Sept. 10, 1999
BERKELEY - It was the weekend before the start of spring practice and Keith Miller was flying high. Literally. The 6-2, 240-pound linebacker had decided to celebrate the start of the '98 spring season on the slopes. An avid snowboarder for five years, Miller had experienced his share of mishaps, but this time he knew he was in trouble.
"It was about a 15-foot jump," he said. "I had a little too much speed. I came off and got way too high and just lost control in the air." When it was all over, Miller had a shattered right wrist that would need to be held together by pins and screws and that would keep him out of spring football drills.
The accident came after having taken a medical redshirt his first season in a Golden Bear uniform in 1997, nursing a badly injured knee and ankle. He had earned a starting spot as a transfer from Palomar Junior College, but was injured on the eighth play of the season opener when one of his own teammates collapsed on his leg. "It was about 500 pounds of pressure going the wrong way," he said.
Miller was used primarily as a backup last season, so he had to learn to play all three linebacker positions and even saw a little time on the defensive line. It was a challenge, but he says being forced to be flexible made him a much better player.
Now Miller is back at full strength and starting at inside linebacker between seasoned vets S?kou Sanyika and Matt Beck, whom he has studied over the past two seasons as he familiarized himself with the California system and the speed of Division I ball.
Though Sanyika and Beck receive most of the media hype, Miller quietly enjoys his role outside of the spotlight. "When we're out there on the field, it is all three of us," he says. "If it's not Matt or S?kou making the play, then it's gotta be me. If it's not me, then it has got to be one of them. When we're on the field, we're all equal."
According to defensive coordinator Lyle Setencich, Miller's work ethic sets him apart. "He doesn't know the meaning of the word loaf," he says. "He is very physical, a good tackler. He is probably the hardest worker on this football team."
Miller gives Setencich most of the credit for the improvement he's made since he's been at Cal. Now that he recognizes plays before they happen, he can enjoy his role as the quarterback of the defense and concentrate on stopping the run. He says the Setencich's vast knowledge of the game builds the respect of the players, a respect he hopes to get as a coach when his athletic career is over. Miller wants to return home to San Diego to coach high school football and teach health, possibly at his alma mater, Mt. Carmel High.
But having a Plan B doesn't mean he won't try to continue his football career. He's not ready to let go of the game just yet and hopes to play in some capacity after he graduates in December, whether it be in the NFL or in Canada or Europe.
Right now, though, he's focused on making his last collegiate season his most successful yet. That means he has to remain as injury-free as possible, which is his primary goal. To be on the safe side, he skipped the snowboarding season last spring, choosing instead to stick to surfing, which he has loved since grade school. Injuries are just a part of the game though, and Miller knows that in the end it all comes down to luck. "I put my work in in the off-season, I spent a lot of time running and lifting," he said. "But to have 11 guys that just want to knock your head off every play, nobody can stay healthy."
Miller's secondary goal? "Basically to have Coach Setencich look at us as one of the better defenses that he's coached," he said. "To hear him say that would be the greatest thing ever. That would be an end to a senior season."
By Beverly Oden