STILLWATER, Okla. • On days off, Terry Miller explores his 6 acres, situated on the edge of a town where he remains a hero. He hits golf balls at his personal driving range with Maybelle, a rescue golden Labrador, by his side. He collects oceans of leaves from his trees and wishes he had a penny for every leaf.
“I’d be rich,” he says.
While exploring, his mind remains locked on the present. He seldom roams to his past.
“When it’s done, it’s done,” he says. “Yesterday is done, and I don’t think and I don’t worry about it.”
His past is, no doubt, a bountiful and complicated one. He was the greatest high school athlete in Colorado Springs history as a superlative football running back, state champ basketball point guard and the state’s fastest sprinter while competing at Mitchell High School, Class of 1974. He departed Oklahoma State after earning a degree in finance in four years. Oh, and he ranked as the fourth-leading rusher in NCAA history, too, and finished second in Heisman Trophy voting to Earl Campbell in 1977. He replaced O.J. Simpson as Buffalo Bills lead running back.
An asterisk floats above the glory. He pleaded guilty in 1999 to bank fraud and was ordered to pay $179,000 in restitution to The Bank in McAlester, Okla. He received a two-year sentence at the Oklahoma State Reformatory.
Miller, 63, seldom grants interviews and has not spoken to The Gazette in decades, but in a 75-minute conversation at his dining room table he answers all questions, even the uncomfortable ones.
First thing he gently tells the visitor wearing a sport coat is, “Take off that coat.” Though raised in Colorado, the rhythm of his voice has taken on the slow pace of the Southwest. His memory is sharp. He laughs often.
And in this rare journey to his past, he has quite a story to tell.
The early days
The eighth-grade kid sitting alongside his friend at Memorial Park was not a football player. Miller was talking with Robert James, resting after a long bike ride, as the Ent Sabers practiced a few dozen yards away.
A practice punt soared far off course. Miller looked up, saw the ball heading his way and stood up to catch it. The Sabers coach walked over.
“You play football?” the coach asked.
“No, not really,” Miller said. “Just on the street.”
Next day, Miller was practicing in an ENT uniform. He was an instant star, a threat to score every time he touched the ball and the league MVP his first season. He did not, however, fall in love with football. He never did.
“I’m not a group guy,” he says. “I’m a Terry guy. And I wasn’t a fan of practicing in the snow. This was before global warming, and your feet were freezing. It’s not a place that I would have put myself in.”
His football days nearly ended right after they started. In the ninth grade, Miller carried home a report card filled with “pretty much straight Cs” and handed the card to his mother, Bonnie. The family enjoyed a quiet dinner and evening, but just before bedtime Bonnie spoke sternly to her son. Another report card like this, she said, and you’ll never play sports again.
Her message was radiant. The classroom is more important than the playing field.
“She was basically my rock, my foundation,” says Terry, who transformed to diligent student.
His Mitchell football career was remarkable in surprising ways. As a junior, he was the fastest human in the state, but Marauders coach Jim Hartman believed in showcasing seniors. Hartman’s belief system meant Miller played backup running back.
This made no sense, but Miller declined to complain and still declines to complain. He did his best as a defensive back and waited his turn.
You could make a case Miller delivered the greatest calendar year ever by a Colorado high school athlete. In late winter of 1973, he led Mitchell’s basketball team to a state title as a wise and tough point guard. In the spring, he won 100 and 200 sprints at the state track meet.
And in the fall, the backup transformed to dazzling star, gaining 2,785 yards and scoring 224 points in 10 games while leading a limited Mitchell team to the state final. All this, while earning strong grades.
In 2011, Hartman spoke of Miller more as studious and humble person than elite athlete.
“It was like the movies,” Hartman said. “You’d see him in the halls with this erect posture, his shoulders back, head up, and big grin on his face. He just glowed and he had such confidence and he was so friendly. It wasn’t like he was an elitist.”
Miller became a celebrity, one of the most recruited American athletes of the era. One afternoon, Miller was sitting in coach Hartman’s office when the phone rang. It was Alabama legend Bear Bryant, talking in a dense Southern drawl that required subtitles. The Bear wanted Miller to play for his Crimson Tide.
The conversation was short. Miller told Bryant he had no interest in living in Alabama. Miller never considered a team from the Deep South.
The Colorado Springs of his youth was a “great place to grow up,” he says. He lived on Bryce Drive, near Valley Hi Golf Course. He spent afternoons playing basketball and football, usually in the wide streets, with a big group of friends.
Race did not matter in the Springs of his youth, Miller says.
“To be real honest, I wanted nothing to do with the South,” Miller says. “I’m from Colorado, and they were still dealing with issues I never dealt with in Colorado. I didn’t see any reason to regress.”
Still, the University of Colorado missed its chance to recruit one of the most staggering talents in state history. Football coach Eddie Crowder developed a friendship with Miller, but his coaching career ended after the 1973 season. Over a roast beef sandwich lunch at Giuseppe’s Restaurant in downtown Colorado Springs, former CU star Cullen Bryant, a Mitchell grad, told Miller the Buffs had fallen into disarray. Bryant and Miller grew up a few blocks from each other in Colorado Springs.
That was it. CU was out.
Finding his footing
Instead, Miller chose Stillwater and Oklahoma State University. His early football days at Oklahoma State were marred by leg injuries, especially hamstring pulls. Doc Cooper, the team’s trainer, discovered a solution. He purchased an extra-large women’s girdle at a downtown Stillwater department store, and Miller wore girdles the rest of his career. Presto: No more hamstring pulls, although Miller’s fashion statement drew many a surprised look in the locker room.
He was a special player, blessed with the speed to outrun anybody and the power to run over massive lineman. Tony Kornheiser described Miller in the New York Times as the runner blessed with “gelatin hips.”
In his final two seasons, Miller grew into a college superstar, gaining 3,221 yards. As a junior, Miller and his Cowboys traveled to Norman to battle the unbeaten, defending national champion Oklahoma Sooners. On the third play of the game, Miller sprinted right, wasted a defensive back with a stutter step and roared 72 yards to the end zone. The run propelled Oklahoma State to victory.
He ran right past Oklahoma freshman Billy Sims, then a bench sitter but later Heisman Trophy winner and transcendent star for the Detroit Lions.
“I still see him running down that sideline,” Sims says, chuckling through the painful memory. “He was something else. Just his speed, his durability, his ability to run over defensive tackles, and he had that fourth gear that meant when he broke open, it was going to be a touchdown.”
Miller had sprinted so far, so fast since catching that punt in Memorial Park, but his joyride crashed on his journey to the Great White North of Buffalo. He gained 1,060 yards as a rookie, ninth best in the NFL. Stardom looked just around the bend.
Next season, he suffered a severe left toe injury and rushed back to the field too quickly, leading to a series of leg injuries. Some days, he says, the toe still hurts. Two seasons later, in 1981, his battered body no longer could compete with NFL linebackers. His spectacular decade of football dominance was over. He was only 25.
The business world beckoned, and Miller looked ready.
Yet, he struggled to find his footing. He declared bankruptcy in 1983 after a series of shadowy financial dealings, and the worst was yet to come. In 1999, he was charged with defrauding a bank of $173,000.
“Miller eluded rabid linebackers with ease during his heyday as a running back,” The Daily Oklahoman reported Sept. 15, 1999. “Miller made no attempt to be elusive … as he stood before a Muskogee federal judge to be sentenced.”
Miller admitted to submitting false accounts receivable invoices from a sewing plant he operated. He submitted the false invoices to obtain loans from the bank. He paid back approximately $800,000, he said, but a $900,000 recall left him unable to repay the balance.
Reflecting on his legacy
As a young man, Miller was known for obedience, quietly following rules set down by his mother, his teachers and his coaches.
“Hey, you know, I was always you do what your parents tell you to do, and you do what your educators and coaches tell you,” he says. “You don’t ask questions. That was pretty much my motto.”
Miller is prepared for questions that concern his conviction. When he talks of legal trouble and prison, his voice remains steady. If he’s angry, he hides it well.
“We all get holding penalties,” he says, turning to football terms. “We all get illegal motion. You have to take that in the context of time. Hey, that was one play. The other 99 plays I did what I was supposed to do.
“From where I sit, I got punished, I accepted responsibility and I’ve moved on.”
Others have moved on, too. In 2011, Oklahoma State University finally welcomed Miller to its sports Hall of Fame. At the banquet, his friend and Oklahoma State teammate Russ Farthing listened as Miller took care to share the spotlight.
“The thing I admire most about Terry is he’s a very humble individual,” Farthing says. “When he went into the Hall of Fame, he thanked everyone else, his linemen, his quarterback, his teammates.”
As Miller ended the speech, he said to his teammates, “This is our celebration. Gentlemen, welcome to the Hall of Fame.”
In October, Miller was voted into the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame, ending a long wait.
Still, the wait lingers at the Colorado Springs Sports Hall of Fame, where the selection committee has long declined to honor Miller.
Let’s be clear: I’m a strong advocate for the Springs hall to honor Miller. It’s time for the Springs to follow Oklahoma State and the state of Colorado in recognizing one of the greatest high school and college running backs to sprint to touchdowns. That’s my view.
Miller takes a winding journey, similar to his adventuresome touchdown runs, before arriving at his view.
“Only thing I did is play,” Miller says. “I don’t have a vote and I’m not running for office. You’ve seen this a lot in our society. In the old boy society, if you tick off one, you tick off them all.
“What are we voting on? Are we voting on somebody who had athletic ability? Or on someone who made a mistake? I didn’t kill anybody. Hey, the only person it really affected was me.
“I accept that I did what I did. … I’m not saying that’s what kept me out of any hall of fame. However, I’m not stupid. I didn’t play without the helmet forever.”
Miller remains a big name in Oklahoma, where college football dominates the state’s collective id. When he visits Stillwater or Oklahoma City, he encounters fans who remember his epic runs on crisp autumn days. Some recognize him on sight. Some see the name on his credit card or driver’s license.
And they ask:
Are you the Terry Miller?
Miller smiles as he considers this oft-heard question.
“How am I supposed to answer?” he says.
Ah, but his response is exactly right. He always sought to please Bonnie. His mother, to this day, shines in his heart.
The Terry Miller?
“I am,” he always answers, “the Terry Miller my mom had.”