Taking time to look back at a legend
We don’t spend a lot of time looking back in our sports sections. Time marches on and so do we, from preseason stories to game coverage to championships. And then it’s on to the next season. If it happened more than a week ago, it’s old news.
It’s the nature of the business, but sometimes it’s important to take a step back. Sometimes it’s important to remember.
When I listened to a voicemail from Dick Walsh last week, I realized this was one of those times.
He was calling about Bob Miller.
Miller was one of Warwick’s most legendary coaches, winning a lot of football games at Pilgrim and inspiring a lot of players and students along the way.
He died in December. I didn’t see any headlines – he was 88 and living in New Hampshire. Many of his contemporaries have passed on too.
But headlines or not, Miller’s story shouldn’t just get lost in the shuffle. That’s why Walsh was calling.
The former athletic director at Vets, Walsh played football for Miller at Pilgrim, quarterbacking their 1964 team to the city championship.
He wasn’t calling just because Miller was a good coach he happened to remember, though.
He called because Miller was something more.
“I wouldn’t be here talking about him if I thought, ‘Oh yeah, this guy was my high school coach, and he was pretty good,’” Walsh said. “He was a remarkable man. He was the real deal.”
Miller was a football player and a track star at the University of Rhode Island, taking his hammer throwing all the way to the Olympic Trials in 1948. He was a military veteran, too.
After college he began the teaching and coaching career that would become his life’s work. He started as an assistant football coach at Aldrich, then moved on to Warwick Vets and Pilgrim.
He was that coach, Walsh said, that great coach who can teach more than X’s and O’s.
“He was a guy who taught you courage, determination, hard work – all those things that people talk about,” Walsh said. “He didn’t just talk about them; he lived them.”
That was true when Walsh played for him in the 60’s, but Miller came to define those qualities even more soon afterwards.
In 1972, doctors discovered a malignant tumor on Miller’s right leg. The next step was radical surgery. It worked – the cancer was gone – but Miller was left without a leg. So much had been removed, in fact, that he wasn’t even able to wear a prosthesis.
Even before he returned to Warwick, though, Miller’s actions hinted at what he would become. At Walter Reed Army Medical Center, alongside 20-something amputees home from Vietnam, Miller strapped on crutches and walked the halls.
“He was the role model for all of them,” Walsh said. “Most people would have assumed they would be in a wheelchair. He just beat the odds with his character and his intestinal fortitude.”
The surgery was in May. In September he returned to Pilgrim, but not in any diminished capacity. He was on the sidelines, coaching the Pats without missing a beat. Coming back, though, wasn’t easy.
“It was the hardest thing I ever did in my life,” Miller said in a 1972 Beacon story.
His players, students and colleagues never would have guessed that part. Because Miller just kept going.
Walsh, fresh out of college, was a teacher in the Warwick schools, so he got to know his old coach in a new capacity. He never stopped being impressed.
“He wouldn’t let it take him down,” Walsh said. “Some guys would have gone to pieces. He was a great role model, even before the surgery. That brought it out even more. You’ve got to think about the kind of impression he had on his students, to come back and do that.”
Miller kept coaching for years and also remained in his post as the physical education department head. He retired after more than 30 years in the school system.
Walsh followed a similar career path as a teacher and coach. He stayed in touch with Miller through the years, though they hadn’t talked recently.
Soon after Miller’s death, his widow called Walsh with the news. She asked him to deliver a eulogy in a Dec. 17 memorial service. Former players and fellow coaches turned out to remember and celebrate Miller’s life.
For Walsh, the memories came flooding back, from the wins and the championships to the smaller moments, like eating cookies and milk at Miller’s house the night before games.
It’s those moments that last, for Walsh and for countless others who crossed paths with Miller.
Here’s hoping his story never gets lost.
“I used to tell my students, other than you’re mother and father, there’s going to be some teacher or coach who’s going to have a profound effect on shaping your life,” Walsh said. “That’s what this guy was to me. If you catch one of those, you’re lucky. And I was.”
William Geoghegan is the sports editor at the Warwick Beacon. He can be reached at 732-3100 and firstname.lastname@example.org.