college or the pros, you’d come out for warm-ups and see these old guys, these former players, walk on the field waving to the crowd and they’d be standing there with their teenaged son.
“Now, that guy is me. I’m so humbled and thankful to be where I am, happy, healthy and able to come back and celebrate this part of my life with my family.”
Which brings us back to LSU’s Miller, who grew up in Louisiana dreaming of playing for. . .Tulane?
“I played on a great high school team called the Homer Ironmen,” Miller says. “Everyone on our team had a chance to get a full or partial college scholarship, including Jim Andrews, who is now Dr. Jim Andrews, one of the best sports orthopedic surgeons in America. He went to LSU as a pole vaulter.
“I wanted to go play for Tulane, but I didn’t have enough English credits. So that put me back in limbo. I had a buddy who signed with Texas A&M and I was going to go there.”
But when Miller went to New Orleans to play in the Louisiana High School All-Star game, LSU assistant Joe May found a way to land Miller.
“He shows up in (LSU head coach) Paul Dietzel’s hard-top Ford convertible with my mother, my sister and my girlfriend,” Miller says. “So my mother decided I should go to LSU, which was the right thing to do.”
It certainly was. Though Miller says he was “never too big” playing for Dietzel who left LSU at the ’61 season to take a job at Army, Miller loved playing his senior season in ’62 for Charlie McClendon, Dietzel’s predecessor.
“He was like a father to me,” Miller says. “He demanded a lot of you, but he knew who to demand from. He’d tell you to make something happen.
And Miller did.
Over and over and over again, just like the rest of the SEC Legends Class of 2010. They made it happen, more often and better than most of their teammates.
That’s why they are and always will be SEC Legends.