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Reflections from the Dome

Creighton on a snowy practice field at Notre Dame.

Creighton on a snowy practice field at Notre Dame.

 

 

Reflections from the Dome this month is a short bio on Creighton Miller from The Notre Dame Football Encyclopedia and an interesting excerpt on his medical condition from Leahy’s Lads. Also an article on Creighton by Joe Doyle from the South Bend Tribune courtesy of the University of Notre Dame Archives.

 

The Notre Dame Football Encyclopedia:

MILLER, CREIGHTON

Halfback (1941-43), 6'0", 187 lbs.

Miller was the last in a long line of Millers to attend Notre Dame. This included his father Harry, a starting running back from 1907 to 1909; his uncle Walter, a blocking back for George Gipp; his uncle Don, who was one of the legendary Four Horsemen; his uncle Ray, who played left end behind Knute Rockne; his uncle Gerry, who was a reserve on the topnotch teams of the early 1920s; and his older brother Tom. Creighton himself was a great high school athlete from Wilmington, Delaware, but attempts by other schools to recruit him proved to be futile. "My father didn't ask me what college I wanted to attend," he was quoted as saying, "he told me what time the train left for South Bend."

Even though he had a shaky start with head coach Frank Leahy, Miller followed in the family tradition. It helped that he possessed the versatility of another all-time Irish standout, George Gipp, and enough speed to earn a letter sprinting for the track team. Things didn't always go well for Miller at Notre Dame. A routine physical indicated that he had high blood pressure, and he was instructed by doctors to avoid strenuous exercise indefinitely. Miller told Leahy of his diagnosis and that he would not be able to participate in spring workouts. Leahy was a no nonsense coach who did not tolerate anything but 110 percent effort, and the slightest suggestion of laziness infuriated him; he didn't even trust a doctor's diagnosis as an excuse. Leahy voiced the opinion that Miller might not be of the stock to survive at Notre Dame.

Editor’s note: The following is from Leahy’s Lads by Jack Connor and describes the situation concerning Creighton’s medical condition:

Miller tells how his problems with Leahy began: "I went home at Christmas and didn't feel too well. Doctors found my blood pressure was elevated, so my doctor told me 'no exercise.' In the spring of my freshman year Leahy said, 'You have to come out for practice.' I said, 'I can't. I can't get medical approval.' So that started a very tense relationship with Leahy. He thought I was conning him and didn't want to come out for spring practice, when the fact was I was dying to and make the team and I knew I would have a very bad time if I didn't.  So that's how I got off on the wrong foot with Leahy.

"I kept going to this doctor. They didn't know too much about blood pressure in those days. He told me not to exercise and I followed his orders, but one weekend I played six sets of tennis and went water skiing. I had an appointment on Monday to see him. He said, 'Your blood pressure is so much lower I can't believe it -I don't know about this. I’m sending you to the University of Pennsylvania to the best cardiologist I know."

"I went there around August lst, just before summer practice. Other than that weekend when I had exercised, I had not even walked fast for eight months. During the exam my blood pressure was up and the cardiologist said, 'I'm all through with you.' I was sitting in the waiting room and he walks out very casually and throws that measuring thing on me so fast and checked my blood pressure. It was normal. This guy was a good psychologist. He said, 'I think you can play ball.' Three years later he was listening to one of the games and wrote a letter to me saying, 'I'm glad to hear you are playing.' I wrote back and said, 'If it weren't for you, I would probably still be walking slow and taking my pulse in church.' "

As the rest of the team reported for summer practice, Leahy checked their hands to see if there were callouses. If they lacked them, that was proof they had not been doing manual work. Miller remembers, "My hands looked like a girl's hands because I hadn't even walked fast for eight months. So Leahy decides that this is a guy that really needs a lot of extra work. He went after me physically and I wasn't able to do it"

Creighton Miller runs 65 yards to score against Great Lakes in 1942.

Creighton Miller runs 65 yards to score against Great Lakes in 1942.

 

In 1941, Miller still made the team as a backup halfback, and carried the ball 23 times for 183 yards and a touchdown. He also caught a 40-yard pass and punted 4 times for an average of 49 yards. He made it onto the starting lineup in 1942 and had a few highlights: one was a 68-yard touchdown run in a 13-13 tie against a highly favored Great Lakes All-Service team.

A war was on, and Miller decided to enlist in the army in the spring of 1943. His army physical confirmed that he really did have hypertension, and he spent six weeks in a military hospital before receiving his discharge. He returned to Notre Dame, and with this latest news, Leahy was finally convinced that Miller was not concocting his ailment, so the two reached an agreement. Miller was to practice and practice hard, but if he felt tired or got dizzy he could rest. This was a major concession for Leahy. Miller and Notre Dame went on to have a great season in 1943. Notre Dame was 9-1, and Leahy won his first national championship, thanks in large part to Miller.

Miller became only the second Notre Dame runner to compile more than 900 yards. He led the team with 911 yards on 151 carries and scored 13 touchdowns. He also led the team with 6 interceptions, 7 punt returns for 151 yards, and 4 kickoff returns for 53 yards. He was a consensus All-American and fourth in voting for the Heisman Trophy, finishing three slots behind his teammate, quarterback Angelo Bertelli.

The Brooklyn Tigers used a second-round draft pick to select Miller in 1944, but he opted instead to go to Yale Law School. In recognition of his outstanding accomplishments, Miller was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1976.

“Frank Leahy’s “Best Ever Halfback” by Joe Doyle from the South Bend Tribune.

No one really doubted Creighton Miller's football lineage because he was a direct descendant of the Defiance, Ohio, Millers, but Coach Elmer Layden's first introduction to Creighton didn't exactly please the Notre Dame coach and Four Horseman.

Creighton was in junior high at the time when his father, Harry, thrust him at Layden and said in one of his characteristic Miller phrases, "Here's a young man who is going to make you a great coach." Under his breath, Layden muttered, "I'll bet." And indirectly he was right.

In Layden's day, the head coach wasn't allowed to recruit actively off-campus, and in a sense, Creighton did not have to be recruited. But he was one of the great stars of high school football by his senior year in 1939 and if it hadn't been for the extraordinary link of the Millers to Notre Dame, Creighton might have gone elsewhere.

His brother, Tom, preceded him to Notre Dame under Layden, but as it turned out, Elmer never had the varsity services of the AII-American who is one of the 1976 inductees into the Hall of Fame. Elmer left the Irish after Creighton's freshman season and became commissioner of the National Football League. Years later, Creighton was to become counsel for the players' association in the NFL.

Creighton today is a successful attorney in his native Cleveland, knowledgeable about his profession, politics, golf and certainly aware of football. In fact, a few years ago, he was in a Washington reception line at an affair for his friend Ohio Congressman Bill Stanton.

A fellow ahead of him in the line got to talking with someone else about being an assistant coach at Yale where he had attended law school. Creighton thought it was time that he got into the conversation. "And I'll bet I know your salary as assistant coach," said Creighton. "It was $3,500."

The other ex-coach was amazed until Creighton told him that he, too, had attended Yale law school under the same program and terms. The earlier Yale coach was then-Congressman Gerald Ford, later the President.

Creighton remembers his football days at Notre Dame, and also his coaching days at Yale, where he was an almost daily squash competitor against Byron (Whizzer) White, an ex-football star who is now Justice White of the Supreme Court.

Looking back 35 years to his first varsity action in 1941, Miller-like the others on that team-was impressed by one thing, that it was one of the smallest squads in Notre Dame history and yet finished undefeated. Only a 0-0 tie against traditional rival Army marred the season, when Creighton was the No.2 fullback behind Dippy Evans.

Frank Leahy had taken over the Irish of 1941 and played the almost- traditional "box" formation in which the left halfback (or tailback) was the chief threat. But Creighton gained 206 yards in 59 carries, and had a fantastic 49.2-yard punting average for his four kicks.

Because there wasn't so much emphasis on "rides" (athletic scholarships) in those days, Creighton and Tom had enrolled at Notre Dame on their own (well, really on their father's income). M. Harry Miller was called "Red" and had moved from Ohio to Wilmington, Delaware, where Creighton and Tom had finished Alexis I. du Pont High.

Miller's greatest season in which he rushed for 911 yards in 151 carries almost didn't come off. Creighton was inducted into the Army in early 1943, but was discharged because of high blood pressure that same summer and was able to return to school in time for fall practice. But he was a late addition to the press brochure that year.

With a backfield of Angelo Bertelli (and later John Lujack) at quarterback, Jim Mello at fullback and Creighton and Julie Rykovich at halfbacks, the Irish were a potent offensive team. But Creighton still marvels at the linemen that opened the holes up front.

"You've got to remember that we had Jim White and Ziggie Czarobski at tackles, Herb Coleman at center, and guards like Pat Filley and Johnny Perko, plus big John Yonakor and Paul Limont at ends," Creighton says. "You couldn't make AII-Americans out of all of them, but they were all good."

With that kind of a lineup, the Irish crushed a weak Pitt team and ripped Georgia Tech before the "big" game of the year, a re-match with Michigan at Ann Arbor. And just like his father before him, Creighton reserved one of his great games for the Wolverines.

Creighton scores against Michigan

Creighton scores against Michigan

 

With 86,000 -then a record- looking on, Miller scored two touchdowns, ran for 159 yards in just 10 carries in the 35-12 romp over a Michigan team that had been bolstered by such 1942 stars from Wisconsin as Elroy Hirsch, Fred Negus and Bob Rennebohm, plus Bill Daley from Minnesota. A year earlier, Michigan had won a 32-20 game in South Bend in the only modern meetings of the two teams. (A four-year series begins in 1978).

The 1943 team averaged 34 points a game, but was upset in the finale against Great lakes, 19-14, but only after the Irish had been voted national champions. It detracted only a little from the season when there was also a big victory over Army, Lujack's first regular game at quarterback.

Leahy labeled Creighton his best-ever halfback, an accolade that fits this autograph that the coach once gave to Creighton, "To Creighton Miller- Those who say Gipp was the greatest, hadn't seen you play." Frank Leahy.

And Leahy once wrote to Miller, "I have often thought that if you had been born 10 or 12 years later, you, with that rarely seen, unsurpassed ability would now have an extra million in your account and my coaching record would have been considerably lower."

 

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