PITTSBURGH (AP) — Heath Miller stood at his locker last month, the sting of a playoff loss at Denver still fresh in the Pittsburgh Steelers tight end’s mind.
The thought of going through the process all over again was too much to consider.
“I don’t know,” the ever polite Miller said when asked if he would return in 2016. “At this point, I’ve always said take it one year at a time and we go from there.”
Even with a team he felt on the cusp of another Super Bowl, even with another $4 million due in 2016, Millerchose to stay home with wife Katie and their four children. Miller retired in typically understated fashion Friday, ending an 11-year career featuring a pair of NFL championships while winning over his teammates and an ardent fan base with his work ethic and reliability.
No news conference. Just a call to the Steelers and a simple statement.
“I will always cherish and value the special bonds that I formed with my teammates,” Miller wrote. “It was truly an honor for me to take the field with them.”
The 33-year-old finishes with 592 career receptions, 6,569 yards receiving and 45 touchdowns, all franchise marks for a tight end. The two-time Pro Bowler’s reception total is sixth most by a tight end in league history.
“Heath Miller was as great a combination of character and football player as I have ever been around,” general manager Kevin Colbert said. “Heath helped us win many games, including two Super Bowl championships, while also being an important part of our community.”
The Steelers drafted Miller 30th overall in 2005. He quickly developed chemistry with Ben Roethlisberger, the quarterback often calling Miller the best teammate he’s ever had at any level. In an era when most tight ends were either primarily blockers or oversized wide receivers, Miller was both.
Highly durable, Miller missed just eight games over 11 seasons. Every reception he made at Heinz Field — and more than a few on the road — met with a roar of “Heeeeath.” He remained an important part of Pittsburgh’s high-powered offense in recent years even with wide receiver Antonio Brown and running back Le’Veon Bell developing into All-Pros.
Miller caught 60 passes for 535 yards and two scores in 2015 while also serving as a mentor to rookie Jesse James, who credited Miller with teaching him how to be a professional.
“It’s hard to find reps when you’re playing behind a guy like Heath,” James said. “He’s seen it all. But he helped build confidence in myself, and the team in me.”
That’s what Miller did, and why his decision had his name trending on Twitter minutes after it was announced. The Steelers launched a #ThankYouHEEEATH campaign on Friday afternoon, an ironically new school way to show appreciation for an old school player who would have fit right in on the Super Steelers of the 1970s.
“Congrats to my brother Heath Miller on a tremendous 11 year career!” tweeted former Steelers tackle Ramon Foster. “Spoke softly, but carried a big stick!” A complete TE, & great friend!”
Brown tweeted “Heathhhhhhh,” while Pittsburgh Penguins owner and Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux offered congratulations. While the announcement may have been a surprise to some, running back DeAngelo Williams said he and linebacker James Harrison — who is mulling coming back for another season at age 38 — tried to persuade Miller to stick around for one more run.
Ultimately, however, Miller went his own way.
“The chants of ‘HEEATH’ will be missed at Heinz Field and around the entire NFL,” president Art Rooney II said in a statement. “Heath is the most accomplished tight end in team history and his efforts will not soon be forgotten.”
And perhaps not easily replaced. There is no truly signature Miller moment, perhaps because he treated nearly every play the same regardless of the circumstances. It’s that sense of professionalism that made him so respected in the Steelers’ locker room, one that saw another major piece of the franchise’s latest renaissance walk away.
Miller joins an increasingly long list of recent retirees that includes Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor, both of whom left the game last March. The two longtime defensive stars, however, waited to get a look at the job market for 2016 before making it final. Not Miller. His final act may as well have been emblematic of his decade-plus with the team.
The timing provides the Steelers a bit more cap relief heading into free agency. It also gives them plenty of time to find a college prospect or target a veteran on the open market to join a group that includes James and Matt Spaeth.
Friday, however, was about celebrating a player’s humble approach and quiet relentlessness.
“Teammate, friend, brother,” Roethlisberger posted on his Facebook page. “Words aren’t enough to express what I’m feeling and how blessed I feel. #Heeeath.”