As fans of certain teams, it’s natural for people to become drawn by specific players through success, longevity, charity work, personality, and a litany of other reasons. We buy their jerseys, we collect their autographs and assorted memorabilia, but most of all, we follow them throughout their career—even if they change teams.
This is common practice across the sporting spectrum, in both individual and team sports, across borders and oceans. People value the competitive spirit of sporting events, and certain athletes tend toward iconic roles in people’s lives.
It can be bittersweet watching them in their twilight years, often as shadows of their former selves, but more poignantly, with the foreknowledge that—though still fairly young by any real-world standards—they are reaching the end of their playing days.
We saw this just recently during the World Cup. Though many don’t seem to be fans of the Spanish national team, who have had nearly incomparable success over the past half-decade or so. Yet it’s hard not to feel for David Villa, whose raw emotions came out upon the realization that he’d just played his last match for his country. And he was by no means alone.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are hoping to keep a couple of their own icons around a bit longer, as they signed both tight end Heath Miller and safety Troy Polamalu to two-year extensions earlier this offseason. Both Pro Bowlers were entering their final seasons. Miller, the younger of the two, turns 32 in October.
Recently, Adam Schein wrote an article for NFL.com, listing veteran players in their twilight years that fans of the game should make sure to appreciate now before they’re no longer on the playing field to enjoy.
Schein included Miller on that list, though Polamalu could easily be there as well. Of Miller, he wrote the following:
I love Miller’s game. The two-time Super Bowl champion and lifelong Steeler is one of my favorites, representing Pittsburgh well with his work ethic. He’s always had an ability to come through in the red zone, on third down and in big games. The well-rounded tight end doesn’t just catch passes, either; he’s been a boon to the Steelers’ ground attack for years.
Of course, Miller tore his ACL in 2012 and didn’t seem quite right last year, scoring just one touchdown after averaging nearly five per season. I don’t need to tell Pittsburgh’s fans to appreciate him; I know how much they do.
Miller is certainly admired well enough within Steeler Nation, though he tends to fly under the radar when speaking about the league as a whole. He lacks the brash personality and flashy play that attracts attention. He doesn’t dunk over goalposts habitually, nor go clubbing on a nightly basis, instead spending the night home with his family.
As Schein mentioned, the 2013 season was somewhat laborious for the low-key veteran, as he appeared to struggle to come back all the way from his ACL injury. He missed the first two games of the season, but then hardly missed a snap.
It may appear to be a prelude to the end, but I for one expect to see more of the Heath Miller of 2012, a Pro Bowl-caliber season, rather than the Miller of 2013 that was clearly not all the way back from injury. Whichever Miller shows up, I will be sure not to take his contributions for granted as he presumably enters the home stretch of his professional career.