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November 7, 2013

After wrestling with decision, Miller makes his mark in football

By: Jimmy Robertson

Offensive lineman Andrew Miller gave up a potentially great career in wrestling to go to the mat in football – a decision that has turned out well for both him and the Hokies

The Hokies dropped a tough one to Duke, but Andrew Miller did his part, recording 20 knockdown blocks against the Blue Devils – one of the best performances ever by an offensive lineman under head coach Frank Beamer.

Kevin Dresser remembers the phone call vividly.

It came in February of 2008, in the midst of his second season as the Virginia Tech wrestling coach. The man on the other end was someone with name recognition in Blacksburg and the surrounding parts – Tech football coach Frank Beamer.

“Coach, I’m down here in Bassett [Va.],” Beamer told him.

This wasn’t good news for Dresser. He knew then Beamer wasn’t calling to exchange pleasantries. After all, Bassett served as the home of Andrew Miller, Dresser’s top wrestling recruit and arguably the top wrestling recruit in the country. Dresser had already secured Miller’s signature on a letter of intent, but he knew Miller also played football, and Beamer’s call meant bad news for him.

“He said, ‘We’re looking at this Miller kid and we really like him, and I think we’re going to take him off your hands,’” Dresser said. “I was like, ‘Oh … great.’ I had offered Andrew a full ride, and we don’t do that in wrestling. We do that about once every four years.

“I knew then I was getting him [Miller] two months and they were getting him 10.”

Dresser laughs about the conversation now and certainly harbors no animosity toward Miller or the football coaches, even though Miller gave up wrestling basically after a year to concentrate on football. He respects Miller and respects his family. Dresser has known Miller’s father, Johnny, since the early 1990s.

That respect has only grown, particularly after watching Miller become a three-year starter on Tech’s offensive line and one of this year’s team captains. Miller carries 296 pounds on his frame, but he carries much more weight in the locker room because of his toughness and work ethic – two traits of importance to a man like Dresser.

“I knew there was more of a future in football,” Miller said. “The thing that wrestling just can’t relate to is Lane Stadium. You’ve got all the fans. My passion for wrestling … I just realized I had more of a future in football.”

Dresser understands. He is still one of Miller’s biggest fans.

But he still wonders.

“There are a lot of times when I wish I could have him,” Dresser said, wistfully. “I’d like to have him when the season gets over this year. I sit back and wonder many times ‘What if?’ But he’s doing the right thing. This is his shot. How many college players get a shot to play in the NFL? If he stays healthy, this guy is a good bet. He’s a calculated risk.

“I’d take him in a heartbeat.”

Miller’s path to athletics excellence in two sports began on an approximately 100-acre farm in Henry County, a plot of soil that his family uses to raise beef cattle and grow hay.

But for the Millers, athletics success was practically the family business.

All four of the Miller children played collegiately. The oldest, John Jr., played offensive tackle at Duke from 1999-2002 and graduated in 2002. The only daughter in the quartet, Heather, scored a school-record 2,395 points in her career at Bassett High School before going on to play basketball at Wake Forest and finishing her career in 2004. Tim Miller, three years older than Andrew, wrestled at Tech before getting his degree in finance in 2010.

“Of course, me,” Andrew said, smiling, when asked who was the best athlete in his family. “But if you asked any one of us, they’d say themselves just because we’re all competitive.”

That the four children became such good athletes and went to college is a testament to Johnny Miller, who raised the children after the tragic death of his wife and the kids’ mother, Linda.

Linda Miller passed away the summer before Andrew’s seventh grade year after a bout with breast cancer. Her death left a huge void in the family, one that could never be replaced.

“It was really difficult, but I had a good family,” Andrew said. “We had each other’s backs. Everybody just worked together, and we were there for each other when needed. It’s still tough to think about even now. Just losing someone that important to you in your life, that’s real tough.”

But Johnny Miller kept his two youngest sons on track, with an assist from Linda’s parents (the other two children were already in college). He got up every morning and made them breakfast, usually a combination of eggs, pancakes and sausage. The pancakes were about an inch and a half thick, and the gravy for the biscuits resembled Jell-O, but Andrew and Tim appreciated the effort.

Johnny also kept them involved in sports. Both of them played football and wrestled, and in their spare time, they lifted weights. Johnny got involved in coaching, helping with the eighth grade football team.

Usually, after practice, the two boys headed over to their grandparents’ house, which sat on the family farm as well, along with the home of their uncle, Tim Moore. Miller’s grandmother would fix the boys dinner.

“She is the best cook I’ve ever seen,” Miller said. “Her biscuits and gravy are the best thing in this world. She treated us right. Every night, we’d have dinner with my granny and grandpa. Their house is like a second house to me.”

The two boys honed their work ethic while working with their uncle and their grandfather, Eldean Moore, on the family farm. The chores consisted of fixing fences, plowing the garden, raking hay and any other task that comes up while living on a farm.

Andrew loved everything about the farm. He loved the work, and he loved being outdoors, with the freedom to roam where he wanted. He also liked the pay that came as a result of the work, as his grandpa lined his and his brother’s pockets with spending money.

“We didn’t get an allowance,” Andrew said. “We had to go work for it. They [his brothers] did it for the money, and I did, too, but I enjoyed it.”

The two kids became good athletes, thanks to their father’s coaching and discipline and the work ethic derived from their farm chores. It all added up to bigger things for them – and especially Andrew.

Dresser first came across the Miller family while serving as the coach at Grundy High School in deep Southwest Virginia. Following a regional match, Johnny Miller walked up to Dresser and introduced himself.

“He told me that if he had had his older son [John Jr.] with me at Grundy, then who knows how good he would have been,” Dresser said. “Then I moved to Christiansburg in 1996, and Johnny started showing up with his two youngest sons.”

For two nights a week from March through the summer, Johnny made the 90-minute trip from Bassett to Christiansburg with his two sons just so they could work out with Dresser and the wrestlers in Dresser’s mat club. He paid the fee for each son to join Dresser’s club team, and he paid all the expenses when Dresser took them to places like New Mexico and North Dakota to compete.

Tim eventually went on to wrestle at Tech with Dresser. Andrew morphed into one of the nation’s best wrestlers, eventually winning two state championships as a heavyweight at Bassett High.

Andrew Miller started his career as a center, but Tech’s coaching
staff moved him to guard this season to help a young
and inexperienced offensive line.

“I was always into sports, lifting or wrestling or football year round,” Andrew said. “My dad always had us into something. I’d go practice wrestling in middle school with the high school team. I remember practicing football in sixth grade with the eighth grade team before they did away with it [the eighth grade team]. My dad was helping coach [the eighth grade team], so they [the coaches] fitted me up [with football gear] and I’d go and practice with them.

“Wrestling started as just a way of helping me get better with football. Then it grew on me and grew on me, and I started getting better and better. I actually became better at wrestling than I was at football there for a while. But I’ve always had a love for football. I still miss wrestling, but football has always been the sport for me.”

That love of football and his close relationship with his brother led Andrew to choose Virginia Tech. He decided to work out with the wrestling team while taking a redshirt year in football, and he wrestled in one match, but a shoulder injury suffered coincidentally while wrestling in North Dakota started bothering him and ultimately resulted in surgery that ended his wrestling season.

As a redshirt freshman on the offensive line, he played in 10 games on the gridiron, gaining some valuable experience. He played well for the most part, but got a bit of a lesson in the North Carolina game against Quinton Coples, who ended up being a first-round draft pick in the NFL Draft.

“It was ugly,” he said.

Miller decided not to compete again in wrestling. He earned a starting role on the football team as a redshirt sophomore and wanted to keep his weight between 290 and 300 – above the NCAA’s 285-pound limit for a heavyweight wrestler. Plus, the football coaches understandably did not want him to run the risk of getting injured.

He was willing to help out the wrestling program, though. The past two years, he helped in the wrestling room by getting heavyweight David Marone ready for the ACC Championships and the NCAA Championships, working out with Marone in various drills. Marone won an ACC title last year.

“Both sports are really tough,” Miller said. “You have to be mentally tough and be willing to beat yourself up in wrestling. You have to be smarter in football. In football, you have a lot of plays, and you have to learn a lot more. You put a lot of hours in watching film and studying the sport, and then the practices are longer, but not as exhausting. In wrestling, it’s just so exhausting. Wrestling is just a grind. You have to have a lot of endurance.”

Miller graduated last May with a degree in agribusiness. For the past two years, including this one, he served as the lynchpin of the offensive line, though last season was cut short because of a broken ankle suffered midway through the year.

He changed positions this spring, as new offensive line coach Jeff Grimes moved him to guard. The versatility not only helps the Hokies on the field, but it also helps Grimes by giving him an example to show Tech’s younger offensive linemen.

“You would certainly hope that you’d have one guy who was your bell cow, so to speak,” Grimes said. “You’d like to have more. But if you have one guy that you can consistently point to and say, ‘See how this guys works? That’s why he plays on Saturday the way that he does.’

“Andrew earns the right to play well because he practices hard every week, and he prepares mentally. He watches film. He studies. It’s important to him, and it makes my job easier.”

Miller’s decision to stick with football has paid off for him, and it may pay off more handsomely next May. Most of the NFL Draft “experts” expect him to get taken in May’s draft. Playing in the NFL would give him plenty of money to buy his own farm and own equipment, taking him back to his roots.

Giving up wrestling would have been a small price to pay if that dream pans out, though he may always wonder what the future would have held for him in that sport.

“It would have been interesting,” he said.

Of course, one person thinks he knows exactly what Miller’s future would have held.

“If he would have concentrated on wrestling all the way through, he was definitely a top-four guy in the nation,” Dresser said. “He’d have been an All-American. There’s no question. I can say that without any hesitation.”