There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
The oldest and lowest-paid lineman in the entire Redskins organization, Bruce Miller, will get his first chance to perform before the humongous Monday Night Football audience when Dallas comes calling this week. Miller should get plenty of onscreen face time during ABC’s telecast, but barring some sort of unforeseeable happenstance, neither Al, Frank, nor Dan will call his name even once. Miller might even go the whole game without ever leaving the sidelines.
Unless Norv Turner leaves the sidelines first, that is.
Wherever Turner goes, Miller is sure to followtwo or three or, during particularly hectic points in the contest, four steps behind the head coach. The Redskins’ game plan calls for Miller to shadow Turner closer than Darrell Green will Michael Irvin. All night long.
Miller’s lineman duties, you see, have more to do with Jimmy Webb than Jimmy Johnson. The 44-year-old Leesburg resident started out as a ball boy with the Redskins 16 years ago, but for the past three seasons Miller has been toting the line that runs from the head coach’s headset to the team’s communications center behind the bench.
The headset allows Turner to emcee a gamelong conference call with his assistant coaches stationed both on the sidelines and in the team’s booth upstairs. When the Skins are on offense, reserve quarterback Trent Green is also in the mix, and after getting the good word from Turner, he tells Gus Frerotte the coach’s chosen play via a helmet radio. Defensive sets are generally imparted through hand signals.
Plays must go off no more than 40 seconds after the last whistle, and a curious NFL rule dictates that Green’s radio contact with Frerotte be terminated by the time the play clock has wound down to 15 seconds. With all the time the team expends making situational substitutions, huddling up, and getting into the right formation, even a momentary communication breakdown could mean a wasted timeout or a delay-of-game penalty. So Miller’s task is to allow Turner to get wrapped up in his coaching duties without worrying about getting wrapped up in electrical cable. At all times, Miller carries 25 yards of line with the idea of giving Turner just enough rope to roam the sidelines and bench area comfortably, but not enough to hang himself.
“I don’t even want Norv to realize I was there,” says Miller. “I know I’ve had a good game if nobody notices me.”
Much like a uniformed lineman, the surest way for Miller to get noticed is to screw up. If he screws up badly enough, not only is the team flagged but Turner ends up on his rear end and, heaven help him, on the bloopers portion of that night’s SportsCenter. Nothing terribly tragic or tragicomic has taken place since Miller began handling the coach’s cable, but there have been some close shaves, like when Turner got particularly kinetic during a game last year and his cord got wrapped around the legs of ex-offensive line coach Jim Hanifan before anybody noticed. Luckily for Miller, the assistant coachnot Turnertook the fall.
“That was pretty funny, now that I think about it,” Miller recalls. “I didn’t think it was funny a year ago.”
Turner used a succession of linemen during his first season coaching the club in 1993, but he didn’t like the revolving-door approach. Because of Miller’s ball-boy past with the team, and because his day job is as a manager for the moving company that hauls the Redskins’ uniforms and equipment from town to town, Miller was offered the wire-dragging position and accepted immediately.
The key to good line play, Miller says, is preparation. He’s been studying Turner ever since he took the job and can now anticipate his boss’s next maneuver every bit as capably asperhaps better thanthe coach can predict what Barry Switzer will call on a third and short in the red zone.
“Norv likes to move, and I now know that he really likes to move whenever the ref makes, well, a bad call,” Miller laughs. “My job is to be ready to run with him if that happens.”
It’s nothing if not a labor of love for Miller. He draws the same pay for performing his high-pressure, low-wire act that he did when he was a lowly ball boy: nada. Zilch. Bubkes. When the team is on the road, however, Miller does receive free transportation and lodging, as well as a per diem equal to that given the payroll employees. And he also gets outfitted with the same licensed apparel as the coaches. (Which explains why Miller, too, has tubs of beer thrown his way whenever the Redskins play in Philadelphia.)
Best of all, Miller gets a special sideline pass to all Skins games. Since he grew up in McLean rooting for themhis family has had season tickets since 1964it’s hard to place a dollar value on that particular perk.
“I get to see things that other people, the regular fans, don’t get to see,” he says. “I can tell what incredible athletes all these guys really are. Most people don’t know how quick Darrell Green really is, or how incredible Gus and, really, all these quarterbacks, can throw the ball. I see it all, right up close.
“And during the games, I work hard, but it’s neat to hear Norv and all the other coaches talking about what play to run and then watch them run it. To see something all the way through, to watch it succeed just like they called it, that is special. It’s not like I feel I’m important, but, well, I am right in the middle of it.”
Miller stays in shape by playing basketball when he’s not hauling Turner’s wire, and despite the onset of middle age, he feels physically capable of doing the lineman thing for as long as the team allows him to. But his cherished occupation comes with a short shelf life nonetheless: The technology obviously already exists for all coaches to rely on the same over-the-air transmissions now used only to carry the play calls from sideline to quarterback. The Kansas City Chiefs are currently the only team that has tried doing away with cord carriers. Until the radio-free mind-set changes, look for Miller to tow the headset line.
“Even I think it’ll be safer and less confusing for everybody when all the teams do away with the wires and all the people like me,” Miller says. “I really like what I do, but that’s going to happen.”Dave McKenna