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. … 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.Next Page >
Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.