It's too soon to tell if Steelers tight end Heath Miller will play against the New York Jets Sunday. First, he must feel like himself again this week. Then, he must pass the doctors' tests before they will clear him to play. Neither is a certainty at this point.
What's amazing to me is that Miller said he won't have any problem getting back on the field when the time comes. He said he won't be afraid to go across the middle again, to reach for a pass from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger even if it means leaving himself defenseless, to take another big hit from a linebacker like the frightening one he took from the Baltimore Ravens' Jameel McClain Dec. 5 that left him with a concussion and forced him to sit out the Cincinnati game Sunday.
How can that be?
You saw McClain's ferocious hit, didn't you?
"This is a game I've played my whole life," Miller said moments after the Steelers took out the Bengals, 23-7, with Matt Spaeth filling in at tight end. "I can't say for sure I won't have any problems going back out there until I do it. I've never had to come back from something like this. It's my first concussion. But I don't anticipate any problems."
The hit on Miller was one of the worst I've seen. When I watched it live and then a number of times on replay, I thought for sure his neck was broken. What a blessing it was for him to be able to stand up and, though clearly dazed, walk off the field.
Miller has watched the play on tape but wouldn't say much about it. "It was a hard hit, certainly. I know it could have been worse. I'm grateful it wasn't." Nor would Miller say anything about the $40,000 fine given to McClain the day after the game. No penalty was called on the play, but NFL director of officiating Carl Johnson telephoned the NBC broadcast crew immediately after the hit to say a personal foul should have been called. "It's a league matter. I don't get into that stuff," Miller said. "That's their jurisdiction, not mine."
Right after the McClain hit, Katie Miller couldn't have cared less that a flag wasn't thrown. She is Miller's wife and is deep into a pregnancy with their second child. She was watching the game in their North Hills home and, like the rest of us, was horrified by the collision. In those first, few agonizing seconds after it happened, she, too, wondered if Miller would get up.
Steelers security chief Jack Kearney carries the phone numbers of all the players' wives and girlfriends for moments like that. As soon as Miller made it to the sideline with the team doctors, Kearney called Katie Miller and handed his cell phone to team orthopedist, Dr. Jim Bradley, who reassured her that her husband was going to be OK, that he had a concussion but no serious neck injury. Katie Miller immediately called Heath's parents, Earl and Denise, who were watching the game at their home in Swords Creek, Va., and also feared the worst.
"That's one of the negative things that comes with our sport," Miller said. "A lot of people come out to watch the game and have fun. They don't realize that we have a wife and kids and parents who also are watching and keeping their fingers crossed that we get through it OK."
Don't get the wrong idea. Miller wasn't complaining. He knows he's well-paid -- he signed a six-year, $35.3 million contract before the 2009 season -- and accepts the risks that go with the job. His family understands those risks, as well, even if they don't have to like them.
That's why Miller will be able to go back on the field. He said he hasn't spent much time worrying about his long-term health despite recent medical studies that have linked football-related concussions with brain disease, early dementia and other problems later in life. He said he's putting his trust in the Steelers' doctors. Team neurosurgeon, Dr. Joe Maroon, is one of the world's leading experts on head injuries in sports.
"I know when they tell me I'm ready to play again, I'll be OK," Miller said. "That's comforting to me."
Miller hopes to get that clearance this week. He struggled to put his symptoms into words -- "It's not like you're sick. You just aren't yourself" -- but quickly added, "I feel like I'm getting better every day. That's a good thing."
It's not easy for Miller to watch from the sideline. Before Sunday, he had missed just two games in his six-year NFL career when he had an ankle injury late in the '08 season. It's especially not easy for him to watch now with the Steelers at 10-3 and gearing up for the playoffs. He has been one of the team's more dependable players -- both as a blocker and a pass catcher -- since he entered the league.
But first things first.
Passing those medical tests.
Feeling like himself.
Oh, how Miller can't wait to feel like himself again.
Ron Cook: firstname.lastname@example.org . Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.