Miller passes biggest test on road back

Broncos: Backup quarterback Chris Miller is attempting a comeback after being out of football for three years because of post-concussion syndrome.

August 20, 1999|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

GREELEY, Colo. -- There was no easy way to do it. Third down, receivers covered, Chris Miller did what quarterbacks do. He took off running, aiming for a sliver of daylight in front of him.

Just that quickly, daylight disappeared and Miller tried to get out of harm's way. Before he could, a linebacker arrived. Helmets collided. Miller went down, but, more importantly, got up.

That's when the former Pro Bowl quarterback knew his three-year, forced retirement was over. That's when he answered the scariest question in his bid to come back from post-concussion syndrome and join the Denver Broncos as a reserve quarterback.

"I was curious to see how I would react to a hard hit to the head," Miller said.

"I took a real good hit. I got up, shook my head, got my senses about me and felt good."

That was two weeks ago in Sydney, Australia, where Miller, the Broncos' third-team quarterback behind Bubby Brister and Brian Griese, directed two late field-goal drives to beat the San Diego Chargers, 20-17.

Forget his 11-for-13 passing performance against San Diego's subs. That third-down run and two ensuing sacks represented a milestone for Miller.

Three years ago, he looked like a washed-up, punch-drunk quarterback. He had suffered five concussions in a 14-month period playing for the Los Angeles/St. Louis Rams. Three came in the 1995 season. When he was hit on the helmet by New York Jets defensive end Marvin Washington on Dec. 3, 1995, Miller landed on the hard Meadowlands carpet with his head and shoulders.

It was lights out on a nine-year career that had begun as a first-round pick by the Atlanta Falcons in 1987.

Ten days later, suffering from headaches, dizziness and nausea, Miller was placed on injured reserve. Three months later, on the advice of several medical experts, he announced he would sit out the 1996 season, then re-evaluate his future.

Three years later, he is going where Stan Humphries, Merril Hoge and Al Toon -- among those whose careers were cut short by post-concussion syndrome -- can't. Back on the field, even if it's only as a backup.

"It really wasn't my goal to take three years off," said Miller, 34. "I knew I needed to take a break."

He golfed. He helped coach his old high school football team in Eugene, Ore. He played city league basketball. And he missed the competition of the NFL, the camaraderie of the locker room. A lot.

"When you're still athletic and 30 years old and you've got to hang it up not by your choice, it's hard," he said. "I couldn't find anything to fill that competitive void."

What made it tougher was the shortage of competent quarterbacks in the league. When teams like the Green Bay Packers started calling in 1997 to inquire about his health, Miller got the urge. But the Packers backed off when they read a report by Dr. Elliott Pellman, team physician for the New York Jets and head of the NFL's subcommittee on mild traumatic brain injury. Pellman recommended Miller give up football for good.

Of course, Miller couldn't. Last February, he and his wife Jenny went to Chicago to visit Dr. James Kelly, a neurosurgeon who had worked with Toon, Hoge and hockey's Pat LaFontaine.

James gave him an extensive magnetic resonance imaging session, which Miller passed. Then Miller saw a neuropsychologist, who administered a battery of tests for short-term memory, quick reaction and ability to process information.

"I had absolutely no sign of any post-concussion symptoms or anything," Miller said. "All my neuro- psych tests were very extensive. I passed well above average on most of those."

Given medical clearance, Miller's agent, Frank Bauer, began contacting NFL teams. Interest was immediate. There were inquiries by the Jets, Washington Redskins, Seattle Seahawks, Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, Kansas City Chiefs and New Orleans Saints. But when the Broncos got involved after John Elway's retirement in May, the deal was done.

The Broncos had great coaching, the best running back in the league in Terrell Davis, a terrific defense and a grass field. "To me, that was a no-brainer," Miller said.

The chance to come back was worth more than the risk, Miller decided, and he signed a two-year, $1.4 million contract. He was required to sign a waiver of liability, as well.

Miller acknowledges the obvious.

"A lot of people have concerns," he said. "I wouldn't go into this deal to injure myself seriously. The way I look at it, you've got to live for the moment. There are people planning their lives down the road who are killed in car wrecks. JFK Jr. wrecks his plane. You've got all these shooting things going on. You never know what you have in store for you."

At the least, he is wading into uncertain territory. The medical community is not sure whether Miller is more vulnerable.

"The concern would be whether it would take less of a blow to induce another concussion," said Dr. Andrew Tucker, associate team physician for the Ravens and an expert with the University of Maryland Medical Center in the concussion field.

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