When you’re drafted in the first round by the Pittsburgh Steelers, you enter the league already knowing that expectations are high – and the odds of standing out are low.
The Steelers have had 19 players elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, with several more soon to be enshrined, so trying to make a name for yourself in Pittsburgh is sort of like trying to make it on Broadway. No matter how big your dreams are, the city is always bigger.
And yet somehow Heath Miller walks away from the game as the toughest man in Steel City.
On Friday, Miller announced his retirement from the NFL after 11 seasons. He goes out as the franchise’s all-time leader in catches (592), receiving yards (6,569) and receiving touchdowns (45) by a tight end. He started 167 of 168 regular season games – not to mention all 15 Steelers postseason games – during his career, and won two Super Bowls with Pittsburgh. He was never flashy, always dependable and didn’t think twice about putting the team first, which made him the perfect player to complement Ben Roethlisberger – and a favorite of Steelers Nation, who celebrated every catch he made with a rumbling chant of “Heeeeeaaattth!”
That relationship, as well as Miller’s selfless attitude as a blocker and leader, is what helped the Steelers win Super Bowl XL in his first season, as well as a second championship three years later. His toughness despite all of those brutal one-on-one matchups is what will keep him in the memories of Pittsburgh’s faithful for a very long time.
Which is a stunning feat considering how high those expectations were 11 years ago.
Miller was the top-rated tight end in the 2005 NFL Draft. At the time, as tight ends were becoming more and more expected to contribute as receivers, Miller said he wanted to be as productive as all of them.
“I think there are a number of talented tight ends in the league, and it’s really opened the door for the guys on the college level to be able to contribute to a team in a number of different ways. They’re not just blockers anymore…The obvious ones that stand out are Tony Gonzalez, Jeremy Shockey, Todd Heap, Antonio Gates. I hope to be as productive as they are.”
While he will not finish with career as productive as Gonzalez and Gates’ (two of the most productive receiving tight ends of all-time), he does get to go out over Shockey and Heap – and nearly every other tight end in NFL history that isn’t in the Hall of Fame.
As a two-time Pro Bowler who averaged 597 yards per season, Miller is probably not bound for Canton. He won’t stand out in the record books now that players like Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham have redefined what it means to be a tight end in modern football. Instead, he will be remembered as a hybrid of the throwback tight end that got dirty in the trenches – the nameless and faceless players you might’ve seen slogging it out on those legendary Pittsburgh teams of the Seventies – and the tight ends of today who can beat you with their massive size and soft hands. That’s what Heath Miller is.
But ask anyone who played with him, and they’ll tell you he was also so much more. And that’s why he goes out as the perfect Steeler.