By Steve Graf
Today, I’m going to veer from my usual perspective as an angler and go down a different path that has brought me to where I am today. People come and go in our lives, but some people have a bigger impact than others. Now this is not always by chance, but I think it’s all a part of God’s plan for each of us. Some folks we meet and truly get to know over a long period of time, forming a friendship that leaves a lasting impression on our lives. While there are others who come into our life for a brief moment and change our direction forever. Today I’ll reflect and tell you my story of someone who falls into this latter category.
As an athlete growing up, I was blessed with some great coaches from my Little League days through high school, college and professional…coaches who knew how to push me to be the best I could be, not just as an athlete, but as a person. They taught me that those who work harder than everyone else will be the most successful. They emphasized how to be a leader on and off the field. My first coach, James Stansell, showed me, at the age of 8 years old, what it meant to believe in someone. He was a tough old cuss who had a reputation for being too rough with kids; a coach who had you run laps at the next practice if you made a mistake like missing a ground ball, striking out or making a bad throw. But one thing he gave me was confidence. He would tell me every day how much he believed in me as a player, and how I was ‘his” guy and that there was no one better. He taught me to believe in myself more than anyone else would ever believe in me. These lessons continued to be taught by my high school and college coaches…lessons like being responsible, taking pride in who you are, and understanding that you control your own destiny. They stressed that as a player you represent your parents, coaches, community, and school, but more importantly, you represent yourself. You’re truly a reflection on those you’re associated with.
Now, let me introduce you to the man that changed my life forever. As a high school quarterback from Mt. Pleasant, Texas, I played at a school with a reputation for winning. However, in my senior season of 1978, things did not go as planned for us as a team. With a new coaching staff, to say we struggled is an understatement. But it’s funny how things worked out. We were playing the Atlanta Rabbits in East Texas one Friday night and a coach by the name of Al Miller of Northwestern State was there scouting a linebacker from Atlanta. A coach on our staff, Coach Mike Fields, made conversation with Coach Miller at half time and encouraged him to take a closer look at me as a potential college player. I never knew this until months later when Coach Miller came to my house on a cold winter night to visit with my parents and me.
Now after being recruited by several Division 1 schools, I had heard all the BS a player could possibly hear. I thought Coach Miller would be the same, but was I ever wrong. I asked him if he could guarantee that I would be a starter and not be redshirted …. like other schools had promised. Yes, that was an arrogant question, but I wanted to see what he would say. Would Coach Miller be like all the rest? Well, he did not give me the answer I was expecting. He said “Steve, I’m not here to guarantee you anything other than the opportunity. It’s up to you when you get there as to whether those things happen for you or not.” WOW!!! Finally, someone who shot me straight and told the truth! This hit me like a sledgehammer right between the eyes. I knew right then and there that I was headed to Northwestern State to further my education and athletic career and I did not even know where Northwestern State was located! Coach Miller’s attitude and honesty had won me over; he was different.
I never got to play under Coach Al Miller since he committed to be the strength & conditioning coach for the NFL’s Denver Broncos under Head Coach Dan Reeves in 1979. His status as the best strength and conditioning coach in the country has made him a legendary Hall of Fame coach that continues to this day. The biggest honor for me was knowing that I was his last recruit to Northwestern State. Coach Miller changed the direction of my life, even though he never coached or spent any substantial amount of time with me…just that hour and a half at my house in the winter of 1978. That was all it took for him to have a lasting impression on my life and become a man who I will forever be grateful to. He was the catalyst that allowed me to have a great career at NSU, graduate, get drafted, and meet and marry the love of my life, Sherrie. We had three kids and raised them on the banks of Sibley Lake in Natchitoches, watching them grow up and become fine people. To this day, I am aware that my existing life was set into motion because of a coach who saw a young boy from Mt. Pleasant, Texas, that he thought deserved an opportunity. Thank you, Coach Al Miller, for changing my life!!!