Matt Millen 'At Peace': Haters Never Got to Him, and Failing Health Won't Either

Dan PompeiNFL ColumnistJuly 24, 2018

Photo by Dan Pompei

DURHAM, Pennsylvania — The door to the house is never locked. His seat belt is always unfastened. The reminder chimes go off every 20 seconds, and he doesn't seem to notice. The keys to his truck stay in the truck.

This is the kind of guy Matt Millen is.

At 60, he goes about his business without worry, tending to the grass on a stand-behind mower, woodworking in his shop, overseeing a renovation in his basement, managing his car dealership and preparing for the football season, when he plans on broadcasting games on Big Ten Network and Fox.

If not for the 50 lost pounds—he's down to 225, the lightest he's weighed since he was a junior in high school—and his inability to walk up a flight of stairs without stopping, you would think everything was at peace for him.

But it's not.

The former president of the Lions and NFL middle linebacker has amyloidosis. The disease causes his bone marrow to produce a rogue protein that is attacking his heart. In the past year, he has undergone 38 rounds of chemotherapy—he went every Monday—to inhibit the amyloids. But without a heart transplant, Millen will not be with us for long.

"Why did this have to happen to you?" his brother Hugh Millen asks him. "It's not fair."

"If I croak, I croak," Matt says. "What are you going to do?"

Millen became an altar boy at St. Andrew Catholic church in North Catasauqua, Pennsylvania, when he was nine. He started accepting the Bible as the written word of God during his college days. These days, he is a deacon at Cornerstone Church in Easton. His faith has guided him through life's changes and challenges. And it guides him today.

Peace is all around his majestic farm in the Lehigh Valley.

"Why am I at peace?" Millen asks. "I know I can't control it. Something bigger than me is in control. I've lived my life that way for a long, long time. I believe there is a sovereign power, and you get what you get."

Even when what you get is nonstop criticism. As president of the Detroit Lions, Millen served as a running punch line for fans and the media for the better part of a decade.

"The criticism he took would have broken a lot of people," says Martin Mayhew, who was the Lions' assistant general manager under Millen and now is an executive with the 49ers. "It's kind of like what he's dealing with now. That would break a lot of people. But Matt is one of the toughest dudes I know."

Elizabeth Millen raised 11 kids with wisdom, determination and resilience, but she never saw any of that in herself. "I'm just a peon," Matt's mom would say. Young Matt started thinking the same way: I'm just a peon.

But then the world started sending him a contradictory message. As a sophomore at Whitehall High School, Millen was named all-state on an undefeated team that was ranked first in Pennsylvania. He fell into the trap of thinking he was better than everyone else.

Then he reflected on who the world thinks we are versus who we think we are. It was Mom's example that helped him realize he was the only one who could determine his self-worth.

"I took a self-check," he says. "And everything started to click. I started to mature. I said, From now on, I need to realize I'm no better than everyone else, no worse."

The perspective remained at Penn State, where he became an All-American defensive tackle in 1978, and throughout a 12-year NFL career. He became one of the best middle linebackers in the NFL, and he ran the Raiders locker room.

NEW ORLEANS, LA - JANUARY 25:  Matt Millen #55 of the Oakland Raiders celebrates after a play against the Philadelphia Eagles during Super Bowl XV at the Louisiana Superdome January 25, 1981 in New Orleans, Louisiana. The Raiders won the Super Bowl 27-10.
Focus On Sport/Getty Images

He was underrated as a player, making just one Pro Bowl, but for him, it wasn't about what the world thought he was—just like it wasn't about what the world thought he was in high school and in college.

Today, he wears a tan pair of overalls and an NRA cap. As a player, when he went on road trips, Millen didn't bring a change of clothes—just a toothbrush and a sports coat he had "borrowed" from teammate Howie Long. When he showed up for the press conference to announce his hiring with the Lions, he wore a wrinkled blazer and sneakers he "borrowed" from the locker of former Redskins linebacker LaVar Arrington.

In Detroit, Millen became the face of failure. The Detroit Free Press called him "the worst general manager in any sport." Jay Leno told jokes about him on The Tonight Show. Lions fans wore bags over their heads and chanted, "Fire Millen!"

Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

During his tenure, Millen kept his family in Pennsylvania and returned home on weekends, usually for one day during the season. For this, he was derided by critics, who said he was not fully committed.

They didn't know he often watched tape with coaches until one day turned to the next. Or that he often spent the night in the Lions' sleep room at their Allen Park facility. "You'd come in, and he had been up watching film most of the night," Mayhew says. "He hadn't shaved in two days, and he hadn't even taken a shower. We'd be like, 'Hey man, go take a shower.'"

Millen was more concerned with doing what was best for his family than listening to opinions of the partially informed. And he is certain that going home had nothing to do with his failures.

Not trusting his instincts had more to do with them. He hired one of his three head coaches because others in the organization were sold on him, despite being warned against the hire by someone who knew the coach and whose opinion he trusted. He selected quarterback Joey Harrington with the third pick of the 2002 draft even though he believed Harrington was not a good fit for the Lions' offensive system. Others were sold on him, so he relented. He was set on taking pass-rusher DeMarcus Ware with the 10th pick of the 2005 draft, but when the Lions were on the clock, offensive coaches talked him into drafting wide receiver Mike Williams.

"That was probably my biggest flaw," he says. "I wasn't strong enough to say no."

As the world saw it, the blame was all his.

When a local sports talk radio station organized the "Millen Man March" in 2005 to protest his contract extension, Millen thought it was clever. He laughed. One year, the Millens topped their Christmas tree with a "Fire Millen" sign.

Millen knew he couldn't do anything about it—except turn around the Lions. So he brushed off the criticism as if it were sawdust. It did, however, bother his sons, Matthew Jr. and Marcus, and his daughters, Michalyn and Marianne. "But they saw how I handled it," he says. "I never brought it home. I didn't lose an ounce of sleep. I never talked about it. So I think it was good for them."

On the levels at which Millen has operated, perspective can be difficult to maintain. But it hasn't been for him.

None of those voices criticizing him ever were as loud as the voices in his head. There was Mom: Don't let others determine your self-worth. There was his father, Harry: Choose your words carefully, and carry yourself with dignity. There was his high school coach, Andy Melosky: Fight for what you have conviction about. And there was his college coach, Joe Paterno: Don't ever let your ego get in the way.

Millen finds no reason to be wistful about his yesterdays.

He lets them go. He is good at that.

Whenever there was a dispute in the Millen house when Matt was a kid, his father led the combatants to the basement and laced on boxing gloves. They would fight until there was a winner.

Some valuable lessons were taught in that basement. The most important was this: Pain doesn't last.

And really, nothing does.

Those basement fights paved the way for hundreds of others. With the heart of a lion, Millen did not lose often.

When Maryland alum Randy White was going into his second season playing for the Cowboys, he visited 17-year-old Millen to recruit him to his alma mater. Millen challenged him to arm-wrestle. After White won, Millen went after him.

A disagreement with his Raiders position coach, Earl Leggett, on the sidelines of a game led to a physical confrontation. Millen and teammate John Matuszak tussled in the weight room in Oakland.

Patriots general manager Pat Sullivan took issue with Long's play in a 1986 game and confronted Long afterward as the teams left the field. Millen stood up for his teammate, yanking Sullivan by the hair and swinging his helmet at his face, opening a gash above his left eye.

When he signed with the 49ers, Millen thought the team was too passive, so he picked fights with teammates. He mixed it up with Charles Haley, among others. Later, he would hire Haley for his coaching staff in Detroit.

And then there were opponents. When Bears guard Kurt Becker dove at Millen's knees in a 1984 game, Millen spit in his face and wrapped his hand around his throat. "I did things I wasn't proud of," Millen says. "I'd just lose my mind. And then afterwards, I'd feel terrible. I apologized to him after the game, but I couldn't even look at him."

In a 1988 game at rain-soaked Candlestick Park, Millen saw Jerry Rice coming across the middle for a crack block. An enraged Millen tried to hit with a forearm to the facemask, but Rice went low and cut him. Millen grabbed Rice's helmet and held him facedown in a puddle. "I tried to drown him," he says.

The next year when Millen joined the 49ers, he apologized. When he became president of the Lions, Millen tried to sign Rice.

Wearing a thick neck roll and taped forearms and wrists, he was, in many ways, the quintessential Raider—a favorite of Hell's Angels, the motorcycle gang that claims the team as its own.

But Millen was conflicted about the fire inside. Early in his career, he considered retiring because of it. "The way I was playing was completely antithetical to any Christian norm," he says. "I had to ask myself, Who are you? It's almost like I was lying, saying one thing and doing another. I made up my mind I would be one thing on the field, and I would be something else off the field. And the two might not mix very well."

If Millen had quit football, he would have missed out on so much, including becoming the only player in history to win Super Bowls on three different teams. He won two with the Raiders, one with the 49ers and a fourth with the Redskins. In each of his first seasons with his new teams, they won it all.

What a career he had. "Football," he says, "was so good to me. I'm thankful, so thankful."

He went to the postseason eight times. He played with 15 teammates who have been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Some of them left lasting impressions. Marcus Allen, one of the best running backs he ever saw, was willing to do whatever he was asked on the field and never complained—not even about being moved to fullback so Bo Jackson could take the handoffs. Millen watched Long's greatest weakness—insecurity—become his greatest strength because it made him relentless.

Millen and Long together after their playing days.
Millen and Long together after their playing days.Ben Margot/Associated Press

Joe Montana wanted to compete at everything—hitting the end of a pipe with a ball of tape, throwing laundry into a basket, whatever. Millen saw Steve Young sit with his back to the board and read off the 250 plays that were written on the board and not make a single mistake.

He admired Ronnie Lott for caring so much about the game and his teammates. Two nights before Super Bowl XXIV, Haley and Jim Burt got into a fight in the 49ers' New Orleans hotel. Millen was the only one there. He thought they needed to get it out of their systems, so he did nothing. Lott came by and broke up the fight immediately, berating Millen. This was Lott's team, so Millen stood down.

Millen couldn't help it. He loves a good fight.

He's in one now. And fate, he understands, is undefeated.

When he was a boy, Millen never could have envisioned the wonderful life he would lead. The expectation was he would finish high school and go to work for Bethlehem Steel. Or maybe Mack Trucks or the local township. That's how it played out for most of his friends.

But during high school, Millen was different. He started lifting weights as a 5'8", 125-pound freshman. By the time he was a sophomore, he was 6'0", 190. He hit 235 pounds by his senior year. And he was freakishly strong.

During his first year at Penn State, he was bench-pressing 435 pounds. He and fellow freshman Bruce Clark, who would become the fourth pick of the 1980 draft, were stronger than any of the upperclassmen. By his second year, Millen was bench-pressing 510.

Prior to the 1980 draft, Bill Parcells, then the Patriots linebackers coach, came to Penn State to work out Millen and Clark. He asked them to bench-press 225 pounds as many times as they could. First, Millen wanted to know what the record was. Probably 45, Parcells said. Clark was going first, so Millen told him to do 45 and stop. Clark did it easily and reracked the bar. Millen got to 45 too; then he paused and glanced at Clark before getting three more reps in.

When he was an executive with the Lions, he worked out with the players, trying to show them how to grind in the weight room. And the old man held his own. "Guys like Shaun Rogers could have surpassed me," he says. "But there was that intensity piece that was missing. No wonder we were getting beat."

At 50 years old, Millen bench-pressed 475 pounds in the Lions weight room. And he did it with only one pectoral muscle.

In 1990, the Steelers gave the ball to Barry Foster on the 49ers 1-yard line. Millen met him in the hole, but Foster spun. Lott came from behind to finish off Foster and hit Millen in the back. Millen felt his pectoral muscle rip from the bone.

Millen didn't miss a play and never had the muscle repaired.

What was beneath that left pectoral muscle is what made Millen.

Steroids, he says, never were a consideration. Nor were recreational drugs. He never has been a drinker after trying beer in high school and thinking it was disgusting. "I think I've been in five bars in my life," he says.

His only vice as a high schooler had to do with his relationships with women. Not girls. Women. As in his teachers. "I'm not proud of it, but it happened," he says.

Young Millen grew from those relationships, just as older Millen grew from his relationship with Al Davis. He is proud of his association with Davis, even though they argued all the time. The former owner of the Raiders would pick the fight. He gloated when he proved Millen wrong. And he didn't admit defeat easily.

This was a typical discussion over game tape.

Millen: "In the Orange defense, you don't move that backer."

Davis: "Don't tell me about the f--king Orange defense. I invented it."

Millen: "If you invented it, you forgot it."

And then, a day later…

Davis: "Like I told you yesterday, you'd never move that backer in the Orange defense."

After Millen was fired by the Lions, Davis asked him if he would return to Oakland to be his general manager. Redemption wasn't that important to Millen, and he preferred to avoid the sparring, so he said no.

ED ANDRIESKI/Associated Press

Millen never played for John Madden, but Madden was a coach to him in many ways. He taught him about people, football, broadcasting and business outside of football. Millen hitched many rides on the Madden cruiser when both were color analysts. They'd go from Boston to San Diego talking football, philosophizing, debating, laughing, eating and farting, just a couple of regular guys searching for great meals in unexpected places, historical landmarks and hidden American treasures.

Millen considered it a privilege to be around men like Davis and Madden—and William Clay Ford Sr., who hired him to run the Lions. Ford told him all about his grandfather Henry Ford and how he founded and grew one of the most successful businesses in American history. Ford shared personal secrets from his fascinating, fast life.

A photo of the two of them is on the wall of the exercise room in Millen's home. It is one of his favorite pictures.

"When he hired me, I made him one promise," Millen says. "I told him, 'I will always be honest with you.' And I was. I told him I had never done what I was being hired to do, and I didn't know much about it. What people don't get is it's not about understanding football; it's about putting a team together. Because you played on a team doesn't mean you know how to put one together. I couldn't put a team together."

One of his biggest disappointments is he failed to give Ford a winner.

But the delights have outweighed the disappointments for Millen.

Since his illness has become public, Millen has heard from people from every phase of his life—thousands by his estimate. He had a great talk with Mike Reid, whom he followed at Penn State and idolized. So many old teammates have reached out, including some he hasn't been in touch with for decades. Ted Hendricks, Bob Nelson, Rod Martin, Mike Haynes, Darrell Green. College football coaches Urban Meyer and James Franklin contacted him. He has heard from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, agent Tom Condon, Hall of Fame linebacker Jack Ham and television executive Dick Ebersol. He reconnected with his old coach Joe Gibbs.

Raiders owner Mark Davis told him he would help him any way he could. "If you need a jet, whatever, let us know," Davis said.

Millen is appreciative, more than he can say.

He knows what is given is returned. And Millen has given in many ways.

When he saw Long getting a little too caught up in celebrity during his playing days, he took to calling him "Howiewood." It was a joke, but it was also a message—a pointed message. Long received it, moved to Charlottesville, Virginia, and went back to being Howie.

During those Raiders days, the team moved into an old school in El Segundo. Millen discovered an abandoned workshop, so he filled it with tools, including a table saw, a radial arm saw and a drill press. After he put the kids to bed, he'd go back to the facility for a few hours every night and make things. He made furniture for the coaches' offices and even made the lockers for the scabs during the 1987 player strike.

Photo by Dan Pompei

Jimmy Romanski was helping out in the equipment room and asked Millen if he could teach him woodworking. Millen taught him, and after Millen left the team, Romanski took the tools and began a career as a cabinetmaker that continues to this day.

When Millen went to the 49ers, Young was riddled with anxiety over his role as the backup to Montana. Every day, Young went to Millen for what amounted to therapy. "I had my struggles, and here I was going to a linebacker," Young says. "That doesn't happen every day. But Matt understood human behavior and human dynamics, and he was helpful in helping me understand how to deal with it better. He kept me focused on doing the things I needed to do to be prepared to play."

Millen even helped linebackers who were trying to take his job, according to Young.

"It wasn't just about him," says Young, whom Millen calls The Youngster. "It wasn't a zero-sum game—what I get, what you get. It was abundant perspective. It's trite to say one plus one equals three, but that's kind of how he looked at the world—I can make it more."

Throughout Millen's career, he invited his unmarried teammates to his home for dinner every Wednesday. His wife, Pat, would prepare a feast. Matt was extraordinarily hospitable—but with parameters.

"He'd say, 'You have to come at 6:15, and I want you out by 6:45,'" Young says, laughing at the memory. "We'd walk in, sit down and eat. Matt would be in his underwear. Then: 'OK, you guys have to go. You can't be bothering my family.'"

Millen and Young were teammates and later broadcast partners.
Millen and Young were teammates and later broadcast partners.Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

The week before Super Bowl XXX, Millen was watching tape at the Steelers headquarters in Tempe, Arizona. Linebacker Levon Kirkland walked in. Millen told him he was studying him and asked him to take a seat. Kirkland sat down, and Millen told him he thought he had more potential than he was showing, and he told him why. Then during pregame warm-ups, Millen asked Steelers cornerback Alvoid Mays, whom Millen had played with in Washington, to deliver a message to Kirkland. He told him he needed to trust what he was seeing.

Kirkland did, and he led his team with 10 tackles and had a sack. The next season, he made his first Pro Bowl.

"It was an aha moment for me," Kirkland says. "It propelled me as a player. Before then, I was a good player, but I wasn't unleashing myself. I was holding back. When I heard that, I unleashed a little. It gave me confidence. I needed that encouragement because I wasn't getting it elsewhere."

The best move of Millen's executive career was drafting wide receiver Calvin Johnson with the second overall pick in 2007. As a rookie, Johnson tried to play a finesse game and subsequently struggled. Millen told him he needed to learn to use his muscle and fight to get open. At the end of his first season, Johnson told Millen, "I'm going to learn to fight this offseason." The next year, he had 1,331 receiving yards, an average of 17.1 yards per catch and 12 touchdowns.

Jason DeCrow/Associated Press

Millen and Paterno had a volatile relationship during Millen's playing days and beyond. Paterno threw Millen out of practice multiple times. Millen called out Paterno repeatedly. But when Paterno was under siege during the Jerry Sandusky scandal, Millen publicly defended his old coach. He still believes Paterno did not do anything untoward.

When the heat was on, Millen spent time with Paterno and his wife, Sue, and offered Paterno the use of his condo in Florida. When he heard Paterno was ready to hold a press conference about the matter, Millen called the school repeatedly to stop it from happening because he thought the timing was wrong.

Millen's friends will tell you he has given more than advice and encouragement. From Penn State teammates to his Lions employees, Millen has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to friends who couldn't find work, who made poor investments or whose medical bills ran amok.

"He has a heart for people in need," says Mayhew, whom Millen calls Brother Hew. "But he's the kind of guy who gives with his left hand and the right hand doesn't know it. I'm not talking about meals. He has given significant money he's not going to see back. To this day, he's still helping people, including guys who were in Detroit."

There is an absence of debt in Millen's life. On his ledger, he owes nothing, and nothing is owed to him.

Millen still is looking for people to help—people with amyloidosis. He wants to spread the word so others with the disease don't have to wait six years to find a diagnosis like he did.

Trying to help is what Millen always has done. That's one reason so many people wish they could help him now.

"It makes me think," Millen says, "that I treated people right."

Millen's .270 winning percentage as a general manager will not define him. Nor will his .668 winning percentage as a player.

What will?

Pat, or "Patricia," or "Trish," has been by Millen's side for 41 years, since she was a 17-year-old incoming freshman gymnast at Penn State and he was an 18-year-old sophomore. A giver through and through, she dutifully supports all he does, creates art and volunteers to help women with post-traumatic stress disorder.

And she mothers.

Matthew, 36, is a Princeton grad who thought he would set the world on fire as a big-city attorney. He found his calling saving souls as a pastor in a small town in the Lehigh Valley. After his father let the crowd in the draft room convince him to take Mike Williams instead of DeMarcus Ware, Matthew punched him in the stomach.

Marcus, 32, is a major in the U.S. army who has served more than two years in Afghanistan. Millen was once told by a sniper who served under Marcus that he is the best officer he's ever been around—a natural born leader whose troops say they will follow him anywhere.

Michalyn, 30, married Marcus' teammate from West Point. With licenses in real estate and insurance, she is skilled in the art of verbal communication. Michalyn is the mother to one of Matt and Pat's seven grandchildren.

Marianne, 27, is a clinical psychologist. Her work is serious, but she is known for her sense of humor. People gravitate to her.

The farm Matt and Pat live on covers 150 acres. The house, built in 1775, was scheduled to be bulldozed. Then they purchased it, reassembled the land and revived the farm.

Matt worked for 14 years, literally with his own hands, to make a dream reality.

Almost everything is made with natural stone, most of which was dug up on the property. Millen gutted the house and made two additions. He built a garage with a workshop underneath and an apartment on top. He put up a pool house (it includes a 22-foot banquet table he constructed from an old bowling alley), a greenhouse, a toolshed, a fireplace cove and a generator building. And he dug out a pond.

Patrolling the farm are Rottweilers Ranger and Bench, and maltipoos Max and Clancy. Ranger, 12, is not the dog he once was. He's nearing the end. But he's happy just to be. He and Matt are bonded.

Photo by Dan Pompei

A bald eagle casts his shadow over the land, and the howls of a coyote echo through an otherwise silent night. Fragrances are everywhere—zinnias, begonias, angelonias, marigolds, bidens, petunias and many more. Every spring, Pat plants 18,000 flower seeds and plugs.

When the time comes, Millen's ashes will be spread on this farm.

He isn't spending much time thinking about that, though.

"Why would I think about dying?" he says. "I have a lot of stuff to do. I have to make some windows—the ones on the house are like 25 years old and were made the old way. Some of that wood is rotting. I have a bunch of stuff in the shop I have to get out, including a bowl that a friend of mine started before he died. I promised his wife I would finish it. I'm going to start making the cabinets for them to install in the basement. People are always asking me to do something. I have a list. Plus, there are younger guys trying to learn how to do this stuff, and I love to teach them."

There are short-term aspirations. And there are long-term aspirations.

"I'd like to see my grandkids grow up," Millen says. "I'd like to see my youngest daughter have some kids. I'd like to see the successes my kids and grandkids are going to have, the failures they are going to face and be a part of their lives. But if that doesn't happen, it doesn't happen. I'm all right with that."

He understands the same heart that is failing him has served him very well.


Dan Pompei covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @danpompei.