Steelers players had close bond with 11-year-old fan
A framed Steelers jersey hangs on a wall. Autographed footballs sit on shelves. A gold helmet rests on a bed stand, and the sliding closet doors are painted black to look like lockers.
There is a story behind every Steelers item in the bedroom of the late Heather Miller, who would have celebrated her 12th birthday this week. Together, they explain why sports matter beyond final scores -- and how some Steelers players are still helping a family in its greatest time of need.
The jersey is signed by safety Troy Polamalu, and it is the one he wore in the 2008 AFC title game.
The gift offers a glimpse into the bond between Polamalu and Heather, both of whom have been described as fearless.
Casey Hampton wore the helmet during the Steelers' final home game in 2009. Shortly after the Steelers beat the Ravens last December, the mammoth nose tackle slid the helmet onto the head of the girl that he says changed his life.
Heather proudly wore that helmet for several hours. She probably would have kept it on all night had gravity not intervened.
Wendy Miller laughs as she talks about how the younger of her two daughters looked like a "bobblehead" that night as they wheeled her through the lobby of the Omni William Penn Hotel, Downtown.
That is one of many memories that Wendy embraces when the grief feels like it may suffocate her.
It has been a daily struggle for the Bedford County family since Heather died Jan. 29 after a 15-month battle with Ewing's sarcoma, a rare form of bone and tissue cancer that generally afflicts children.
Fridays, Wendy says, are a "land mine" because that is the day of the week that Heather died. Tears help Wendy and her husband, Don, get through the tough times.
Take the ones that rolled down Wendy's face recently when she went through some of the text messages on Heather's cell phone. She was standing in the kitchen of her Osterburg home when she came across the final text Hampton sent to Heather.
Hampton had been in Miami, preparing to play in the Pro Bowl, and he had called Heather to check on her. Her physical condition prevented Heather from talking on the phone.
So Hampton sent her a text message: "If you're feeling up to it, give me a call. If not, just know I love you."
Wendy gets just as emotional when she recalls the call from Polamalu on Jan. 29. It came less than a half hour after Heather's death.
"Wendy," Polamalu said, "she's the lucky one."
Gone but not forgotten
All the softball teams in the Chestnut Ridge League wear shirts emblazoned with "In memory of Heather Miller", along with a small picture of a frog. Heather loved and collected all things frog, and Fully Rely On God became the mantra by which she lived.
Before every game, the players gather at a sign dedicated to Heather on the outfield wall. They hold hands as Heather's older sister, Hannah, 13, says a prayer.
"It's a tear-jerker for me," Wendy said, "but it thrills me that they still think of her the way they do."
The sentiment extends far beyond this rural community in the shadow of the Laurel Mountains. It runs all the way to Steelers headquarters on the South Side.
Hampton wears the green bracelet that Heather gave him - even during offseason practices. At his home, assistant head coach/defensive line coach John Mitchell keeps a picture of Heather and her sister.
As for why the Steelers players and coaches forged such a connection with Heather, the list runs longer than Polamalu's hair.
Start with the "Hershey-bar smile," as her mother calls it, one that could have been measured in wattage. If that drew people to Heather, so did her personality. She was an impish girl who loved to fish, hunt and play sports.
"She was a tomboy," Polamalu said with a smile, "and I think that's what attracted a lot of the football players to her."
The men who play one of the roughest sports also came to respect and admire Heather's courage.
"She was always smiling," Hampton said. "I know she was having bad days sometimes, but she was tough. You would always think she was happy no matter what was going on."
'You already have me'
Three weeks after Heather was diagnosed in October 2008, she got a bed in the oncology ward of Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh. That same day, Polamalu was there visiting kids.
He and Heather hit it off immediately.
When the Make-A-Wish Foundation got involved with Heather, she told Polamalu she was going to request a day with him.
"You already have me," he said.
When she then said she wanted to meet Hampton, Polamalu grinned, knowing she would turn the tough Texas native into a big teddy bear. Through the local Make-A-Wish chapter, Heather and her family were invited to Steelers headquarters last spring for her day with Hampton.
Mitchell had her direct a drill in which the defensive linemen fire off the line of scrimmage. She made them do it again after Mitchell temporarily ceded control to her.
At the end of practice as the team huddled, Hampton gingerly lifted Heather above his head, mindful to avoid her right side, where she had lost five ribs to cancer.
A story that makes Wendy laugh and cry happened shortly before Heather's first major surgery on Jan. 26, 2009. Polamalu had left a present for her at Children's Hospital to help take her mind off the operation.
To heighten Heather's anticipation, nurses texted her about the gift but offered no clues.
When Heather arrived and saw the jersey Polamalu had worn when he scored the touchdown that clinched the Steelers' trip to Super Bowl XLIII, she beamed. She wore it until the nurses had to wheel her into the operating room.
"Her whole demeanor could have been so much worse that day," Wendy said. "But that day, you could tell: 'Yeah, I'm getting surgery, but I've got Troy's shirt on.' A day that you didn't feel like smiling, I think it put a smile on all of our faces."
For last season's final home game, Hampton hosted the Millers in his private box at Heinz Field. After the Steelers beat the Ravens on Dec. 27, Hampton pointed toward Heather, his green bracelet in full view.
"Just gave me the chills," said Don Miller. "Heather was in her glory."
But by late January, there was nothing more that could be done medically for Heather.
Heavily sedated from the morphine she was given to ease her pain, Heather woke up every morning in the days leading up to her death and asked: "Is today the Pro Bowl?"
Hampton and Steelers tight end Heath Miller, who had also befriended Heather, were playing in the game. Heather desperately wanted to watch them play one more time, but she died less than 48 hours before kickoff.
After the game, Hampton flew to Pittsburgh.
Hampton, Mitchell, Miller and his wife, Katie, and Steelers community relations manager Michele Rosenthal drove to Bedford for the funeral.
A truck carrying Hershey bars overturned in front of them on the turnpike, causing a slight delay. Wendy interpreted this as a sign sent by Heather.
When Wendy broke down at the service during the playing of "Awesome God" - it was the song she had been singing to Heather when she died - Hampton consoled her.
Earlier in the service, Wendy comforted a sobbing Hampton, who sat beside her.
"I just wanted to hug him and tell him Heather was at peace," Wendy said. "I know how much she loved him."
A life-long bond
This week, the Millers will celebrate Heather's 12th birthday in the Outer Banks, the North Carolina beach where they vacation every summer.
On Friday, the family will do "all things Heather," Wendy said.
That means a trip to Applebee's Restaurant, rounds of miniature golf and catching crabs in the Atlantic Ocean at night.
"Hopefully, we'll find a sense of closeness," Wendy said. "I've talked with a lot of parents that had their kids' first birthdays without them, and I know it's hard. But we're going to take five minutes at a time. That's how we've gotten four months later. We're still standing."
The Steelers are among those who keep them propped up.
Polamalu sent a prayer to Wendy on Mother's Day. Hampton periodically texts her: "Hey, I'm thinking about you. Love you guys."
The Steelers say Heather did as much for them as they did for her and her family.
Hampton said he stopped worrying about "small stuff" after becoming friends with Heather.
"It gives me a lot of strength," Hampton said, "just thinking about the things she went through and how she always had a smile on her face."
Wendy had been hesitant to talk about Heather's relationship with Polamalu because he eschews publicity about his off-field activities. But an offseason that has generated a wave of negative publicity for the Steelers, she said, compelled her to talk about the "men behind the pads."
"They always gave Heather something to look forward to, and I'm not just talking football," Wendy said. "It was about their friendship and the strength they gave her. They lifted her higher than she's ever been."