A football stalwart gamely battles a rare disease—a heart transplant looms as a possibility—with an attitude of acceptance on acreage in rural Pennsylvania. Other sections include a look back at the late Chuck Knox’s career; notes on Matt Patricia, Mark Ingram, Adam Vinatieri; and more
DURHAM, Pa. — The other day, spring exploding with the 18,000 flowering plantings on his 200-acre property of rolling hills and classic stone buildings, Matt Millen took the controls of his John Deere backhoe and began moving 12 huge logs. One after the other, chaining them up, pulling them off the pile, and moving them to where most of this wood is going to be part of the construction of a storage building on the Millen estate here in the northeast corner of the state he loves.
Millen finished after maybe an hour. He climbed slowly off the huge machine, and gave his Rottweilers, Ranger and Bench, a couple of scratches around the ears.
This is a sick man?
Take a closer look. Millen, 60, has that pale-faced look you sometimes see in people deep into chemotherapy. The four-time Super Bowl-winning linebacker was noted for playing with intelligent abandon for the Raiders, Niners and Washington, but he doesn’t do much with abandon these days. He just had his weekly chemo treatment the previous day, and he’s surprised he’s feeling up to doing as much as he’s done on one of the first warm mornings of the year here. Millen’s down around 50 pounds in the past year, chasing a cure for a disease called amyloidosis that is particularly evil: He needs debilitating chemotherapy now to fight amyloid, a rogue protein that attacks organs (his heart, in this case). Because the amyloid is attacking his heart, he’ll eventually need a heart transplant to have a chance to live many more years.
“We’re in the fourth quarter of a big football game,” Millen said. “We’re down 13. Playing defense. It’s getting late.”
Millen thought, and he laughed. He does a lot of laughing. He is not impressed with his own mortality, nor does he have the slightest problem discussing it.
“We need a stop,” he said. “We need a big stop.”
Millen has had one of the most interesting football lives of our time. A linebacker both vicious and impossible to trick, he’s the only player in history to win a Super Bowl in four cities: Oakland and Los Angeles (with the itinerant Raiders), and then San Francisco and Washington. Then he became Son of John Madden on TV, destined, it seemed, to replace Madden as the brainiac BOOM-BAM analyst of the people. But he got an offer to become president and GM of the woebegone Lions in 2001 that he couldn’t refuse. Maybe he should have. Millen lasted seven years and four games, and was fired in the midst of Detroit’s 0-16 season in 2008. Then he went back to TV. Now he does NFL games for FOX and college games for the Big Ten Network. And still will in 2018, if his health holds through the chemo.
Many head-scratching things about this incurable malady plaguing Millen. This might be the topper: It took doctors almost as long as his ill-fated NFL executive career lasted to find out he had amyloidosis. He traveled to New York, to Los Angeles, to Rochester, Minn., to Philadelphia, to Chicago, with multiple doctors seen in a couple of those cities, before finally finding out this truth from a doctor in Jacksonville a year ago: “My friend, I know what you’ve got, and you’re not going to like it.”
The long, strange trip to diagnosis (amyloidosis fools doctors and clinicians because it mimics other diseases) started one day in 2011 on this property, as Millen was walking up the steep mini-mountain on the western edge of the property with his wife, Pat. “We’d walk three miles, and we’d attack that big hill. And of course Pat would just bury me all the time,” Millen recalled. “And I thought, no big deal, because she’s little and she’s in great shape. Sometimes I’d catch up to her and we’d run at the end and I’d beat her. And then, I couldn’t. I’d start walking, and I was like, What is going on? I’d start getting this pressure like right at the base of my chest. Then I couldn’t make it up to the top. Then I couldn’t even get halfway up. That lasts about a year, year and a half, and I figure I better go see a doctor.”
The first doctor visit was 2012. Multiple heart tests followed, and tests for severe acid reflux, and for lyme disease. Nothing. He passed a kidney stone in 2015, got a non-malignant tumor removed from his chest a year later, and still nothing. Millen was sick of feeling like crap. One day a couple of years ago, he decided that since the doctors kept telling him his heart was great and they couldn’t find anything else wrong, he’d take out the walk-behind 60-inch mower he used to mow the five acres he kept in groundskeeper’s condition and just attack his property. The lawn was a football game—four quarters, and he’d mow one sector, one quarter, at a time. So he was on the first series of the first quarter, in essence, and here came the issue again.
“So I’m walking it, and I can’t go 100 yards and it’s starting to bother me. But armed with the knowledge that there’s nothing wrong, I get to this little hill, and I’m like I’m running up this hill. If I fall over dead, tough. This thing was really pissing me off. So I ran up the hill, it’s just killing me, and I was like, I’m done. I’ve got to find a doctor.”
More doctors. Liver, kidney exams. Nothing. Finally, a team physician for the Eagles, a sleuth named Gary Dorshimer, sent him to the Mayo Clinic. This time he’d stay till they found out what it was. Millen went to the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, to a doctor named Gary Lee.
“So this is about a year ago,” Millen said, now inside his pristinely maintained home, on an antique couch. “I walked into his office, we sat down and we talked for about 15 to 20 minutes, and that’s when he tells me he knows what I got and I’m not gonna like it. I’m like, How do you know that? You didn’t even do a freakin’ test on me. He says, ‘I’ve been studying this disease for quite some time, amyloidosis. I’m looking at your carotid artery right now, it’s pronounced. I’m looking at the muscles in your head, and they’re deteriorated. Where there should be muscles around your eyes, you’re getting more puffiness instead of muscle mass.’
“And I’m like, ‘Way to read your keys man! That’s a good linebacker!'”
Lee’s testing proved that this disastrous protein, amyloid, was being produced in Millen’s bone marrow and was being deposited in the area around his heart. The amyloid is produced in the bone marrow and in Millen’s case, has traveled to his heart walls, making the heart less elastic and unable to perform the necessary pumping for healthy heart function. Treatments including chemotherapy could manage Millen’s symptoms but not cure the disease. Eventually he’ll need the heart transplant.
“It’s just a matter of when,” Millen said. “And when the window opens for me, I may only have like five months to get it done.”
I said: “Are you amazed that a person as healthy as you’ve been your whole life can be told you need a heart transplant?”
“It’s unbelievable!” he said. “Here’s what I kept on saying—I’d be working out or I’d be cutting the grass, or I’d be doing something and I would have to stop. I could walk 50 feet and I’d be like, What is going on? I would always say, ‘Pat, didn’t I just play in a Super Bowl 20 minutes ago?'”
“Had any ‘Why me?’ moments?” I asked.
“Never,” he said. “Not one. I don’t think like that. This doesn’t bother me too much. I believe that in life you’re supposed to take the bad with the good. You take what you get. This is our life. This is what we get. And so it was the same thing when I was playing. We were fortunate to win Super Bowls. There are guys who go through their whole career, great players, who don’t win one. I’m in Oakland, L.A., San Fran, Washington. We won one everywhere. You just can’t figure those things sometimes. So you just get what you get. I’m okay with that.
“I’m also okay if I don’t wake up one day. We’re all gonna get there. I’m 60 years old and yeah, I’d like to kick around a little longer, but if it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen. I’m actually really good with that. Some of it is just being pragmatic. I’ve always been that way.
“And this life—this incredible life. It’s amazing to me. I’ve met presidents, I’ve met prime ministers, I’ve been around top world leaders, I’ve been around icons like Mr. Ford [the late Lions owner William Clay Ford]—and I’ve had awesome conversations with these people. The great lesson? We’re all the same. We’re all the same. There is no difference.”
Millen’s attitude is so good, so positive—honestly, he could star in the remake of It’s a Wonderful Life—that I feel I could ask him anything at this moment. I could ask about where this “That’s life” ethos comes from. I probably should have.
But I want to ask him about the Lions.
“As you look back on it,” I said, “did you enjoy Detroit or …”
“Yes,” he interrupts. “I enjoyed—I did not like the process because of the reality of what it is. Really when I take my steps back, I was not ready at all. Not even close. I was in over my head. And by the time I figured it out, it wasn’t necessarily too late, but we were in pretty deep.”
So many weird things about Millen’s tenure. This one just boggles the mind: In the five drafts between 2003 and 2007, Millen had the second, seventh, 10th, ninth and second overall picks. He took wide receivers in four of those five drafts. Charles Rogers in 2003, Roy Williams in 2004, Mike Williams in 2005, Calvin Johnson in 2007.
“The one that killed me was Mike Williams,” Millen said. “That was just so stupid, Pete. It’s like my brain fell off my head. Why would I do that?”
“So why did you?” I asked. (Editor’s note: Williams, an All-America wideout at USC, declared for the 2004 draft after his sophomore season when a judge in the Maurice Clarett case overturned the NFL’s draft eligibility rules. Before the draft, however, an appeals court reversed that decision, and the NCAA declined to reinstate Williams. He was forced to sit out the 2004 season and re-enter the draft in 2005.)
“I listened to the group. They thought if they got Mike Williams and paired him with Roy Williams, that in the red zone we could do all these things. And I was like, okay. Do you realize at that time, when we were just about ready to pick, I had DeMarcus Ware on the phone? And I said, ‘All right, take Mike Williams.’ My son was in the draft room with us, and that’s when my son punched me. What a dope I was.”
“How football history could have changed if you picked Ware instead of Mike Williams,” I said.
“How ’bout that?” Millen said. “Maybe we would have ruined him too.”
Millen, of course, was fired by William Clay Ford four games into the winless 2008 season. But he says he’s glad to have had the experience. To this day he loves the Ford family. He understands why he got whacked (“They had to do it”) and says he has no bitterness, and says he understands why the fans feel the enmity they feel for him.
“Now I know what really happens when you build a team,” he said. “It’s so imperfect. There’s so many things that just happen that you stumble into. And sometimes it works out the way you plan it, but not often because it’s a people business. That’s what it is. Like with Charles [Rogers]. I worked him out. I met with Charles. Charles wasn’t a strong person. I knew that. I miscalculated all the people that would latch onto him, especially being so close to his hometown; he was from Saginaw. And that was a real problem. My choice then was to take him or the kid from Miami, Andre Johnson. The only reason that I didn’t take Andre Johnson was I thought this would be good for the franchise—a hometown kid, and he had better speed, but Andre was a physical guy.”
Rogers had issues with Vicodin, marijuana, multiple DUIs and the weight of fathering eight children, two before he was out of high school. He was a mess for most of his awful three-year NFL career (36 catches, four touchdowns), and the Lions cut him in 2006.
Yes, the football architecture thing didn’t quite work out for Millen.
Millen is a garrulous sort, so it’s not rare for him to open his life like this. But now he’s doing it because he wants the public to know something about amyloidosis. Namely, that it’s incredibly hard to diagnose, even by the smartest doctors. Will McDonough, the famed Boston Globe writer, died of amyloidosis in 2003. His family had an autopsy done, and it wasn’t until then that the amyloidosis was discovered. “He did a stress test the day he died,” son Sean McDonough, the ESPN announcer, told me on Sunday. “And the doctors told him he was fine—everything looks good. That’s how unexpected this can be.” Sean McDonough is thrilled that Millen is speaking up now, so the light can be shined on a mostly unknown killer. (To learn more, visit the Amyloidosis Foundation.)
ome 4,500 documented cases of the disease are found each year, with many more going undiagnosed. Millen hopes that by him telling his story, others who cannot find the root cause of an illness might ask a doctor about amyloidosis. The longer a person waits to be diagnosed, the more of the damaging amyloid protein can be produced. And, of course, the chance to stave off the disease through aggressive treatment is reduced the longer it takes to be diagnosed.
A bit of an update here: Millen visited another doctor at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York on Thursday. It was determined he would come off chemotherapy for two or three weeks to judge his progress, but nothing about his future treatment is likely to change. He’ll eventually be on a transplant list, and he’ll hope for the kindness of a stranger’s heart.
Early in the afternoon of my visit, Millen seemed tired. Time to go. But he had one last thing to show me back outside: a gate, a beautiful stone arched gate, with a Bible verse he finds telling in his life. He pointed to it.
“This is important,” he said.
It read: “Enter through the narrow gate, for wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life. And only a few find it.”
It’s a verse he wanted his four children to follow in life: Take the right and the righteous path, not the popular path. Now he’s on his own narrow road. He’s okay with that.
Article source: Sports Illustrated, By Peter King. www.si.com/nfl/2018/05/14/matt-mill