Toughness as an attribute in a football player is catnip to the Yinzer. That’s certainly no insult—toughness is an inherently desirable quality in an athlete, especially in a sport as physically demanding as football. And few came tougher than former Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Heath Miller.
Far from an elite athlete, Miller made a living at understanding zones and finding them. Complemented by world-class hands and a knack for requiring multiple defenders to bring him down, he made himself a nice little career, to understate it by several degrees.
Now retired for a number of years, he spoke to Bob Pompeani recently for the Steelers’ website about his time with the Steelers, including his reputation for toughness. Mild-mannered in life, you wouldn’t know it to look at him, but he prided himself on his physicality and toughness.
“It’s just part of the game, I think. Especially then”, he said. “When you play tight end and you catch balls over the middle of the field for a living you’re gonna take some hits. I always tried to take a lot of pride in, no matter how hard they hit me, I wanted to make sure that I pretend it didn’t hurt”.
“I wanted to walk off the field or get back in the huddle and let them know that it didn’t bother me”.
Because of course, it hurts when you get tackled by Rey Mauluga or Vontaze Burfict or Ray Lewis, among those defenders who most often had the privilege of successfully bringing him down—frequently with the help of their teammates.
A 2005 first-round draft pick out of Virginia, Miller was thrown into the fire right away, which he talked about as a great responsibility for a team that was otherwise ready to win a championship. He caught 39 passes as a rookie for 459 yards and six touchdowns, just the tip of the iceberg.
Over the next decade, he would round out a career that produced 592 catches in all for 6,569 yards and 45 scores. Plus another 49 receptions for 587 yards and four touchdowns spread across 15 career games in the postseason.
He caught 11 passes for 156 yards and a score during the Steelers’ Super Bowl run of 2008, his second championship with the team, including five catches in the title game. And he took all kinds of hits on those various receptions.
But as a blocking tight end, he had ample opportunity to return the favor. Perhaps one of the last truly great two-way tight ends, he was equally capable of providing for the offense by putting a linebacker on his butt or shielding one off on a screen pass for others to matriculate their way down the field.
Miller epitomizes the blue-collar attitude associated not only with the city of Pittsburgh but with their sports teams. It’s why every tight end who came after him prior to Pat Freiermuth spent their career greeted with HEEEATH chants. That we actually hear MUUUTH now is remarkable, and yet still a tribute to the man who defined the position in Pittsburgh.