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Southwestern Va. Follows Miller's Rising Star

"It's an area that really likes a lot of character in people," Hubbard said. But it is also an area without many career opportunities. In addition to the coal mines, many residents work at a quarry in Swords Creek or at one of the handful of local automotive parts plants. Heath's dad, Earl, works with his hands, as did his father. He co-owns a small construction company with his brother-in-law, William Davis. They spend their days building houses, usually just the two of them.

"It's a simple life," said Denise Miller, who works at nearby Southwest Virginia Community College, helping local students find college opportunities.

The towns of Swords Creek and Honaker have followed Heath Miller (89) from Honaker High to U-Va., where he is a record-setting tight end. "He's a once-in-a-lifetime type of athlete for us," one of Miller's high school coaches said. (John Mcdonnell -- The Washington Post)

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Bush estimated 60 percent to 70 percent of his students go on to either a two- or four-year college.

"But they're not going to come back here to work," Zachwieja said. "They're not going to be contributing members to our community, because there's no work for them."

"We're motivated to be different and do something different than what we saw back at home," said Amanda Miller, an 18-year-old U-Va. freshman who, like her brother, was a top student and three-sport athlete at Honaker.

Sports became the primary vehicle for Heath Miller's achievement, but initially it was simply "what I did to have fun and keep myself busy," he said. It was the main diversion for most local kids -- better than just hanging out at each other's houses or driving a few towns over for dinner or a movie.

Miller stood out immediately in each sport he played -- football, baseball and basketball. "Everybody knew that he was special," said Thad Ball, one of Miller's best friends since middle school. At Honaker High, Miller exceeded his already sizable billing, winning the Group A player of the year award in both football and baseball and taking the Tigers to some of their greatest heights.

"He's a once-in-a-lifetime type of athlete for us," said Zachwieja, an assistant coach with the football and baseball teams.

Yet Miller doesn't act that way. He receives what is for him an uncomfortable amount of attention whenever he goes out in public in Honaker or Swords Creek, but he stops and talks with whoever approaches and signs autograph after autograph for kids wearing U-Va. jerseys with his name and number on the back.

Miller does what he can to keep his fans and even his family from making too big a deal of his achievements, but the attention inevitably leads to a question about his next big decision: Will he stay for a senior season at Virginia? His parents have a stack of mail at home from prospective agents who would love to broker his first professional contract.

"I haven't really given it much thought, to be honest with you," said Miller, who is on pace to earn a degree in sociology in May. "I've got another year left and as of right now, I'm planning on taking advantage of that year. . . . I realize that it could be a decision that I could make in the winter, but that's about the extent that I've thought about it."

Until then he will just keep his head down and work hard. Russell County has taught him well.

"People do need a hero," Denise Miller said. "These kids need a hero, and Heath just happens to be it right now."

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