On Oct. 29, 2017, the Bears suffered a 20-12 loss to the New Orleans Saints, and with a little less than six minutes to play in the third quarter, TE Zach Miller suffered one of the more devastating injuries in NFL history.
It was one of those plays where you saw the replay once, had a moment of physical illness and thought, “Dear God, don’t ever make me see that again.”
Miller would be rushed to New Orleans University Medical Center to undergo emergency vascular surgery to save his leg. He'd spend the next eight days there, and five weeks after that in Chicago-area hospitals.
He underwent a total of nine surgeries in the two months following the injury, with no certainty whether he would walk again.
On Tuesday, the 34-year old Miller strode into Manzo’s Banquet Hall in Des Plaines showing no visible signs of distress or discomfort to receive the Bears 2018 Ed Block Courage Award.
The award is given annually to one member of each of the NFL’s 32 teams, voted by his teammates to have best exemplified a commitment to courage, sportsmanship, strength, dedication and professionalism and having served as a role model in his community and inspiration to his team.
There is absolutely no question that Miller checked all those boxes over the past 17 months.
Asked what the award and the moment meant to him, Miller said: “Just the sheer fact that it’s voted on by your teammates, that means a lot. To have your peers have a say-so in an award that you win — there’s nobody you want to be respected by more than your peers.”
How far has Miller come from that incredibly dark end to 2017?
Beyond the fact that he is now walking pretty normally, he has refused to rule out returning to the field, even though he did acknowledge he still has significant pain to deal with from damaged nerves.
“I’ve got a little bit of physical pain I’ve got to figure out if I can handle," he said. "I haven’t been able to go anywhere near to what I would do on a football field. That’s just a time-sensitive thing we’re working out.
“I know the fact I’m here on two feet, to be able to stand here, is a blessing in itself. And if anything else could come of that, it would be icing on the cake.”
Let’s be realistic: While it is incredibly easy to not only understand but also support Miller’s unwillingness to say "never" when it comes to ruling out a return to the huddle, short of a miracle, his playing days are over.
I asked him what his focus was during those first few weeks in the hospital after the injury.
“That was the toughest part of the journey, I think, the eight days in the ICU down there," he said. “The first two were the lowest, probably the lowest points I’ve had in my life. The self-pity and the wondering why, things that I had really never been accustomed to, feelings I’ve never chosen, and there was a point in that two-day period where I said, 'Listen, this ain’t me. I can’t change where I’m at, so dust yourself off, let’s look ahead and kind of attack this thing.'
“I think that’s what I learned through that first week, and that was my focus to hang on and keep progressing and heal up any which way that I could.”
So what’s next for Miller?
“I’ve been involved in this game of football forever, since I was a little boy. To have it not be part of your life at some point seems a little scary and probably weird for me.
“I’d love to do anything and everything I could to stay around this game I love, but I’ve got to figure out physically where I’m going to be at and see what I can and cannot do when that time arrives.”
For now, this much seems clear: To his teammates, Miller is a hero, and if you ever get to spend a little time around him, you almost certainly will think he is, too.