September 17, 2014
By Steve Kornacki | Courtesy MGoBlue.com
Jack Miller is many things.
He’s best known as the starting center and anchor of the offensive line for the University of Michigan football team. But he’s also a political science major, and thinks he might someday become a lawyer or run for public office.
He’s a music lover — especially Dave Matthews and jam bands — and takes aim during deer and duck hunting seasons.
Miller also is the great-nephew of former Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland, who texts him after every game and remains a huge inspiration.
But above all, Miller is the son of Philip James Miller, known to family and friends alike as P.J.
“I have a tattoo on my back of a Celtic cross with a banner hanging over it with my dad’s initials in it,” Miller said. “Dad passed away in 2009 of cancer.
“My dad was everything to me. He was my best friend, my mentor, my father figure. The older I get, the more of a man I’m becoming. And the more I wish he was here, just for simple questions: ‘Hey, how would you handle this situation?’ A lot of the great attributes I have I get from my father. I’m the spitting image of him.”
He pulled up a photo on his phone of his parents, smiling widely at a family celebration, and said, “See, I look just like him.”
Miller continued: “He was super successful in sales. He was very articulate and charismatic. But he’s still with me all the time. He’s been gone five and a half years, and I still know what he would say to me if I screwed up on the field. And he was super hard on me.
“Jim Leyland is my dad’s uncle. So, my dad’s grandpa was Jim’s father and kind of helped raise my dad. So, he learned a lot of fatherly lessons from him — be tough but loving and affectionate, but demand greatness.”
The Leylands and Millers are from Perrysburg, Ohio, just south of Toledo.
“I was born in Toledo,” Miller said. “We moved to Cleveland for his job, and when he passed away we moved back because both his and my mom’s families are from around Toledo.”
Miller played high school football at Toledo St. John’s, a Jesuit high school with a powerhouse football program.
The other tattoo Miller, a 6-foot-4, 299-pound junior, has is on the inside of his right forearm. He turned his arm out, looked down at the inscription and read it: “Without struggle, there is no progress.”
He got the tattoo after the Sugar Bowl win that completed an 11-2 season in 2011, when he did not play and was redshirted as a freshman. And that statement in ink is what Miller has realized at Michigan. He couldn’t nail down the starting position last year, but has harnessed consistency this season to earn the job. Michigan coach Brady Hoke said “maturity” has enabled Miller to “grow as a leader” and improve his “football knowledge” and instincts.
Mention Miller to Hoke, and a smile instantly creases his face. Miller is one of those players who coaches take a shine to because of all they do for both themselves and teammates.
“He’s taken on, in this offensive system, a lot of responsibility — more so than in the system we were in in the past,” Hoke said. “I think the communication between him and (quarterback) Devin (Gardner) and then his linemates, the two guards, he’s done a tremendous job. I think his study of the game, and how he has gone into all three games we have played so far and has been very prepared. He played well (against Miami of Ohio). There’s a couple of things he’s got to clean up. But he keeps playing well, and giving a lot of great leadership.”
Is Miller the captain of the offensive line, which has no seniors?
“I think he is,” Hoke said. “When you look at the ages and youth of the other guys, there’s no question about it.”
Hoke’s admiration mean much to Miller.
“It is an honor that I am looked at that way because you come in as a wide-eyed freshman and you don’t know what to expect,” said Miller. “You’re fighting constantly for people’s respect and their admiration for you. To think that I’m on the cusp of having that from Coach Hoke is really awesome. It means I’m doing something right.”
Miller said that practice repetition since the end of 2013 has brought about a “second nature” quality to his play. And he added that “another year in the weight room helped” him gain more consistency as a player, noting that his repetitions in the 225-pound bench press have gone from 15 times as a freshman to27 on his last test.
But communication also has been key to his success.
“I think that’s maybe my best attribute as a player, as a center and maybe even as a person, is to relate and communicate with people,” Miller said. “I’ve been told since I was six months old, and started talking, that I’ve been articulate and charismatic with people.
“I find it easy to communicate with different people. I think there are more effective ways to communicate with each person. I think the strongest suit of my game is making sure everybody is doing what they’re supposed to be doing. That makes it easier for them because then they’ve just got to go do it.
“I know I’m not physically the most gifted or the biggest guy. So, I need to be on top of my game (by studying opponents) and be the best prepared I can be.”
“Uncle Jim” Leyland won 1,769 games (15th all-time) managing the Pittsburgh Pirates, Florida Marlins, Colorado Rockies and Tigers. He won the 1997 World Series with the Marlins and American League pennants for Detroit in 2006 and 2012. He won three manager of the year awards and mentored two of the greatest hitters of the last half century, Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera and career homer leader Barry Bonds.
“My whole life,” said Miller, “I’ve looked up to the guy, and revered him for all he did. It doesn’t get much higher than that in the sports world. So I had a great deal of respect for him, and always have. And beyond what he’s accomplished, the kind of guy he is. He would easily be a ‘Michigan Man’ with his work ethic and his character.
“So, it was cool that his last couple seasons in Detroit were my first couple seasons here at Michigan. And we definitely grew closer over that time. I’d stop in for Tigers games, and he came to a couple football games. He texts me after every game, and kind of gives me his opinion. So, it’s been great.”
“Uncle Jim” and his father both were significantly influenced by Leyland’s father.
Miller said, “I read an article about him in his first couple years with the Tigers. And the title of it was: ‘Why isn’t this man smiling?’ He’s one of the most loving, warm people in the world. But his intensity is insane at times. And the point of the article was the way he’s been raised, and the way my family’s been raised. Here’s an example: He won the co-manager of the year award with the Pirates and his dad told him, ‘Well, it’s just co-manager of the year.’ That was the first thing he said to him. There have always been high expectations for people in my family. And that kind of started with Uncle Jim’s dad, my great-grandfather.
“And my dad was the same way to me in that respect. So, I learned from (Uncle Jim). And the biggest thing I learned from him was to never get too high or too low. When things are going good, buckle up because they can only go down, right? And when things are at rock bottom, it’s going to be alright. It’ll work out. So keep the same work ethic, keep even keel by doing things the right way. And it finds a way to work out for you.”