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More than just a coach

Miller's lessons stretched far beyond the football field

Messenger photo by Britt Kudla Matt Miller gives a speech during Fort Dodge's pep rally in the Dodger gym.

Someday, when Matt Miller is long gone and all of his accomplishments are nothing more than faded memories, a Fort Dodge fan will look at this era of Dodger football and ask why his time here was so special.

On paper, he lost more games than he won. On paper, the Dodgers’ playoff victory drought — currently at 25 years — didn’t end during his tenure.

The program’s history books won’t tell you about Miller’s role as a father figure to countless student-athletes. The advice he gave. The extra meals he provided. The time he invested, sometimes just to make sure a kid had a roof over his head or a warm place to stay in the winter – long after the football season had ended.

“It’s tough to find the words to describe what he meant as a coach – if they even exist,” said former all-state tailback Sam Cook, a 2016 FDSH graduate and the school’s universal rushing champion. “I just think about my teammates and the guys I grew up watching and how much he cared about every single one of us.

“Coach Miller played a big role in creating and sharing memories that will last a lifetime for countless student-athletes, parents and fans at Fort Dodge Senior High. He taught us things about life that you can’t find in any textbook. He could trouble the comfortable, and comfort the troubled – helping us all learn more about what we were capable of. He has always been in my corner, and I’ll always be in his.”

Cook’s sentiments were shared by hundreds of former Dodger players Thursday morning, less than 24 hours after Miller officially announced his 16-year run as FDSH head coach was coming to an end. Not just the stars, but the role players and reserves. Not just the honor-roll students, but the ones who struggled to stay afloat academically. Not just the kids from “traditional” family backgrounds, but those who desperately needed a father figure or role model in their lives.

“There is a lot of love there, and I know there are many other guys who could say way more,” Cook said. “People he helped out of tough situations. He got guys jobs when they needed them, he helped them find help in school – he just cared about us. Sometimes he’d be sick before a game. That’s how much it meant to him. His emotions were very real, so it was very easy for us to buy in.

“We did whatever we could to try and make him proud. Not to disappoint him. And there were times of disappointment, but he never stopped showing us love. And that says a lot about a man who also goes home to a family and shows his love there, too.”

When Miller became the school’s all-time leader for career victories during the last week of the regular season, he was greeted individually by many of his players in the locker room afterward. But the scene wasn’t really about a win total or a record. In a number of very heart-felt, often emotional exchanges, his young men said things like “you’ve been like my dad” and “thanks for always being there for me when no one else was.”

I asked Miller about that responsibility during our interview on Wednesday. There were often sleepless nights and phone calls at all hours because of it. It had to strain his relationship with his own family, and the stress sometimes weighed on him heavily.

Yet he couldn’t even respond to the question in a moment of reflection and retrospect without getting choked up. Not because of how difficult and complicated it often made things for him, but because of how meaningful those connections were in his own development as a teacher, coach and man.

The pressure wasn’t a burden. It was a blessing.

“I couldn’t imagine just coming here to the stadium, doing my work preparing for a game or whatever, going home, and not having to worry about what was happening in the lives of my players away from the game itself,” Miller admitted. “I guess that’s just the way I am. I wanted to be more than just their coach. They needed to know I was there for them when times got tough, because times do get tough.”

All-state wide receiver Tysen Kershaw – like Cook, a name that will forever have a place in program lore – said, “being able to have a close relationship with Coach Miller has meant a lot to me. He is so much more to me than just my football coach. He was a mentor and really helped me get to where I am today.

“From the time I was 7 (years old) playing baseball for him (on a local team) until now, I’ve never questioned how much he cares about me.”

Dr. Zach Mason, another multi-time all-stater who helped lay the foundation during Miller’s formative head coaching years, made the point that Miller “treated everyone with the same respect and dignity.”

“That’s something I learned from him which I still carry to this day,” said Mason, now a local chiropractor. “I was there for his first two years as he transitioned from assistant to head coach. From the beginning, you could tell he had a lot of passion, not only for football, but for the players – whether you were a starter or a backup.

“He looked at me as a team leader from the start and leaned on the run game quite a bit while I was there; it taught me a lot about myself in regards to toughness and grit – something that Dodger football has always been about. The same toughness and grit is what has catapulted me to be successful in my profession today. I have a lot of great memories with Coach Miller that I’ll cherish forever.”

Most of us know the stories of the athletes who have graced our sports pages every fall for the last 16 seasons under Miller’s tutelage. When they say Miller cared about every kid, though – regardless of skill set or background – they mean it.

Last September, a student who couldn’t swim accidentally ended up under water during one of Miller’s physical education classes and nearly drowned in the Dodger pool. Miller jumped in, pulled her out, performed CPR, and saved her life.

I heard about his act of heroism almost immediately, and asked him about it later that day – thinking people would want to know the story of a football coach’s brave actions under pressure in a near-death situation.

Miller wasn’t about to don a cape for his efforts, though. In fact, he didn’t even want to be recognized for it.

“I just did what anyone would,” Miller said solemnly the next day, still visibly shaken by the incident and obviously not looking to gain any glory or attention from it. He had a completely different perspective on what had happened; rather than seeing himself as courageous, he was disappointed in himself to a certain extent. Miller feels a deep sense of personal responsibility for all of his students, so making sure they are never in harm’s way is at the top of his priority list.

I saw his altruistic heart on display too many times to count through the years. After landmark wins. After gut-wrenching losses. In times of struggle and adversity for the program, like when Dodger player Justin Schild found out he had leukemia right before the season started three years ago.

My son was diagnosed with an advanced case of Crohn’s Disease in the spring of 2016. Miller was one of the first people who reached out to us, and even sent Evan a gift from the Dodger coaching staff as a pick-me-up shortly thereafter, along with shirts, hats, an autographed ball – you name it.

Evan often tags along with me to road games. After one particularly-painful defeat at Indianola in 2017 – a narrow setback where nothing went right for Fort Dodge, from execution all the way through the officiating – Evan and I followed Miller and the team back to the locker room for what I figured would be a strenuous postgame interview.

Miller was still understandably angry and frustrated by what had just happened on the field. Before we got into the discussion about the loss, though, he stopped, turned to Evan, put a smile on his face and said, “how are you doing, buddy? Have you been feeling OK?”

I will always remember that moment. And so will my son. The way countless memories away from the field will define the relationships Miller had with his students and players.

Poet Maya Angelou once said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Matt Miller’s legacy is living proof of that, in ways records and titles could never explain.

Miller reminded his players over and over again, in simple terms, to “keep the main thing, the main thing.”

How he treated others was his main thing. And when all is said and done, nothing matters more in this world.

Thank you, Coach, for passing it on to so many of us.

Eric Pratt is Sports Editor at The Messenger. He may be reached via email at sports@messengernews.net, or on Twitter @MessengerSports