Thursday, July 19, 2018

One little brother, one tough disease bond rivals Armwood and Plant

SEFFNER — James Miller zeroes in on his targets, unleashing a mountain of pent-up rage into tackles that rattle helmets and make bodies quiver.

"I just love hitting people," the Armwood High linebacker said.

The fuel for Miller's combustible play sits in a wheelchair on the stadium's asphalt track just a few yards away from the violent collisions.

His younger brother, Justin, has Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a condition that causes rapid muscle deterioration.

Twice a week, James, 18, wakes up before the sun rises to get Justin ready for school. After practice, James often cooks eggs and sausage, cutting the food into fine pieces, to feed Justin whenever their mom works a night shift. The countless hours James spends in the weight room gives him the necessary strength to lift his 5-foot-11, 180-pound brother into the bathtub for showers on the weekend.

Justin's limitations put things into perspective for James.

They also provide inspiration, especially when the lights turn on at Lyle Flagg Field.

"Some of those hits during games are just a release of everything that's going on," James said. "I feel like God did this for a reason. God gave me Justin's football talent, so I feel like I have two talents in one whenever I step on the field. When I play I'm doing it for him because I know he can't."

Justin, 15, is a freshman at Armwood. On game days, he becomes an honorary member of the football team, tagging along for team meals, meetings and warmups.

His introduction to the powerhouse program began five years before at a flag football tournament, a setup that helped Armwood develop a lasting bond with the Millers and reshape a once-contentious crosstown rivalry with Plant.

• • •

When Plant and Armwood knock heads something big is usually at stake. For more than a decade, they have annually competed for state titles. The Hawks won consecutive state championships from 2003-04 and were runners-up in 2005. Their three-year run ended in the region final the following year with a loss to Plant, which went on to win its first of four state titles.

The playoff pedigree is about the only common thread between the programs. Armwood is blue-collar tough, led by a tenacious defense. Plant is South Tampa city slick, led by an electrifying pass-happy offense.

As the years went on, there was enough venom spewed to make this rivalry reach Hatfield-McCoy status. It became more intense with the advent of summer 7-of-7 tournaments, a form of glorified flag football.

"We were kind of the trailblazers of 7-of-7 and we were passing the ball over the place," Plant coach Robert Weiner said. "Then it morphed into something we never intended or wanted. These kids from all sorts of teams were smack talking all of the time. There were fights at different events."

Weiner was looking for ways to quell the combativeness, particularly with Armwood.

He found it through his work with muscular dystrophy.

Weiner spends every summer at an MDA camp. His players have been counselors the past 13 years.

Many of them work with Justin, an annual attendee and camp favorite.

So when Weiner decided to hold a 7-on-7 tournament five years ago as a fundraiser for MDA, he made sure Justin was there. The best teams from around the state were invited, including the Hawks.

Each team was paired with an MDA camper, who became an honorary captain for the day.

Justin was matched with Armwood.

Scott Purks | Special to the Times

Justin Miller leads Armwood onto the field before a home game on Oct. 2. Justin is the brother of Armwood senior James Miller, a major Division I-A recruit.

Instantly, the Hawks gravitated toward Justin, none more so than Noah Johnson, the team's quarterback at the time.

"Noah would throw the ball to me, I would catch it, and he would wheel me into the end zone to make it like I was scoring a touchdown," Justin said.

Armwood coach Evan Davis, then the team's offensive coordinator, let Justin call plays in the huddle.

"It was an amazing experience," said Davis, who took over as head coach this season. "Our kids would execute a play and it would mean even more if it was successful because the smile on Justin's face would grow even more.

"I think it showed our kids that football can have an even greater impact than just going out and playing the game. It was the perfect situation. I think it would have humbled anyone."

This pairing was part of Weiner's plan.

"Armwood-Plant is always going to be a football thing with a great battle on the field," Weiner said. "I think what this showed is that we can still compete and battle but still have a tremendous amount of respect for one another. The unifying factor was to have the MDA kids there.

"Every team was taken aback by that and got the experience that we get every summer. But no team was impacted more than Armwood."

Scott Purks | Special to the Times

James Miller, left, looks for a pre-game fist bump from brother Justin. "God gave me Justin's football talent, so I feel like I have two talents in one whenever I step on the field," James says. "When I play I'm doing it for him because I know he can't."

The interactions had the strongest effect on the Millers, especially James. He was in eighth grade at the time, set to attend Madison County High School the following year. He would not be there for long.

James was intent on going to Armwood, in large part because of the way the players treated his brother.

"They made Justin feel like family," James said. "That made want to become a part of their (football family) even more."

Three years ago, the Millers moved to Tampa. They wound up in the wrong zone so James went to Brandon his sophomore season. Last year, James officially became a Hawk.

"The relationship of that day, of that event, took on a life of its own with meaningful interaction between people we never even intended for that to happen to," Weiner said. "But goodness has a way of carving its way into people's hearts and that's what it has done here."

• • •

Though Justin was an active child, his mother noticed some things were a little off.

Justin did not start walking until he was 15 months old. On the playground, he hardly ran with the other kids. When he did, it was on his toes.

"I think I only saw him run flat-footed once," said his mother, Vickie McQuay.

Justin was 7 when he fell hard and struggled to pick himself up.

Doctors diagnosed him with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, which afflicts boys.

"I was devastated," Vickie said. "I knew what that meant. But Justin always kept his spirits up."

By the time Justin was 9, he was in a wheelchair.

Soon after, Justin started attending the MDA summer camp, which provides parents and guardians a brief break from their roles as caregivers.

"Justin is a full-care kid," Weiner said. "I have undying respect for the family. What we do for Justin one week out of the year leaves us exhausted. They do it 51 weeks out of the year."

Scott Purks | Special to the Times

At a recent Armwood pre-game meal, linebacker James Miller leans in to hear a quiet word from brother Justin. James sometimes helps Justin eat by holding his fork. Justin has become a part of the football team, sitting in on meetings and leading the team onto the field at home games.

At first, Vickie stayed home to take of Justin. The single mother of three — there's also 11-year-old Jordon — now is a youth care worker at a detention center for boys. The brothers' father lives in Tallahassee and supports the family financially.

"It is a group effort," Vickie said. "Everybody pitches in around the house. It can be hard. I cry sometimes because it can be overwhelming. But Justin always cheers us up.

"He is the strongest one in the family."

The muscle loss is felt everywhere, even in Justin's throat. The family is starting to eliminate pork chops, one of his favorite foods, because they are too tough to swallow.

Once a week, the Millers head to a relative's house to swim. Justin moves freely in the water. He plays football in the pool while James wraps him up like he is an opposing running back.

Football consumes Justin the way it does his older brother.

On Monday, the Hawks hosted Chamberlain. Justin wears his Armwood T-shirt. His brother feeds him chicken and yellow rice during the pregame meal in the school's cafeteria. On the way to team meetings, James hops on the back of Justin's wheelchair for a ride.

Justin leads the team out for warmups. Vickie shows up moments later. She fusses with Justin's hair. She rubs his legs to take his mind off a muscle spasm.

Scott Purks | Special to the Times

Justin Miller gets a quick muscle massage from his mother, Vickie McQuay, before Armwood played Chamberlain on Oct. 2. Massages sometimes help soothe pain associated with spasms caused by muscular dystrophy.

"I haven't been able to see him all day," Vickie said.

Before kickoff, James heads over to his brother and they bump fists.

Weiner shows up to scout the Hawks. He comes over to greet Justin and his mother on the sideline.

"There's just something about that family and something about James, who takes care of his brother in a special way," Weiner said. "James has that perfect balance, and I think that comes from a place where he has a team that's embraced the situation that he's gone through of helping his beloved brother struggle through a disease and at the same time not only surviving but thriving because of it."

• • •

James' ferocity leaves an imprint — on opponents and college recruiters. He is a three-star recruit who has offers from 18 Division I-A schools. Over the summer, James whittled that last to a top eight that includes Kentucky, LSU, Mississippi State, Oregon and USF.

He would prefer to stay in the South so he can be close to his family. He will not decide anytime soon.

Justin likely will be homeschooled once James leaves for college. His mother says she will hire a home care specialist or stay at home to care for him.

"I think Justin will be too depressed to keep going to Armwood if James is not there," Vickie said. "He would miss him too much."

Scott Purks | Special to the Times

Justin Miller heads back to the Armwood locker room with brother James after special team warmups.

For now, the focus is on this season.

Armwood hosts Plant in their annual grudge match on Oct. 16. Their father is driving from Tallahassee to attend the game.

James will deliver bone-jarring hits. Justin will be nearby on the sideline.

"It's a love-hate relationship," James said. "I love how Plant has treated my brother. But I go to Armwood so I have to hate them. There is a lot of respect though."

Contact Bob Putnam at [email protected] Follow @BobbyHomeTeam.

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