Ron McBride never stops coaching.
Mac went off the script Tuesday during a memorial service for former University of Utah defensive lineman Bronzell Miller. When it was his turn to address the gathering at Southside Church of Christ, McBride invited seven of his Utah players from the early 1990s — Cecil Thomas, Adam Swaney, Blaine Berger, Adam De’Malignon, Greg Reynolds, Luther Elliss and David Kozlowski — to join him. Each spoke briefly, creating a memorable scene and illustrating one of football’s greatest effects.
"That bonding is powerful — through life, through eternity," Kozlowski said.
College football has its flaws, certainly. The injuries, the excesses, the abuses of power and the money-driven business the game has become can tend to overshadow its values. Yet anyone in that church, hearing from a coach and players who came together in the past month while Miller was dying of cancer at age 42, could only marvel about the positive aspects of football.
"When you play together," McBride explained while summoning Miller’s teammates, "you have an attachment for life."
The same is true of coaching. Mac never would want this story to be about him, but his response in Miller’s last days reflected the essence of his profession, with a commitment that never really ends. I’ve witnessed other examples of coaches’ level of care in recent years that will stick with me. Kyle Whittingham, Utah’s current coach, developed a relationship with Jay Rudd, a man with Down syndrome who became his unofficial coaching aide. Rudd, who died two years ago, regularly addressed the team after practice. His involvement with the Utes showed how much a developmentally disabled person could contribute, all because Whittingham treated him as capable and dependable.
It was just a coincidence that Gary Andersen was standing on the balcony in the Romney Stadium end zone in October when Utah State quarterback Chuckie Keeton injured his knee. Andersen had come to Logan to watch his son Keegan play for the Aggies, with his Wisconsin team idle that weekend. Yet Andersen’s presence was meaningful to Keeton and the quarterback’s family in a trying time.
"I’m not just flapping my lips when I say I’m going to be there for kids the rest of my life," Andersen said later. "They’ve got to at least know I’m there for them."
McBride was there for Miller, visiting him nearly every day in recent weeks. Nobody could ever rally his guys quite like Mac, and Miller’s teammates responded. Blaine Berger, another defensive lineman, said Miller’s condition created a positive effect as "an opportunity for a lot of us to see each other again."
The big guys filling that church pew needed one another. Greg Reynolds was joking when he said, "We’re immortal — we’re D-linemen." Yet that’s kind of how everyone in his early 40s, not just ex-football players, views himself.
Miller will be remembered in Ute history as a mainstay of the 1994 team that finished 10-2 with a Top 10 ranking, producing a breakthrough season for the program. Regardless of Miller’s individual success or the team’s achievements, though, what impressed everyone Tuesday is how those teammates and their coach had stuck together after nearly two decades.
McBride had the mourners laughing as he told stories about Miller, but then his voice caught as he tapped the casket and said goodbye to one of his hundreds of players. The floral display on top and a flag on the side carried the "U" logo, which made me think of a letter in McBride’s "MAFU" theme for his football teams.
The "U" is for "Unity," a trait that Bronzell Miller’s teammates carried through to the end.
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