Kevin Miller lost his best friend, his inspiration, on Friday.
His father, Joe Miller, died after battling lung cancer for four years. He was 72.
Kevin was on his way to see “Pops” when his phone rang. His mother, Kay, Joe’s wife of 51 years, broke the news.
Joe was Kevin’s football coach at Delta High School from 1984 to 1986, a barrel-chested mentor and portrait of strength and stability for Clarksburg, the small town nestled along the banks of the Sacramento River. The school produced an inordinate number of NFL players in the late 1970s and many others who excelled in athletics at four-year colleges.
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Kevin grew up admiring star Delta athletes. Before earning his stripes as a quarterback for the Saints, leading them to championships, he was a ballboy for Delta, which won Sac-Joaquin Section Division III championships in dominating fashion in 1977 and 1978. The teams featured players such as quarterback Tony Eason, defensive back Bo Eason (Tony’s brother) and lineman Dan McQuaid, all of whom played in the NFL. It was a remarkable achievement for a school of 270 students that drew from neighboring Courtland, Walnut Grove and, sometimes, South Sacramento.
Kevin’s biggest influence was his father, who also taught history and civics at Delta. The Millers lived in Greenhaven but took the short drive south to Clarksburg on the river road, which still seems to transport travelers back to rural America when times were slower and simpler.
“Delta and Clarksburg still has that close-knit, special feeling to it, and I sure know what those times with my dad did for me then and now,” said Kevin, whose twin sister, Becky, also attended Delta. “I enjoyed time with my dad very much. Growing up, being the ballboy, the guy handing out the kicking tee, playing catch with my friend Bart Greene, driving to and from school with Dad every day, what a great experience. I was so lucky.”
Delta players routinely paraded through the Miller home, where they’d break down game film. And no one went home hungry.
Barbecue burgers were the norm, “on a French roll, sauteed onions, mushrooms, the works,” Kevin recalled with a laugh. “We’d watch game film with a projector off the wall.
“When I was little, the varsity players would take me to the batting cages, to the movies – Tony and Bo Eason, Bob Slater, great guys like that. And they’d tease the heck out of me, like the little brother. Great childhood.”
Kevin paused, then continued. “I talked to my dad every day the last few years – ‘Hey, Pops, how ya doin’?’ His last two weeks, he was bedridden, and I was with him a few days ago, rubbing his back, massaging him, hoping he felt better. To see your idol, someone you love and respect so much suffering, it was hard. Last September, Dad and I went to Texas and watched the Astros, Longhorns, Cowboys and Rangers, one last great trip. So glad we did that.”
After graduating from Delta in 1987, Kevin attended Chico State, where he is in the school’s athletic Hall of Fame after playing quarterback for three years and lettering for four seasons on the baseball team. He also logged three seasons of minor-league baseball.
Kevin works for the state. He and his wife, Trudi, have a daughter, Hailey, a senior at Cosumnes Oaks High who plays softball and has a 4.2 GPA grade-point average.
Kevin bears a striking resemblance to his father: shaved head, gentle smile, regal frame. Kevin was Joe’s shadow. He learned to count by watching the numbers on the Delta scoreboard. He muscled up by sliding weights across the weight room floor for the Easons, some of them 5-gallon jugs filled with cement. Kevin rejoiced in piggyback rides to the locker room by team captains after games. A lot of these varsity athletes were tough, salt-of-the-Earth kids. Their fathers worked in pear orchards, cut sugar beets or worked at the nearby mill.
“Know why those teams were so great and the guys were so strong?” Miller asked. “A lot of farm kids got strong by moving water pipe or dirt or hay.”
Miller emerged as Delta’s starting quarterback by the middle of his sophomore season in 1984. In 1985, he shattered Tony Eason’s passing records as the Saints went unbeaten. Joe wrote to Eason, a first-round draft pick of the New England Patriots in 1983, and apologized, explaining Delta had to pass to win. Eason never took it personally.
Joe graduated from Sacramento State, coached at Delta for 17 seasons, then capped his 35-year coaching career in 2001 with a 12-0-1 Manteca team that defeated Del Oro 21-0 for the section Division II championship.
Joe once told me, “My greatest joy was coaching Kevin at Delta. But it wasn’t always easy. Sometimes he ran his own plays, and fortunately, they usually worked.”
Joe initially faced skepticism for starting his son at the game’s most crucial position. At 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds, the coach offered his trademark staredown in response. Besides, the kid produced, often looking to wide receiver Greene, whose father, Jim, ran the offense. Dick Dichiara, the other member of the three-man coaching crew, died in 2013 from a machinery accident on the family orchard at 70. Delta’s rustic home field is now called Dick Dichiara Memorial Stadium.
While Joe was the growling, boisterous presence of Saints football, his wife, Kay, was the team mom and the soothing voice of reason.
“My mother never cussed a day in her life, but my dad, a throwback, made up for it with plenty of cussing when he coached,” Kevin said with a laugh. “My mom was so mellow and easy going when I played at Delta. I’d go 0 for 3 in a baseball game, and I’m upset, and Mom would say, ‘It’s OK, Kevin. Think about the dog at home who will be so happy to see you!’ ”
For 20 consecutive years, Joe and Kay found joy in family vacations to Hawaii, where Joe’s ashes will be spread over Maui in the coming weeks.
“Goodbye, Dad,” Kevin said in reflection.