Oakland Raiders

‘You’re not quitting’: Why Matt Millen is working despite his serious heart condition

Matt Millen, right, meets with Browns coach Hue Jackson before Cleveland was to host the New York Giants on Nov. 27, 2016. Millen, who played for the Raiders and 49ers, was diagnosed with amyloidosis more than a year ago.
Matt Millen, right, meets with Browns coach Hue Jackson before Cleveland was to host the New York Giants on Nov. 27, 2016. Millen, who played for the Raiders and 49ers, was diagnosed with amyloidosis more than a year ago. Associated Press file

Matt Millen is grateful but at the same time seems almost amused at the level of concern over his health.

Diagnosed with amyloidosis more than a year ago, Millen has completed 38 rounds of chemotherapy and at some point will need a heart transplant. The disease produces amyloids, a protein formed in bone marrow that attacks his heart.

The chemo was to slow the disease, not cure it. So far, so good. Good enough for Millen to join the Raiders’ preseason broadcast booth along with play-by-play announcer Beth Mowins and former quarterback Rich Gannon.

“Heck, that’s not work,” Millen said Tuesday in a phone interview. “That’s fun.”

Not that Millen is afraid of rolling up his sleeves. He and his wife Pat have lived on a 150-acre spread in Durham, Pennsylvania, for the past 14 years, and Millen, 60, has never been one to live a life of leisure.

“I’m back to working at home on the farm, cutting lumber in the shop, building stuff, cutting the grass, doing all kinds of crap,” Millen said. “That part’s fine. I’ve got to slow it down, that’s all. Sometimes it will catch me and I just have to stop.”

The outlook is typically irrepressible Millen, who played for the Raiders from 1980-88, the 49ers in 1989-90 and Washington in 1991. He never stopped grinding as a player, a successful run as an NFL analyst, and a less-than-successful stint as a front office executive with the Detroit Lions.

Millen doesn’t waste time pondering his own existence, instead keeping busy by being a church deacon, building projects in his work shop and understanding but not completely buying in to his condition.

“I listen to these doctors, I know they know way more than I do,” Millen said. “They’re saying you’re operating at 30 percent. I’m like, ‘Well, I’m better than you are.’ That’s kind of how I look at it. I’ll do what I can do until I can’t do it.

“Right now, I can do it pretty good. I’ve been off chemo for eight weeks, so I feel a lot better.”

From his home in Pennsylvania, Millen will embark on road trips to Oakland (against the Lions), Los Angeles (the Rams), Oakland again (Packers) and finally Seattle for the exhibition-season finale Aug. 30.

“It doesn’t bother me,” Millen said of the prospect of four cross-country flights within a period of 20 days. “My legs were swelling up there for awhile, but that’s all stopped and I’m pretty good.”

After the Raiders’ preseason, Millen intends on working college football games for Fox and the Big Ten Network. Millen has been the subject of two extensive profiles, the first by Peter King of Monday Morning Quarterback in May, and another by Bleacher Report’s Dan Pompei which posted Tuesday.

Fred Smerlas, a former teammate with the 49ers, and Jim Ritcher, an NFL veteran with the Bills and Falcons, drove their motorcycles to Durham to offer their support. Smerlas and Ritcher posed with Millen on Twitter, with Millen looking noticeably slimmer at 225 pounds (his high school weight) after losing 50 pounds.

While Millen isn’t seeking sympathy, he’s touched by the response.

“It’s been overwhelming, to be honest with you,” Millen said. Some former Raiders teammates were aware of Millen’s condition before King’s initial story, and it’s clear those relationships are special.

“Guys from my old linebacker crew — Rod Martin, Bob Nelson, Ted Hendricks, those guys — they’re hilarious,” Millen said. “They’re all at a different stage of life, obviously. But you get to this thing and they’re like, ‘Look, you’re not quitting.’ They’re just hammering me. It’s funny. You can’t print the stuff they tell me.”

The organizational response with owner Mark Davis has been similar to the days of Al Davis.

“I remember when my dad got sick and Al would call me every single night,” Millen said. “He had to have a quadruple bypass and Al says, ‘I’m sending your dad to the Mayo Clinic.’ I’m like, ‘He’s 83 years old. He’s not going to the Mayo Clinic. He’s going to stay in Allentown. So Al tried to send the Mayo doctor to Allentown. I said, ‘We actually have doctors back here.’

“Mark has been the same way. He said, ‘Whatever you need, you got.’”

Millen plans on visiting training camp before the first game on Aug. 10 and is eager to see the Raiders under Jon Gruden. The two first met in 1989, when Gruden was an entry level assistant who peppered Millen with “a million” questions.

“I finally asked him, `Don’t you ever sleep?’” Millen said. “Jon brings enthusiasm. There’s a buzz about it. He’s been away for 10 years and the league has changed, but his philosophies and things he wants to do, they still work. I’m looking forward to it.”