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Spend 20 minutes with St. John's Jesuit senior standout football player Jack Miller and it is likely you willforget he just turned 17 in June.
Even when the subject is the life and death of his father, Philip James “P.J.” Miller, who succumbed to Hodgkin's Lymphoma on Feb. 18, 2009 when Jack was 15.
“What I miss the most is the connection between a father and a son,” Jack said. “We were friends. We were so close. We could share anything or talk about anything. Not that my mother [Jane Miller] is not there for me, but that was his role.
“One of the biggest fears I had when he passed was wondering who was going to guide me. Who was going to push me to do the little things.But I find myself doing them because of what he taught me in those 15 years.
“He and my mom did a great job throughout the whole process, making life as regular and normal as possible for us.”
Titans coach Doug Pearson will tell you that he doesn't need to push Miller at all.
Pearson will tell you that Miller's maturity applies to school, where he carries a 3.8 grade-point average and scored a 28 on his ACT college entrance exam. And he will tell you that it is perhaps most evident on the football field, where this University of Michigan-bound player has started at offensive tackle and defensive end for two seasons.
Miller (6-foot-4, 270 pounds) was All-City League first team at defensive end last season when he had 46 total tackles, including 16 for losses, plus 10.5 quarterback sacks. He was named Division I all-district second team.
He's a big reason the Titans are off to a 4-1 start this year.
“Jack is the most mature high school kid that I have ever seen,” Pearson said. “I guess that's because he's had to be. But the other thing is because he wants to be.”
That Miller has become such a presence wherever he goes can be largely attributed to his father — an energetic, engaging personality himself — a guy who made sure to pack maximum effort into his relationship with Jack and younger children Matt and Molly, especially in his final eight years while he was battling his disease.
“It took a little time,” Jack said of adjusting in the months following his dad's death. “It's all a blur when it happens. People keep telling you, you don't have to be the man [of the house]. You're still a kid and you don't need to take on those responsibilities.
“But naturally, being the oldest son and learning from my dad, I was taught to attack challenges and to conquer things.
“In 15 years, my dad taught me more about how to be a man and to do the right thing and be a good person than most parents could ever teach their kids. That might have been through his sickness, too, but that's the way it was. It pulled our family together and made us close.”
P.J. never lived to see Jack and Matt, a St. John's sophomore, playing right next to each other on the defensive line donning jersey numbers 55 and 56, respectively. But, before he departed, he made sure his kids were well prepared for life without him.
Jane Miller remembers P.J. engaging her children in long, thought provoking conversations on all sorts of topics.
“Pontificating,” she calls it.
“We always tried to be open and honest in teaching life lessons,” Jane said. “P.J. would sit with the kids and discuss things for hours. There's so many families that aren't like that.”
Jack does not give all or even most of the credit to his father. He calls his mother “the strongest woman I know.”
“I watch the way she interacts with everything in life,” Jack said of Jane. “Whether it was my dad passing, or taking care of us kids, she has a positive attitude toward everything. She's optimistic, and she doesn't stop until the job's done.”
The Miller family is also appreciative for the support they received from their neighbors in Strongsville, an Ohio suburb of Cleveland.
At the time Jack attended Lakewood St. Edward. As a sophomore, he was a starting defensive end at the perennial power.
Because of the family support system back home in the Toledo area, Jane and P.J. had discussed that it would be a good idea for her to move the family here. She had graduated from Maumee.
Rob Chudzinski, P.J.'s best friend, and St. John's teammate, was a neighbor in Strongsville while he was an assistant coach for the Cleveland Browns. He was a mentor to the Miller children.
Although it is now a long-distance relationship, Jack and “Chud” still speak regularly. It was Chudzinski who guided Jack through his college recruiting process after P.J. had died. And it was Chudzinski who helped out with one of the two fundraisers held for the Miller family during P.J.'s final months, the one that brought out many of the Browns players.
“P.J. was a fun person to be around,” Chudzinski said. “He had a great sense of humor. He was a great friend to me, and we all miss him.
“With Jack, I was primarily just a sounding board for him [during recruiting process]. He knew what he wanted to do, and he had his priorities in order. I made sure he had his mind in the right place, and he did. He's a real mature kid and he knew what he wanted.
“The one thing I know for sure is that P.J.'s watching him and smiling, and he's awfully proud.”
For now, Jack is concentrating on his final high school season in a career that has taken a detour.
“Lymphoma is a pretty curable cancer,” Jack said. “It was something we just thought we had to battle through, and eventually it would run its course. That's kind of what happened the first four years.
“He went through chemo and radiation, and he worked through it. You never would have known. But the last year he got pretty bad.”
“From a financial standpoint, moving made the most sense. I fought it for a while. Other than my dad being sick, my life was going great at the time. You lose a parent, and then a couple months later you lose your house, your community, your school, your friends and your girlfriend.”
“But part of that role of becoming the man of the house was to accept it and make the best of it for myself and my family.”
Miller looks back fondly on the time he spent with his father, but he has one direction now, and that is forward.
“I think it's kind of a circle-of-life type deal,” he said. “You keep going. My uncle told me once that the only constant in life is change. I think that's true. Everything will move on and move forward. As long as you approach it the right way, it usually works out in your favor.”
Contact Steve Junga at:firstname.lastname@example.org 419-724-6461.