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Nelson native reflects on past, future of family’s sports success

It's Miller time

Caption
Jim Miller Jr., seen here during his senior season of 1978, was on the first Newman Comets football team to qualify for the IHSA playoffs in 1977. (Submitted photo)

Despite his father's reputation as a ferocious football player, Jim Miller Jr. never felt pushed into taking up football as a second generation Newman Comet.

Instead, the word "encouraged" was what he used to describe his family's stance toward the youngest of three Miller children – the only son of James Sr. and Merle – and his sports career.

"We had a lot of work to do at the farm, and he never pushed me to follow in his footsteps in football," Jim Jr. said. "But he definitely encouraged me.

"All the boys would come over to the farm after dark, and I'd turn on all 20 floodlights or whatever we had to play football. Dad would come home from the Nelson railyard, and he'd watch for a bit then say, 'Hey, turn off that light' – referring to the one out of the 20 that was shining into the house while he ate supper. He never had us turn off the rest."

That's just one of many stories Jim Jr. tells whenever he gets the chance to talk about his late parents. No matter which anecdote "Jimmy" is telling, it's obvious that he's proud to have carried on the legacy his father started as a Newman football player in the early 1930s.

Jim Jr. was a junior on the Comets' first playoff team in 1977, and went on to play safety for 2 years at Rock Valley College and 2 more years at the University of Dubuque.

Now, it's the next generation that's carrying on the family's sports tradition. Jim Jr.'s daughter, Emma, is a sprinter and hurdler at Rock Falls, and his son Jacob is an aspiring basketball player who will be a freshman next year for the Rockets.

But it's Jim Jr.'s nephew, Ryan Hewitt, who is carrying on the football legacy. Hewitt grew up in Denver, and is now the starting fullback for the Stanford Cardinal team which won the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1.

"Back in the day, all we did was play sports," Jim Jr. said. "We didn't have all the TV channels or video games. We played baseball, basketball and football, and it was older kids and younger kids, bigger kids and smaller kids, it didn't matter. You were always outside running around, doing something.

"The fact that it's turned into something so special to my family, that's something I'd never want to replace."

•••

When he was in high school, Jim Miller Sr. made the most of his every chance on the gridiron. He played on some strong teams in the 1930s, before turning his discipline and tenacity to a bigger cause: World War II.

It was during the war that he met Merle, his future wife, in San Francisco. After the two married, Jim Sr. brought the Plainview, Texas native back to the family farm in Nelson.

The couple raised daughters Mary and Maggie and son Jim Jr. on the farm. Unlike his older sisters, however, Jim Jr. worked around his busy farm schedule to play sports in high school.

"They never found time for the girls, but I was the baby," Jim Jr. said, a sly smile spreading across his lips. "I got everything – my sisters will tell you that, too – and we fit in football and track for me. I'd play football in the fall, raise hogs in the winter, then run track in the spring.

"I always tell my sisters, 'Yeah, I got to play sports, but you got to leave after high school.' Somebody had to stay and take over the family farm, and that was me."

Mary married Omaha native Keith Hewitt, and the two settled in the Denver area with son Ryan and daughter Elizabeth. Maggie married Butch Beltrane, and raised son John and daughters Elizabeth and Jennifer in Las Vegas. Jim Jr. and his girlfriend, Hope, still reside on the Nelson farm.

•••

If Jim Jr.'s got a million stories about his family's sports history, it's only because he grew up on them. Some of the earliest memories he has revolving around athletics were stories from his father's friends and teammates about Jim Sr.

"Every time football would come up as a topic, the older guys used to look at me and say the same thing: 'Your dad was a hitter!'" Jim Jr. said, laughing. "As I got older, there were some other words used in there that I can't repeat, but I got the message.

"Dad was definitely tough. I heard about times when he was a kid, he'd get up all fired up for Newman's Saturday football games, and his dad would tell him he had to pick a whole load of corn by hand before he played. Dad would go along really fast, and my grandfather would say that he wasn't going to work as fast … but the closer they got to game time, the faster he got; he'd be going as fast as Dad by the end."

Needless to say, by the time he got to Newman himself, Jim Jr. had a strong inkling of the type of player he wanted to be. Even though he wanted to attend Rock Falls – Jim Sr. put his foot down, saying, "I'm a Newman guy, and you will be, too," – Jim Jr. was a key cog for the Comets, who won their first playoff game in 1977 before losing a heartbreaker to Princeville in the second round on a late field goal that bounced in off the upright.

But that was the beginning of something special for Newman football. After an 8-3 campaign in 1977, the Comets went 7-2 in Jim Jr.'s senior year on 1978 – but it wasn't enough to make the playoffs.

"It was a big deal back then, because you basically had to win conference to even make the playoffs," Miller said. "We had a real good mix of athletes at the time, the weightlifters and the sprinters, and we were all willing to work hard to win.

"That's kind of what started it all, that 1977 team. I ended up playing in Dubuque with some kids from Stockton, who won the state title in '77. They told me the one team they didn't want to see that year was Newman, because we matched up well with them and had faster and bigger guys than they did."

Those teams in the late '70s played a pivotal role in building the Newman program. Coach Ben Todaro left Newman in 1979, and in stepped a young assistant coach named Mike Papoccia.

"I remember Mike as a first-year freshman coach when I was a junior," Miller recalled. "Some of the coaches and players were jacking around on the way out to the practice field, and Todaro was walking just ahead of them. He spun around and stabbed his finger in Mike's face and said, 'You're here to coach, not jack around; you're not these guys friend, you're here to push them.' 

"That kind of shows the attitude and work ethic that's still there in the Newman program today."

•••

After a successful stint with the Comets, Jim Jr. continued his career at the next level. The self-described late bloomer – "I grew 3 inches and 25 pounds my first year out of high school," Miller said – he started as a defensive player at Rock Valley before eventually landing as a safety at Dubuque.

"I had a full-ride to go to Eastern Michigan," Miller said, "but they were in the midst of a 29-game losing streak, and I figured out why real fast. I was there for one semester, in the spring, and since I couldn't transfer and play at another Division I school right away, I went to Dubuque."

Miller found success with the Spartans, winning team MVP as a senior in 1985; he still holds the school record for tackles in a single-season. But it was another award that Miller cherished above all others.

"I was voted 'Hardest Hitter' as a junior and senior," Miller said. "With my father being the type of player he was, that award mattered the most to me."

Jim Jr. graduated from Dubuque in 1985 with a degree in K-12 education, but returned to the family farm instead of becoming a teacher. He did play on some traveling softball teams out of Rock Falls, but never found the same passion as his football days.

•••

These days, when he's not running the farm, Miller spends most of his time watching his children and his sisters' children compete at their sport of choice. Emma picked up her father's love for track, while Jacob would rather shoot baskets than don pads and tackle people, a la his dad and grandpa.

On New Year's Day, Miller got to see his nephew play the sport he loves so much on TV. Watching the success of the succeeding generation of Millers, Jim Jr. sometimes can't help but reflect on old stories and notice how similar some of the new stories are.

"It's rewarding, and it's pretty cool to think about," Miller said. "As fun as it was to hear about my dad, then go out and make my own stories, the stories that will be told in the future by my kids and my nephews and nieces, are even more amazing to think about. It just keeps going, and that means so much."

Jim Miller Jr. file

Hometown: Nelson

High school: Newman, class of 1979

Sports: Football, track

College: 2 years of football at Rock Valley College, 2 years of football at University of Dubuque

Occupation: Farmer

FYI: Played on Newman's first football playoff team in 1977. … Was team MVP as senior at Dubuque, named 'Hardest Hitter' as a junior and senior, and still holds school's single-season tackles record. … Graduated from Dubuque in 1985 with degree in K-12 education. … Father, Jim Miller Sr., played football at Newman in early 1930s.

Miller family tree

James Sr. (Nelson) & Merle (Plainview, Texas) Miller

– James Sr. played football at Newman, graduated in 1935

Daughters Mary and Maggie, son James Jr.

– Jim Jr. (Jimmy) played football, ran track at Newman, graduated in 1979

– Jim Jr. was on first Newman playoff team as junior in 1977 under Ben Todaro

Keith (Omaha) & Mary Hewitt – son Ryan (at Stanford), daughter Elizabeth (Omaha)

– live near Denver

– Ryan was starting fullback for Stanford in Rose Bowl on Jan. 1

Butch & Maggie Beltrane – son John (San Diego), daughters Elizabeth (Virginia) and Jennifer (San Diego)

– live in Las Vegas

Jim Miller Jr. – daughter Emma (16, runs track at RF), son Jacob (13, 8th grader at Nelson School, plays bball)

– lives on family farm in Nelson with girlfriend, Hope

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