Former Steelers punter Josh Miller may be enjoying more popularity now than he had on the field. He's co-host of an afternoon-drive show on sports talk radio station 93.7 The Fan, and his latest project — a book chronicling a road trip to Steelers bars around the country — will likely have a built-in audience of its own. Over the next 140 days, Miller and his friend and business partner, Shawn Allen, will visit and document 100 Steelers bars around the country. (Fans can vote on which sites they'd like to see included at www.alwaysahomegame.com.) And while the book aims to explore the depth and breadth of Steelers fandom, its purpose is even larger. (Editor's note: This is an extended version of an interview that ran in our Aug. 21 print edition)
Where did the idea for this book come from?
This is an idea I've always had because I've always been impressed ... that when the Steelers break camp they're the only team in the world that thinks they're going to win it all every year. Whether it's true or not, that's the mentality.The cause and effect of that is the fan base that they have. It's the biggest fan base in the country. It's the best fan base in the country because they're all over the place. So that's why the name of the book is "Always a Home Game" because that's exactly what it felt like when you'd go into someone else's arena and they come out of their tunnel and they're getting booed. It's the most incredible thing I've ever seen and I filed that away as a player.
The decision to do this book, though, wasn't just to chronicle Steelers fandom, right?
I would become saddened when I'd hear about a lot of the older guys – and not just Steelers, but all NFL players – who needed help today because they weren't making the same money back then that players make today. There wasn't really anything set up to help these guys down the road like there is today. So with this fan base I began to think that if I visited 100 Steelers bars in 140 days, ifcould get the word out on social media and get the Steelers behind us that I bet that I can raise some money for some of these guys, Steelers,who need help today. I went to the Rooneys and I pitched it, it was a soft pitch because they loved it. I sat down with Mr. Rooney and he said "we don't turn our backs on our players. There is certainly something that we can do."
How will the fund-raising component work? Will it be profits from the book or collections at the various sites?
There will be some proceeds donated from the book and there will pieces to auction off everywhere we go. We're even going to take some pieces donated by the bars we visit and auction that off to all of Steelers Nation. The bar that raises the most money will get to hand over the check to Mr. Rooney – hopefully about $200,000 – to get this thing going. I was a little uncomfortable doing this myself because I thought, "Why would a kicker do this?" Then it hit me, who had a better seat in the house than I did? Steelers Nation watched these gladiators fight from a distance. I saw what these guys looked like before they put the armor on and when they took it off. I saw the broken bones and the playing in pain and I saw them give everything they had to this game. So I realized that maybe I was the one to do this.
There seem to be Steelers bars all over the country, what sort of extra recognition will these establishments get by being chosen for this project?
Believe it or not, the Rooneys – Dan and Art – will be signing certificates to validate that bar, almost blessing the bar, if you will, as an establishment that warrants recognition. And then 10 minutes before kickoff of home games we'll be live on the big board at Heinz Field in a Steelers bar in the opponent's backyard. The response from former players has been great as well. Guys who usually carry a $1,000 an hour for a visit are doing it for nothing. They're going to come out to the site to visit and say hello to raise awareness for the guys who need help today. The message is resonating well.
What can fans expect when they come out to an event on the tour?
On the website people have nominated their favorite choice of bars that we should visit, and usually two or three really start to break away from the pack. If it's a Sunday home game, we'll lock it up on a Thursday and start making preparations. I start calling ex-players who are from that city and ask them to make an appearance. Then we'll do some man vs. food events, have contests for things like the craziest Steelers tattoos or pets that look like former Steelers We just try and have a pretty good time with it and so far the feedback has been great.
What sort of narrative do you expect the book to take?
We don't want it to be something like "Oh, you're in Atlanta, here are three good bars to check out." We want it to be a story of the journey. I'm going with a gentleman names Shawn Allen, who needs to know more about the Steelers for my liking. By the end it, I want him to be a face-painter. He's the type of guy who knows the Steelers but I think he's in for a rude awakening when he sees what it's all about. A lot of this will be from his point of view, my point of view and the points of view of these ex-players that join us along the way. Basically I'm looking for this story to justify what I already know and it's that this Steelers fan base is pretty fantastic.
You were a punter, but you were still out there at risk as well. Were you able to escape the game in pretty good health?
For the most part. There's wear and tear that goes on. But I'm able to get out and play golf and do Ok. Compared to some of these other guys, I have nothing to complain about.
There has been a move by the league in recent years to try and improve player safety. Do you think they've done that to any significant degree?
They've done everything that they possibly can. You still, at the end of the day, know what you're signing up for. It's like asking a bull rider, "Are you sure safe enough?" Listen, you're the one that decided to get up on the back of a fricking bull. You have to assume that unless you're invisible you're going to get hurt. And every player gets that. The NFL has done a great job of trying to keep guys safer and some people will still say that it's not enough. But to me, doing nothing is not enough. They're doing what they can while protecting the purity of the game in an era where guys are bigger, faster, stronger than they used to be.
Do you think the changes that have been made have changed the flavor of the game that people are used to?
I do. But one change that I think needs to be made is to increase the size of the field. Look at the size and the speed that this game is being played at all levels and it's obvious that the field we use today wasn't built for that.The same measurements have been in place for the past 50 years. I remember [former Steelers offensive tackle] Tunch Ilkin saying that he was enormous on his team [1980-1192] at a weight of 270. You now have guys 315 pounds out there covering kickoffs. Guys are going to get hurt but the difference is they are going to be able to take care of whatever happens to them because they have guaranteed contracts that weren't around for guys back in the day.
I've heard you talk on your radio show about active gay athletes in sports league coming out of the closet, like NBA player Jason Collins did earlier this year. Do you think we will soon be seeing openly gay players in the NFL and is that something that you think will be accepted by players?
I don't put this at the same level of importance, but just as an example, there was a time when I was growing up that people would whisper that someone was divorced. "Oh she's divorced." But now, people are numb to it. Now if someone's together for 48 years you whisper that they're still together like there's something wrong with them. It's amazing what people get used to. The more that it's out there, the more people are talking about it, the more people are responding positively, the more accepting people will become. I think it's also big that kids today are growing up more mature than they used to and that as a topic is becoming more and more welcomed. I think it's eventually not going to be a big deal and I think it will happen in the NFL in the next five years or so.
Other than the Steelers, the other high-profile team you played for were the New England Patriots. Talk about the difference between being a Steelers fan and a Patriots fan.
Boston fans are crazy in their own right. But they have a bunch of sports to choose from and you can only divide your craziness between so many avenues. But when it comes to the Steelers fan, it starts and stops with the Steelers. They don't have the luxury of having the Celtics or even the Red Sox. They've really put all their eggs in this particular basket. Now, it's been a pretty great basket and being a Steelers fan is just a whole other level. Any Patriots fan would love to see you on the street, politely ask for your autograph, maybe get your picture with their kid. But a Steelers fan would pull over and change your tires in the rain if you ever needed them to and that's the difference between the two fan bases. Both are great, but one's a bit crazy. Listen, you want more evidence? Ask yourself how a punter has a radio show. That doesn't happen anywhere else.
In your career you had the chance to play for two of the modern game's most recognizable coaches – Bill Cowher and Bill Belichick – what were the experiences like playing for those two guys?
It was amazing.I have a tremendous respect for both. One was clearly a lot more fun than the other. Coach Cowher was fun because he'd yell at you, but he'd also hug you. Belichick was the smartest coach I've ever played for. I've never been around a coach where you know that you'll win two games this year just because of something, a tendency that he saw or picked up in the game. I had always been a firm believer that players win and lose games, but Belichick will win you two games because he's a tremendous student of the game. He can rip off a roster from the Browns team in 1971 and tell you not only who was playing right guard but also who his back up was. He was so far off the charts it's ridiculous. But I had the most fun playing with the Steelers. One felt like you were in college and one felt like you were working for a Fortune 500 company. I remember one playoff game with the Patriots that we won and everyone was in the locker room high-fiving each other. Belichick comes in and says, "All right, let's relax. I'm pretty sure when the season started that we all thought we'd win one bleeping playoff game. Brady had three passes that he should have completed for first down." He just went down the list cursing everybody and then just said "I'll see you tomorrow." Even better, we won the Super Bowl and came back the next year and he made the first three draft picks stand up and said, "Hey so-and-so, how many touchdowns did you have for us last year?" The guy said, "None, coach." And he said "that's right none. How about you, how many tackles did you have for us last year?" The guy said, "None, coach." And Belichick said, "That's right and we won the Super Bowl last year so we clearly don't need you." So that's what you're dealing with over there. Yes you're going to win, yes, you're expected to win, but make sure you're looking over your shoulder because they are always, always, always looking to replace you that's for sure.