By Chris Emma—
LAKE FOREST, Ill. (670 The Score) – For all the negativity that can permeate this world, there’s also so much good. It took Bears tight end Zach Miller reaching his darkest places to find this true.
In late October, Miller lay in a New Orleans hospital wondering if his life would ever be the same after a horrific injury that nearly forced his left leg to be amputated. He endured some tough days after emergency vascular surgery, but he was lifted up by those close to him and the kindness of strangers.
“I learned there are still really good people in this world,” Miller said. “There’s a whole bunch of negative stuff 24-7. I’ve been impacted by love.”
It all left Miller nearly speechless. For a week, his wife and father remained by his side in New Orleans, while his mother watched the children back home. Bears chairman George McCaskey stayed in town for three days after the injury, and general manager Ryan Pace visited too. Teammate Akiem Hicks found time during the bye week to fly in and see Miller, one of his most beloved teammates. Even Saints players stopped by to see him.
Strangers flooded Miller’s phone with texts of support. Fans overwhelmed his social media with notes. It humbled Miller knowing how much he’s loved by those around him.
On Monday, Miller returned to Halas Hall for the first time since his injury and experienced some semblance of normalcy. He has undergone eight procedures since suffering the injury in a game against the Saints on Oct. 29, with the most recent coming last Friday, the day he first began bending the knee nearly 100 degrees.
Miller wore an expansive brace on his left leg and walked with crutches. The day was as emotional as Miller imagined, as he was greeted by countless people at the Bears facility He tried to keep the eyes dry, which wasn’t easy. The smile was wide as can be.
“Everyone’s inspired to see him,” coach John Fox said.
Six weeks and many ordeals later, Miller can still recall the vivid details of that Sunday in New Orleans. He remembers trying to complete the catch in the end zone while realizing instantly his knee was severely injured. He remembers how Bears assistant trainer Sid Dryer recognized the severe risk for his left leg and acted fast with life-changing decisions.
Miller has a clear recollection going in for the urgent vascular surgery at the New Orleans hospital and pleading to those at the level-one trauma center: Please, save my leg.
“That was very real,” Miller said. “A couple wrong turns away from actually happening. I had a ton of care, a lot of people helping me out throughout that entire process. But we were a couple minutes away from having that be real. Thankfully, we were able to avoid it and we didn’t really get into where I had stuff that was starting to die off or anything. We were able to save pretty much everything. So I’m very thankful that happened.”
In the weeks that followed, Miller was moved by the stories that weren’t so fortunate. He heard from the mother of Alex Ruiz, a 16-year-old in California who suffered a similar injury in football but didn’t have the immediate medical respond. Ruiz had his left leg amputated.
That could’ve been Miller. It brought his mind back where he didn’t want it to go and how it all unfolded so fast.
“I talk with him and see how lucky I was and how blessed I was,” Miller said.
Despite the horrific nature of the injury, Miller was surprised to find there wasn’t significant structural damage to the left knee. He said the main ligaments are “good,” and the surgeries were vascular procedures.
The 33-year-old Miller has endured several injuries during his NFL career, but even after this most serious ordeal, he hasn’t ruled out a return to the field.
“Do I want to play football?” he asked. “What do you think? I’ve been a football player my whole life. I’d love to play football.”
First, Miller must return to a normal quality of life. There are no specific timetables for when his brace and crutches go, how soon he can walk again and when it will all seem more normal.
Miller spent Sunday watching the Bears’ 33-7 win over the Bengals. The team had dropped five straight games before, missing the impact of its veteran tight end. Miller has gotten his football fix by playing Madden and other video games, and he has even begun playing the piano to pass the time.
There have been difficult moments of isolation for Miller trapped in a hospital room or his house. There will probably be more tough days ahead that test an incredibly warm individual. But Miller has found he was never alone during this ordeal.
Walking into Halas Hall with crutches under each shoulder was a blessing of its own for Miller, who has too many to count.
“I know that I’ll be better when this is done,” he said. “This ain’t the end of my life. There’s a ton of things that I’ll still be able to do and really everything’s been conveyed to me is I’m going to be completely fine after we get through this. So, now it’s just grind through this, use this for any amount of positivity you can and carry on because we’ve got a lot of life left to lead.”