Copy of the 1963 wedding photo of Fred MIller and his wife, Charlene.… (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun )
Every morning, around 5 a.m., before the sunlight splashes on the beige bedroom walls of the weathered farmhouse in Upperco, Charlene Miller stirs, yawns — and prays.
Thank you, Lord, for helping me come through the night.
She doesn't get up. Several hours later, she nudges her husband of 49 years. Fred Miller wakens grumbling, as usual. But the old Baltimore Colt lineman rises, circles the bed and kisses her gently on the cheek.
Charlene stays put. Fred lumbers downstairs, rustles up breakfast and starts his chores around the 46-acre farm. He mows, stacks firewood in the corncrib, weeds the garden filled with tomatoes, eggplants and black-eyed peas, and tries to stay within earshot of the woman he dotes on, day and night.
Charlene Miller, 69, suffers from scoliosis, an abnormal curvature of the spine, and related degenerative back ailments. That, coupled with a stroke in 2009, has left her mostly bedridden for the past two years.
When she became disabled, Fred, an All Pro defensive tackle who played for Baltimore's 1970 Super Bowl champions, became housekeeper. At 70, he cooks, cleans, shops for and fusses over the woman he met while both attended Louisiana State.
"I'm not going to take her to a nursing home, leave her, and walk out the door like some people do," Fred said. "Our marriage vows said, 'in sickness and in health.' This is what it meant."
The back pain began before Charlene had her first child, in 1963 — a dull, throbbing ache that she attributed to her pregnancy. Doctors discovered scoliosis and warned that more pregnancies would aggravate her curved spine.
"Watch me," said Charlene, who bore four sons in six years.
"It wasn't a decision that was flagrantly made," she said. "Fred and I talked and prayed about it. He was the only male Miller in his family. I wanted more boys, if I could, for Fred."
The pain worsened and, in 1972, Charlene had disk surgery, the first of four back operations over the next seven years. She continued to care for family and farm. She was a den mother with the Cub Scouts and the hostess to Colts' families who came to the homestead for hayrides and pig roasts.
"I was hurting, but I didn't let it stop me," she said. "I chose to get up, and to do, and to make our lives as normal as a family could be. I felt like hell, but God got me through it."
At what price? Charlene now uses a walker to hobble around, and an electric stair lift to cheat the steps. Air horns scattered about help to beckon Fred, who has grown hard of hearing. Football took its toll on him: the man has had three back surgeries, and his left knee, he said, is "store-bought." But he muddles on, caring for Charlene with a stoic resolve.
At bedtime, after he has washed the dishes, brought in the dog and dispensed Charlene's meds, Fred tromps upstairs and curls up beside her, a cowboy book by Louis L'Amour in hand. She reads Danielle Steel. Sometimes, they watch TV. Ladies' choice.
"Usually, I'm harangued into watching [reruns of] 'The Waltons,' or Dr. What's-Her-Name, Medicine Woman," Fred said. "Every once in awhile, I'll sneak a cowboy movie in there."
Then it's lights out.
"At night, we hold hands and say the Lord's Prayer, and what's in our hearts," Charlene said. "I thank God for this man, this wonderful gift right out of His hands. He took those vows and has kept every one.
"He loves me, even though I look like a banana when I walk. I can't go out dancing with him, but I love him more than anything — and I believe he loves me that much, too."
Opposites (eventually) attract
Why they hit it off is a mystery, those who know them say. Fred David Miller grew up dirt-poor, the son of a hard-working Louisiana sharecropper. Charlene Coco's daddy was a prominent and affable politician who loved to pamper his little girl.
Fred lived in stark wood cabins with no electricity or plumbing. Charlene's ancestral home had 14 rooms, high ceilings and a wrap-around porch with stately white columns. As a youngster, she frolicked around the state capital building in Baton Rouge amid senators, lawyers and a governor who kept a stash of Hershey bars in his desk, just for her. Fred hobknobbed with pigs, chickens and a crotchety mule named Crow.
Fred worked the nearby cotton fields, shaping the steel will that would steady him in football and beyond. Come harvest, he'd pick cotton at 6 a.m. before going to school. Charlene had a nanny, her own motorboat and a car, which she drove to the country club to play tennis. Her father, an attorney and state senator, owned oil fields, a dairy farm, a lumber yard, and the radio station in town.
"They were polar opposites," David Miller, 47, said of his parents. "Mom came from a very refined and proper southern family with social status. Dad came from proud people who had nothing — and were judged on their character and actions."
Through high school, Fred's attire was right out of a Mark Twain novel: a pair of drawstring pants and cotton feedbag shirts.