The Steelers pulled out a thrilling come-from-behind victory against the Arizona Cardinals on Oct. 18 at Heinz Field, but there was something missing from the atmosphere that Sunday afternoon. For the first time in 104 games, tight end Heath Miller did not catch a pass.
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And with that, a long-standing tradition came to an end. For the first time since the middle of the 2008 season, there was no “Heeeath” chorus from the crowd.
In the regular season or the playoffs, home or away, it was easy to know when No. 83 hauled in a pass. You didn’t have to open your eyes. All you had to do was open your ears.
It happened at Heinz Field. It happened everywhere from New York to San Francisco, in any stadium the Steelers played. And for the record, it happened for the final time at Sports Authority Field at Mile High in Denver on Jan. 17.
Miller caught one pass for five yards in the Steelers’ 23-16 playoff loss to the Broncos. On Friday afternoon, after 11 NFL seasons, all with the Steelers, Miller announced he was retiring.
“The chants of “HEEATH” will be missed at Heinz Field and around the entire NFL,” team president Art Rooney II said.
Rooney was one of the many figures in the NFL who took time out to acknowledge Miller as he stepped away from the game. Current and former Steelers praised his playing ability, but he is recognized by those who worked with him for so much more.
“He’s one of the best tight ends to ever play but a better teammate and a man,” said Arizona head coach Bruce Arians, who coached Miller from 2005 to 2011.
“I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to work with Heath,” added San Diego offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, another former Steelers offensive coordinator who coached Miller for the first two seasons of his career. “He was not only a great player, but an unselfish player [who] was a great teammate. He truly personifies what it means to be a Steeler.”
Miller, the team’s first-round draft pick out of the University of Virginia in 2005, missed only eight games in his 11 seasons. He started 167 games and helped the Steelers win two Super Bowls. He is the franchise’s all-time leader for tight ends in receptions (592), receiving yards (6,569) and receiving touchdowns (45).
“It’s been an honor and a pleasure to coach Heath, to watch him grow and evolve and perform,” Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said. “There are great benefits and blessings that come with being someplace as long as I have been here. It also creates unique relationships and feelings and experiences that make events such as his retirement difficult. It would be selfish of me to view it in any other way other than a great deal of admiration and appreciation for having an opportunity to work with Heath for nine of the 11 years he has done it.”
Miller, who turned 33 in October, is one of only 12 tight ends in NFL history to record 6,000 career receiving yards, and his 592 receptions are sixth-most in league history by a tight end.
Miller’s best season came in 2012, when he had 71 receptions and posted career highs in receiving yards (816) and touchdowns (8). He was voted team MVP in a vote of the players.
A three-time Pro Bowler, Miller was often overlooked and underappreciated outside of Pittsburgh. His quiet personality had as much to do with that as the way the Steelers used him.
While other teams in the NFL transitioned to employing the new wave of pass-catching tight ends, many of whom posted much gaudier statistics, the Steelers lined him up as a traditional tight end and counted on him as a blocker as much as a receiver.
“Heath Miller was as great a combination of character and football player as I have ever been around,” Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said.
Rookie tight end Jesse James has a story to tell for years. James grew up in Glassport and attended South Allegheny High School. He was in elementary school for Miller’s rookie season in 2005, when the Steelers won Super Bowl XL.
A decade later James was able to play alongside him.
“Heath was awesome,” James said. “He’s one of the best guys I’ve ever met. It was a dream come true for me to get to play with him. He was the Steelers tight end when I was 10 years old. I was a huge fan of his growing up. He taught me so much, so much that I wouldn’t be able to explain it in a phone call. He was just the ultimate Steeler.”
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has often referred to Miller as his “greatest teammate.”
In typical Miller fashion, there was no fanfare with the announcement. Many of the franchise’s greatest players exit with a news conference. Miller exited in a way befitting his quiet personality. He issued a 142-word statement through the team.
“Today, I informed the Steelers of my plans to retire. I realize how extremely fortunate and grateful I am to have spent my entire career as a Pittsburgh Steeler. I would like to thank the Rooney Family, Kevin Colbert, Bill Cowher, Mike Tomlin, James Daniel and the rest of the Steelers organization for giving me the opportunity to live out my childhood dream. I will always cherish and value the special bonds that I formed with my teammates. It was truly an honor for me to take the field with them. I am also appreciative of my entire family and all of the coaches who helped me along the way. Additionally, I want to thank Steelers Nation, the best fans in the NFL! Lastly, I owe the biggest thank you to my wife, Katie, and our four children for their unwavering support.”
Ray Fittipaldo: email@example.com and Twitter @rayfitt1.
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