The best tight end in college football is a fourth-generation son of southwest Virginia, born and raised in a community of a few thousand people near the coal fields of the Appalachian Mountains. Here among miners, school teachers and factory workers, Heath Miller learned a lot about work ethic and modesty. He says it was critical to making him the man he is today.
But to hear others tell it, Heath Miller has helped this area more than it helped him -- not just because he is a star athlete, first at Honaker High School and now at the University of Virginia. It's the kind of star Miller has become that plays so well in Russell County, which includes his home town of Swords Creek and nearby Honaker.
"He's the pride and joy of our community," Honaker Mayor C.H. Wallace said. "He's the example of what we hope that all of our young kids will be. He's very soft-spoken, very hardworking. He leads by his abilities and his play and not necessarily with his mouth. He's sure not a hot dog."
The only thing flashy about Miller is the nickname given him by his U-Va. teammates: Big Money, a reference to his reliability in clutch situations. He is by nature unassuming and understated, if not quite shy. Ask him a question, and you will receive a direct answer. Nothing more.
"That's just the way he is," Honaker High football coach Doug Hubbard said. "That's Heath."
"My parents have always been the types to kind of deflect attention," Miller said. "They would rather just go about their business and go unnoticed, pretty much. That's just kind of the way that I've become. I'd rather do my work and give credit to the team and other players."
With his resume, Miller doesn't have to brag. Arguably the best all-around athlete to come out of southwest Virginia in recent years, the 6-foot-5, 255-pound junior already ranks among the most productive tight ends in ACC history with 117 receptions for 1,370 receiving yards and a conference-record 19 touchdowns. As a sophomore last season, he led the nation's tight ends with 70 catches for 835 yards, which also are conference records for his position.
His statistics through five games this fall -- 14 catches for 208 yards and four touchdowns -- aren't as gaudy, largely because the Cavaliers run the ball more than in the past, but Miller's place among the best is secure. He likely would be the first tight end selected in April's NFL draft if he decides to forego his final season of college eligibility.
"If you were going to pick a tight end, he's the kind of guy you'd want," said Florida State Coach Bobby Bowden, whose seventh-ranked Seminoles host sixth-ranked Virginia on Saturday night.
Bowden said Miller compares favorably with ex-Miami star Kellen Winslow Jr. and ex-Florida star Ben Troupe, both touted NFL rookies this season. "But let me give him one mark ahead of those other two," the coach added. "He's smoother than any I've seen."
In Honaker and Swords Creek, the unincorporated town next door where the Millers live, it seems everyone follows the Cavaliers through television, radio and the Internet. Scores of fans make the four-hour drive to Charlottesville for home games.
Miller, who turns 22 next week, says he gets home about three times a year these days. But reminders of him abound. Honaker High still has some of his trophies and plaques. Social studies teacher Alex Zachwieja uses him as an example to his students at least once a day in one context or another. Principal Tony Bush keeps on his desk the coin flipped in December 2000 at the Tigers' first appearance in the Virginia A Division 2 football championship game (final score: King William 25, Honaker 15). In late September, Bush also had at his left hand, atop a mound of papers, a copy of a recent U-Va. game program that featured Miller on the cover.
"He shows other kids here at our school that there's a lot more opportunities out there for them," Bush said. "Although Heath's doing it in football, another kid can use those same qualities that Heath has as an individual to go out and do well in something else."
Sometimes that path can be hard for an adolescent to envision. As Heath's mother, Denise, pointed out with a laugh, Honaker and Swords Creek have running water, electricity and cable and satellite television, despite the stereotypes of southwest Virginia. But the area is quiet and rural, with a total population of less than 3,500. It has little need for stoplights. Wallace, the mayor, also is the proprietor of the only hardware store and the secretary-treasurer of the 30-person volunteer fire brigade.
"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.
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."