Defensive tackle Keith Millard was slumped over on a trainer's table in the Minnesota Vikings' locker room on the afternoon of Sept. 30, 1990. He had two ice bags on his right knee. Minutes earlier, in the third quarter of a game against Tampa Bay in the Metrodome, he had injured the knee while trying to sack Buc quarterback Vinny Testaverde. Leaping to avoid a cut block by center Randy Grimes, Millard had landed hard on his right leg, buckling his knee inward and tearing the anterior cruciate ligament. Now, agonizing over his misfortune, Millard buried his head in his hands and cried so hard that his 6'5", 265-pound body shook.
"My knee's shot. My knee's shot," he moaned. "There goes my whole career. It's over. I'm through."
"You'll be all right," said his wife, Sallie, with tears in her eyes. "It's not that bad."
"My knee popped all the way out!" Keith said. "It's over. We've got to think about what we're going to do with our lives."
July 28, 1991
Later that evening, at home with Sallie, his oldest brother, Steven, and teammates Scott Studwell and Rick Fenney, Millard tearfully recounted his football career. He lamented that he wouldn't be as good at anything as he had been at football. "Keith was so scared," Sallie says. "He was petrified by the pain he was feeling, and he wondered how much more he could handle."
On Oct. 2, Millard underwent major reconstructive knee surgery at Riverside Hospital in Minneapolis, and the next eight days in the hospital were among the most troubling of his life. He was impossible to be around, lashing out at nurses, refusing to eat, slamming his crutches to the floor instead of learning how to use them. "Just close the door and leave me alone!" he would bellow at the hospital staff.
Sometimes he even asked Sallie not to visit because he was too depressed. On the Sunday following his injury, he made her leave his room, and he put up a DO NOT DISTURB sign so he could be alone to watch the Vikings play the Detroit Lions. But he became so upset at the thought of not playing in the game that he flicked off the TV in the first quarter. Embarrassed by how vulnerable he looked in bed, Millard was so uncomfortable when Viking coaches and players came to visit that he finally phoned Dan Endy of the team's p.r. department and dictated a terse letter specifying no more visitors.
"I had all these desperate feelings," Millard says. "I kept thinking, How will I ever play football again if I can't even get out of this bed? I was an invalid. Football had given me everything: identity, money, confidence, friendships. I wondered what kind of man I would be without it."
Millard's anxiety served to intensify his physical pain, and as a result, he asked for more painkilling drugs. During his first few days in the hospital, Demerol dripped into his system around the clock, and every four hours he swallowed two Percodan tablets. After he was discharged, he continued to take two Percodan every four hours as prescribed, but then he started taking two every three hours, then two every two hours and finally two every hour and a half. Three weeks after the surgery, Millard's prescription ran out. But Millard still couldn't tolerate the pain, and he asked a teammate for some Tylenol with Codeine #3 that the other player had left over from treatment for earlier injuries. Millard went to two doctors and obtained new prescriptions for Percodan, on which he would become increasingly dependent.
When Millard began rehabilitating his knee at the Vikings' practice facility in mid-October, he acted tough and invincible and didn't let on to his teammates that the pain was excruciating. He would purposely leave his crutches in the car and parade around the locker room to show everybody he could get around on his own. And he brashly predicted he would be back on the field by December. The only person Millard was fooling was himself. The hours he spent off crutches translated into torturous nights. His knee throbbed so badly that he had to take warm whirlpool baths at 5 a.m. in order to fall asleep.
"From a football player's perspective, the pain made a coward out of me," he says. "I had always taken pride in being able to play with pain. This was different. I gave in to it. I felt inadequate. Physically, I was beat. Mentally, it got to me."
A heated discussion with Viking coach Jerry Burns at a team Halloween party led to Millard's finally coming to grips with his injury and helped him focus on the grueling comeback that lay ahead. Burns told Millard that he didn't think Keith would dedicate himself to rehabilitation and that he wouldn't be ready for the 1991 training camp, which officially began on Monday in Mankato, Minn. "You're full of——, Burnsie," Millard shouted.
"I know your work habits," Burns replied sternly. "Sometimes you practice, sometimes you don't. I don't think you'll pay the price."
"This is life or death to me!" Millard yelled. "You're going to eat those words. This is going to be a Cinderella story. I guarantee you, I'll be ready."
Early the next morning Millard went to his basement and stared at the plaques and pictures that covered the walls of his den, and he studied the trophies that sat on the mantel. Then he looked at his swollen, discolored right knee with its big purple scar.
"I was angry and hurt," he says. "I figured Burnsie's comment was the consensus of everybody connected with the Vikings, including the people who buy tickets. Everyone had said, 'You'll be back. You'll be back.' All of that was superficial and meaningless. It was a bunch of b.s. It burned in me. I'm Keith Millard. What makes them think I won't be back?"
Millard then ripped down all the plaques, gathered up the trophies and threw everything into a closet. It was time to start over.
Until he injured his knee, Millard was one of the best defensive tackles in the NFL. In 1989, his fifth NFL season, he was third in the league in sacks, with 18, was voted to start for the NFC in the Pro Bowl and was named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year by the Associated Press.
Using a 4-3 scheme that is predicated on a hard-charging front line, the Viking defense is tailor-made for Millard, who is among the quickest inside pass rushers in the NFL. While most tackles in the more popular 3-4 defense are lined up to simply take on a guard, Millard is on his own to shoot the gaps between the center and guard or guard and tackle.
"There's nobody else in football who plays the position the way he does," says Green Bay Packer guard Rich Moran. "He can rip inside or outside. He's responsible for an area, but you don't know where he is going."
Millard's uncanny knack for anticipating the snap, combined with an explosive first step, makes him very difficult to block one-on-one. Burns has analyzed game tapes at the slowest possible speed on his VCR and has seen Millard's hand coming off the turf from his three-point stance a split second before the ball is snapped. Millard says his style of play is as much studied as it is instinctive, and it's not always foolproof, as his 20 offside penalties in 1988 attest.
He developed into a terrific pass rusher by spending countless hours poring over videotapes of top defensive linemen, past and present, including the career highlights of his idols—Howie Long of the Los Angeles Raiders and Dan Hampton and Rulon Jones, formerly of the Chicago Bears and Denver Broncos, respectively. He learned to outmaneuver opposing linemen by mastering a variety of moves, countermoves and tricks, changing his mode of attack from play to play.
Still, Millard's most effective asset may be his intensity, even though it is highly combustible. Millard works himself into a violent rage before a kickoff, without, he says, using anabolic steroids or amphetamines. The process begins on the Wednesday before a game, when Millard manufactures a hatred for his opponent. That distaste gradually builds in meetings and practices, and by game time his deep-set eyes seem to have melted into his skull, and he grits his teeth. "I look like a monster," Millard says, "and I feel like a dog with rabies."
Millard's rage can have an unpleasant effect on those around him. He will holler at teammates in practice, not to mention during a game, if he doesn't think they are playing hard enough or if he feels they are making stupid mistakes. He will swear at coaches for what he believes are ineffective game plans.
The Vikings nicknamed him Mal, which Millard says is short for Mallard. Some of his teammates say it actually stands for maladjusted. "Ninety percent of the time, Keith is one of the best people to be around," says Burns. "But that other 10 percent is like a total eclipse. You can almost see it coming. I usually let him blow off steam. Then the next day, he'll come back and apologize because he knows that wasn't the best thing to do."
Millard sometimes gets so wound up that he has to use a breathing technique he learned in his wife's prenatal classes to calm himself. When he feels his heart racing and his anger brewing, he sits on a bench or in front of his locker and inhales deeply, counts to five, then exhales slowly. He repeats the process until he feels more under control.
"I used to get so fired up that I wore myself out before the end of the game," he says. "I was slapping my own guys around. My energy was ready to burst. By the fourth quarter I had used up my tank. I'd lose my temper and play bad because I was out to beat up the other guy rather than do my job, and that hurt me.
"I have learned to better control my rage, make it work for me. My intensity has gotten me over the hump in rough times on the field. I don't give up. I'll play as hard in the fourth quarter as I do in the first. You can count on me from whistle to whistle and in overtime."
Out of uniform, the 29-year-old Millard is almost as volatile and emotional as he is on the field. The third of four sons born to Brian and Paddie Appleford, Keith has had a turbulent personal life. Brian Appleford, a British Royal Marine who met Paddie McCloskey at a YMCA party for visiting troops in San Francisco, fought with his wife constantly, according to Millard, until they finally separated when Keith was almost two.
With little financial support from her husband, Paddie, then 27, went on welfare for the next four years. She and the boys lived in a ramshackle two-bedroom house in Daly City, Calif., just south of San Francisco. Paddie took in ironing, cooked for a group of local car salesmen and occasionally modeled department store clothing. There wasn't a lot of food to go around, and some of the boys' clothing came from a lost-and-found box at school. When a hole appeared in the sole of one of her sons' shoes, Paddie would insert a piece of cardboard.
On weekends Brian, who researched real estate titles, would come by the house to pick up the children for visits, and the fighting between the parents would resume. Their divorce became final when Keith was five, and soon after, Brian, tired of arguing, quit coming around. "He vanished," Keith says. "We didn't know where he had gone."
It occurred to Keith that his mother may have driven his father away, and it angered him that she heaped her bitterness on her children. Keith was upset that his mother forbade them to refer to Brian as Dad or even to speak about him. To avoid confrontations with her, Keith became withdrawn, daydreaming about becoming somebody—anybody—else.
He vented his frustrations in escapades with his buddies. He stole candy and toys from supermarkets and dime stores. He cut classes in kindergarten. He vandalized the neighborhood and stayed out late. Each time he got caught, he says, his mother would hit him with a broomstick or a leather belt. If she found out that he had lied to her, she shaved his head. In the beginning he cried when Paddie struck him, but after a while he defied her by holding back the tears. "I suppressed my emotions," he says. "I crawled into my shell and forgot about my pain. I became tough. No one could hurt me."
In times of loneliness Keith would sneak into the basement of his maternal grandparents' house in San Francisco and dig out dusty old family albums to look at pictures of his father. "I was always intrigued by him. He was mysterious," Keith says. "I wanted to know if there were any similarities between us. I was so curious. Where was he? Why wasn't he around? Would I ever see him again?"
When Keith was six, Paddie married Jack Millard, a carpet layer who had six children from a previous marriage. Money was still tight, but the family of 12 was eventually able to move to a modest home in the Oakland suburb of Pleasanton. However, the marriage offered little else in the way of stability for Keith. Paddie insisted that Millard adopt her children, Keith says, to wipe away the Appleford name and sever another link to the past. Keith had trouble pronouncing his new last name, saying MILL-erd instead of Mill-ARD, and caught himself writing Appleford on his homework assignments. "I didn't know who I was," he says. "I didn't feel accepted as either."
The adoption created tension in the household, especially among the children. "It was us four against the six of them," says Steven, who is four years older than Keith. "Our parents fought, too. For them it was, 'Look at what your kids are doing now!' "
Says Keith, "Home was fighting, shouting, yelling, fighting, shouting, yelling. Police. Running away. Fighting. The cops would keep coming to tell us to quiet down. I felt embarrassed."
The turmoil caused Keith to fall behind in school. He had trouble concentrating, but instead of asking his teachers for extra help, he skipped classes and worked part-time at a convenience store. His ninth- and 10th-grade years would have been washouts if Steven hadn't helped him with homework. "Most mornings I'd walk in the front door of school, then just turn around and leave," Keith says. "I'd say, 'What the hell am I doing here?' I had no direction." He also was uncomfortable with his appearance: As a sophomore, he stood 6'4", weighed 160 pounds and had long hair and a bad case of acne.
The turning point in Keith's life came when he made the Foothill High football team in his junior year. With Steven's help, he trained hard and tried to gain weight by stuffing himself with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. He was the leading receiver among the team's tight ends that season, with 25 receptions and six touchdowns, and he started to believe he was somebody special. Sensing Keith's determination and desire, George Balavich, a history and economics teacher at Foothill High, took Keith under his wing and convinced him that a college scholarship was attainable, provided he studied and made up missed classes.
"Keith's muddy on the outside, but he has a lotus blossom on the inside," says Balavich, who also was an assistant basketball coach at nearby St. Mary's College. "He needed special help to get where he wanted to go. He needed TLC."
It appeared that Keith's life finally was headed in the right direction. But in the summer before his senior year, he threw a party, which turned rowdy, while his parents were out of town. Two days later, Paddie kicked him out of the house.
"I said, 'Mom, are you serious?' " Keith recalls. "And then I totally destroyed my room. I beat up everything while she and my stepfather watched. I felt that if I wasn't going to get to live there anymore, nobody else would either. And I never went back there after that."
Keith shared a dilapidated apartment over Main Street Liquors in downtown Pleasanton with another brother, Tony, a house painter. For dinner Keith ate at a local grocery store. He would pretend to be shopping and, when the employees weren't looking, would pull lunch meat and bread out of their wrappings and gulp them down. To treat himself, he stole T-bone steaks, stuffing three at a time into his pants.
Six weeks into the football season, Keith's fortunes took another turn for the worse. He was kicked off the Foothill team for getting involved in a fight during a game. He considered joining the Marines, but Balavich persuaded him to attack his problems head-on. He took Keith on drives through West Oakland, a high-crime area, pointing out that no matter how bad things seemed, there was always somebody who was worse off.
Keith studied diligently, and in the spring of 1980, after numerous conversations with Balavich, then-Washington State coach Jim Walden decided to offer the kid a scholarship. To make sure he would graduate from high school, Keith moved in with Balavich for three months and received special tutoring.
Millard came into his own at Washington State. He was moved from tight end to defensive tackle his sophomore year and eventually became an All-Pac-10 selection. But while he was relieved to have put greater distance between himself and his mother, his anger stayed with him in Pullman. He got into dozens of fights during his college career—on the football field, at fraternity parties, in local bars. As a junior, revved up on a cheap liquor called Mad Dog 20-20s, he coldcocked the president of the Kappa Sigma frat house in a dispute over who would have first dibs on a pizza. He was convicted of simple assault in the fourth degree and spent 15 days in the county jail, in a seven- by seven-foot cell with a toilet and a small bed that hung from the wall by chains.
"Time literally stopped," Millard says. "I lost 25 pounds. I didn't want anybody to see me. I read a lot of religious books that friends had given me about people who'd been through rough times and had found God."
But jail time didn't bring religion to Millard. After the Vikings made him the 13th pick in the 1984 NFL draft, the volatile combination of alcohol and his violent temper led to further brushes with the law. In one incident, a few days before the opening of the Vikings' 1986 training camp, police were called to a Bloomington, Minn., hotel at 4:45 a.m. after Millard refused a security officer's request to quiet down. According to Millard, five cops descended on his room. One took out his nightstick and another undid the latch on his holster. Recalls Millard, "I said, 'You guys think you're such bad asses. Take your badges and your guns off, and we'll see who's more powerful.' "
Even his marriage on Valentine's Day 1987 to Sallie, whom he had met at Washington State and later lived with for two years, didn't slow him down. Millard didn't shape up until his second drunk-driving arrest in less than a year—he wasn't convicted of DWI in either incident—when he was clocked going 73 mph in a 40-mph zone at 12:51 a.m. on Jan. 22, 1990, while rushing home to pack for his trip to the Pro Bowl. He pleaded guilty to speeding and careless driving and paid a $625 fine. But while reading letters from irate fans and members of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Millard was struck by harsh words from a woman who asked how he would feel if his son, Dustin, then two, was killed by a drunk driver plowing through neighborhoods at 73 mph.
"I started crying," Millard says. "I had accomplished so much with my life, and I was absolutely blowing it. I was embarrassing my family and friends. I said, This is enough. Just grow up."
In June 1990, Millard checked himself into Hazeldon, a drug and alcohol treatment center in Center City, Minn., for a four-day alcohol assessment program. "They didn't conclude that I had a drinking problem," he says. "But I definitely have potential." Millard also underwent intensive counseling with a psychologist to get control of his anger. He discovered that he had been holding in his emotions and then releasing them without dealing with them.
"Every lesson I've learned, I've had to learn the hard way," Millard says. "No matter what my destiny is, it's not a straight line. It's five steps straight ahead, then over the mountains, through the water, through the jungle and five steps ahead again. There are always major obstacles in my life. Maybe I'll fall down the stairs, but I'll get back up. I was put on this earth to survive."
Despite the bumpy path he traveled, Millard encountered no obstacle as great as the knee injury. Last November, after packing up his trophies and plaques, he entered the detox unit at Hazeldon for five days to rid his system of the painkillers. The first three days he didn't sleep at all. His heart raced, he perspired profusely, and his joints ached. "It scared the hell out of me," Millard says. "My body was way out of whack."
He took warm baths to relax, watched TV and spoke about his addiction with other patients. Most important, he was disgusted with himself, disappointed that he had gotten into such a predicament. Once and for all, he says, he realized that it was necessary to discard his hard exterior. By losing his temper and acting macho all those years, Millard had distanced himself from too many people. Now it was time to admit he wasn't all that tough: He could be hurt.
"If you're honest with yourself, that's the first step in maturing and becoming a better person," Millard says. "If you suppress your shortcomings and fears, they will follow you until the day you die. It was difficult, but I finally admitted to myself that I made mistakes."
At his off-season home in Redmond, Wash., Millard worked out six hours a day, from January to June, attending a physical therapy clinic in the mornings, and gradually moving into weightlifting, mountain biking, running sprints and distances and playing basketball and racquetball. Steven, who owns Iron Tech Athletic Enhancement Training in Dublin, Calif., designed a program of exercises to retrain his brother's neuromuscular system. To develop explosive power in his injured leg, Keith jumped on and off boxes 12 to 18 inches high, on one foot—moving forward and laterally. Then he squat-jumped onto taller boxes and eventually moved up to stadium bleachers and steep inclines. To develop lateral movement, he jumped side to side over cones and weaved in and out of tackling pads.
Although the knee throbbed and remained discolored and weak until mid-May, Millard did not give in to pain or frustration. As a substitute for the painkillers, he drained the hot tub in his backyard and filled it with ice; he would stand in the middle of the tub, up to his waist in cubes. There were moments of disappointment, times when he seriously doubted he would be ready for training camp. Like the day in February when a Cybex test revealed that he had only 70% strength in his injured knee, and because he had pushed too hard, he couldn't work out for a week. And there was the week in April when he decided to play pickup basketball without the permission of Viking trainer Fred Zamberletti. The first three afternoons, he played five games in a row.
"He called me from the gym, elated," Sallie says. "He said, 'Guess what I'm doing? I'm playing basketball!' "
Then one day he came down after a dunk and tore adhesions in the knee. He had to have fluid drained from it. He was told not to work out for 10 days. "But I was back in four," he boasts. "I think that helped push out all the swelling."
Millard remains optimistic about his football future. He checked into the Vikings' training camp on Sunday night in the best overall physical condition of his life, his body fat down to less than 10%. His goal is to become the NFL's 1991 Comeback Player of the Year and regain his Pro Bowl stature. Occasionally, he corners Burns and needles him. "Don't forget about what you said to me," Millard says.
Whatever his fate this season, Millard believes he is a much better man for having had to overcome a serious injury. He found out the hard way that he didn't need football to feel special. When he wasn't concentrating on rehabilitating his knee, he spent most of his free time with Sallie and Dustin, now 3½. Another son, Johnny Keith, was born on June 5, and now Millard finally can appreciate being part of a close family.
As for his stormy past, he saw his natural father only once after Brian's disappearance, and that was when Keith was 19. Brian has long since remarried and now lives in Brisbane, Australia. Millard's mother and stepfather, who now live in Elkhorn, Wis., occasionally visit, but Keith's ties to them remain strained.
"I feel like a new person," he says. "I learned how to deal with people when I wasn't a football player. I always wondered how they'd react to me, if they'd respect me. I found out I have other attributes that I like—and that others like. The injury made me a lot more mature. I have a better grasp of reality in life. I'm more patient and giving. I'm a lot closer to my family and more team oriented. I'm so much stronger emotionally. I have proven to myself that I can overcome the most dreaded injury in football. It's almost like dying and realizing life has been given back to me. I can't wait to play."