Friends rally to help former Utah football star Bronzell Miller, given two weeks to live
West Jordan • If Bronzell Miller dies today, it might be laughter that kills him.
"Marnie saved me," he rasps, twinkle-eyed, to the guests huddled at his bedside. After a glance at his ex-wife, the two launch into hysterics Miller holding his ribs and wincing, Marnie Oliver blushing, their visitors sharing a look of "What the ?"
Oliver settles herself and shares the joke.
When she supported the giant man's weight after picking him up from the airport last Thursday, she reminded him that it wasn't the first time she'd "saved him": Twenty years earlier Oliver helped Miller up the stairs and into the shower after a night of carousing his last-ever, he now says and "he leaned against the wall crying, 'Ooooh! Ooooh!' " she mocks. This time everyone laughs.
The 42-year-old former Utah defensive end who played a year in the NFL spends this Monday afternoon giggling with old friends as they tell stories, talk family and suss out the shortcomings of the modern-day Utes. But when they leave, he becomes pensive, and a tear glistens at the corner of his eye.
He begins to think about why they came to see him.
"You can't argue with 12-0," says a resigned Miller. "They diminished what we did."
This is bait. He knows better that the 1994 Utah football team put the program on the map, that without them there would be no 12-0 in 2004 or 13-0 in 2008. But he wants to hear you say it.
The younger brother of then-Utah defensive back Ed Miller first showed up in Ron McBride's office as a lanky 17-year-old who'd been told by previous Utah head coach Jim Fassel that he was "an arm's length too slow."
"He said, 'OK, I'm here. I'm ready,' " McBride says. "I said, 'Bronzell, where's your transcripts?' "
The Seattle native hadn't qualified for the U., and McBride urged him to get his associate degree at Eastern Arizona, where he would play wide receiver (catching five TD passes) and linebacker (sacking eight).
On one visit from Thatcher, Ariz., to Salt Lake City, he jumped the Rice Stadium fence and ran onto the old turf, staring up at the stars and telling himself, "This is my field. I'm going to own this field. I'm not going to get beat."
He packed on 50 pounds while improving his 40-yard-dash time during a redshirt year at the U., evolving into a factory-mold edge rusher who made teams pay for devoting two blockers to future Pro Bowl defensive tackle Luther Elliss. In a 34-31 win over BYU in 1993, Miller chased down a tailback after whiffing on his first attempt and recalled Fassel's denial: "I thought he said I'm an arm's length too slow?"
He and Elliss anchored a stingy run defense, quarterback (and current San Diego Chargers head coach) Mike McCoy captained the offense, and famously fiery defensive coordinator Fred Whittingham "yelled once" all year in 1994, Miller said. They finished 10-2 and ranked No. 8 in the Coaches Poll to become inarguably, at that time, the best in school history.
"Our biggest thing is we were all there to better one another," Miller says. "It was just one of those special seasons. â¦ We created something that none of us can forget."
Miller has received a handful of death sentences.
First, three to five years. In October, six months. But a week ago he was told he has just two weeks, and "this one feels real," he says.
Doctors diagnosed Miller's multiple myeloma in 2010, and he's since endured chemo, radiation, bone marrow and stem cell transplants. The stem cells brought a brief remission, but thanks, he believes, to his participation in a pie-eating contest, that proved temporary. In July, while living in Wisconsin, he broke his femur stepping out of his car and a tumor swelled his right thigh to the width of a snare drum.
He and Oliver divorced in 1999. The two have stayed close, however, and when their son, Bronzell Jr., came out to visit him for Thanksgiving, she asked that he assess the gravity of his dad's condition.
At first, the U. sophomore found Miller perky and mobile, but his health deteriorated throughout the week. A doctor warned them time was running out, and he required end-of-life hospice care. Finally, Oliver persuaded her ex-husband to return to Utah.
She wishes he had come sooner.
"[Before,] I was like, 'Dude, I can do this,' " Miller says. "It's been a struggle to say I need help."
Miller has visible tumors one on the center of his spine the size of a baseball, another sticking out of his back and multiple growths on his rib cage but ultimately the killer is a soft-tissue tumor inside his sinus cavity that pushes against the frontal lobe of his brain. His organs are expected to fail in a matter of days.
The man who once could run 40 yards in 4.5 seconds tried Monday morning to walk from his air bed to the kitchen, stumbling and breaking his crutches. "I'm so drained," he says. "I'm so tired."
Miller was drafted by the St. Louis Rams in the seventh round of the 1995 NFL draft, getting cut and signed by the Jacksonville Jaguars in his only NFL season. He later suited up for the Amsterdam Admirals of NFL Europe and the Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football League, with whom he won a Grey Cup Championship in 1998.
But Miller says football players are "easily replaced" and has strived not to be easily labeled.
"He would just like to talk about anything," McBride says. "He would come in my office sometimes and just sit down and start talking about things not pertaining to football his academic life or his dating life or whatever. He'd say, 'Coach, what do you think about this?' and he'd just go on and on and on."
On his way to Los Angeles to play for the Arena Football League's Avengers in 2001, he stopped by McBride's office for another chat, telling his old coach, " 'I'm on my way to Hollywood to be a movie star!' " McBride says. "I said, 'You're what?' "
Miller's IMDb page lists credits for nine roles, including "Bringing Down the House" and "Mr. 3000." And he's a triple threat: More even than acting and football, he adores country music.
"He's like a cowboy-boots-wearing cowboy," jokes 1994 teammate Edwin Garrette. Miller was downright gleeful Monday when he shared news that Canadian singer-songwriter Scotty Hills will include some songs Miller wrote on his new album.
"It wasn't ever just about what he could do on a football field," said former teammate Jamal Anderson, who became a Pro Bowl running back with the Atlanta Falcons. "It was almost borderline where it was like, 'Man, hopefully he focuses enough on football so he can be as good as he can possibly be.' He loved to play football, but you also knew that he could do something else."
With short notice, former teammates and fellow athletics department notables are scrambling to do what they can for a fallen Ute.
Miller teammate and onetime NFL tight end Henry Lusk helped pick up Miller from the airport.
On Monday, Ute basketball legends Jimmy Soto and Manny Hendrix (who also played for the Dallas Cowboys) came to show support. Later, former Utah defensive tackle Greg Reynolds stopped by, and college friends Rick Sealey and Jerome Marshall wedged themselves between Oliver's bed and Miller's for a long, boisterous exchange that left Miller struggling to stop laughing for minutes afterward. Miller's father, sister and brother got in Monday night, and Coach McBride visited for a second time Tuesday.
Anderson, who said he planned to call Monday night, was shaken by the news. "It's unfortunate and unsettling," he said. "We are relatively young guys. To see somebody who possessed those gifts in that situation, it's tough for all of us. It's a reality check."
A cornerback on the 1994 team, Garrette is now a San Diego police officer and must choose between flying in to see Miller this weekend or for his funeral.
"I've never ever been in this situation," he said. "I've got a 15-year-old daughter. I always think about that stuff, but this kind of drove it home. [What's important are] the moments that you have with the people that you care about."
Miller's buddies tell him not to worry about his kids (He has nine: Alesha (21), Bronzell Jr. (20), Breezell (19), Elijah (16), Breonne (13), Isaiah (11), Aaliyah (9), Arielle (7) and Isaac (5); he is also stepfather to Oliver's son Stetson, 24). They'll be taken care of, they say.
But mostly they just shoot the bull, and as his friends shake their heads, Miller stresses that he darn well means it: Pac-12 success requires a quarterback from the Pacific Northwest. He had to stop watching this year's 5-7 Utes "because my anxiety would go up. It was breaking my heart."
The five children from Miller's last marriage plan to attend his funeral, but they won't be able to say goodbye to their father in person.
Miller and their mother had an ugly split in 2010, after which Waukesha County records show he was found guilty of class B misdemeanor disorderly conduct.
But Oliver and Miller have an easy rapport, and she dropped everything to care for her ex-husband with no apparent complaint. Because Miller has no life insurance, she's raising money for end-of-life care and funeral expenses through YouCaring.com.
Doctors no longer make any effort to prolong Miller's life. Oliver simply keeps his pillows fluffed and applies Fentanyl patches as he playfully squirms and yells "Cold!" On Tuesday, Oliver told The Salt Lake Tribune by phone that Miller had been "conked out" since his visits on Monday and is unable to eat.
Asked Monday about what's going through his mind, Miller said, "You mean death?"
He explained, the handsome man gesturing with huge arms that still look capable of a mean swim move, that his foremost concern is submitting his Ph.D. application to the University of Utah's Psychology Department, because life isn't all about football.
In other words: He's trying not to think about death.
But feeling the love from the people whose lives he's touched, revisiting all the great times he's had with them their company is welcome, but it makes his reality tough to ignore.
"You're focused on getting stuff done, and all of a sudden, old friends show up."