Lake Sammamish is nestled among tall Douglas firs and alders 10 miles east of Seattle. Stream-fed from the Cascade Range, the boot-shaped lake is a refuge for Canada geese and mallard. Smallmouth bass congregate near jagged, partially submerged trunks at the south end.
At 5:30 on a cold, gray morning, Bryan Millard, an offensive guard for the Seattle Seahawks, is at the wheel of his beloved $23,000 bass boat, racing toward the trunks at 60 mph. The sleek, 18½-foot machine resembles a silver torpedo as it slices through the water. "Yahoo!" Millard yells.
His eyes are covered by a pair of yellow-tinted ski goggles, which provide protection from bugs and debris. Just in case he's thrown overboard, the top half of his 6'5", 284-pound body is wrapped in a red, size-XXL impact jacket. "That means my dead ass will float," he says, smiling slyly from beneath his thick reddish beard. "No need to drag the lake."
The wild ride to these bass-fishing waters gives Millard a rush, but when he cuts his 150-hp engine, flips on his computerized fish finder and starts his trolling motor, serious business begins. A member of the Pot Holes Bass Club, Millard has twice won the Seahawks Open bass-fishing tournament, an event sponsored by the Pot Holes. Next spring he will host the First Annual Bryan Millard Easter Seals Bass Tournament. He often takes Seattle-area kids fishing, demonstrating to them his love for angling and his gift for gab.
"The thing about fishermen is they love to share their secrets," Millard says. "They're selfless. They don't care if you're an NFL player or the CEO of some fancy corporation. If they don't like you, they won't ask you back. Fishermen are the most down-to-earth bunch of folks I know."
The 27-year-old Millard is a regular pickup-truck-and-jeans kind of guy. But when it comes to football, he's anything but ordinary. Several NFL scouts say he's the league's most underrated offensive lineman. "Bryan comes out at nose-guards and throws them all the way around the end," says Bill Maas, who plays noseguard for the Kansas City Chiefs. "He'll get on a linebacker and take him for a ride. A lot of times, bigger offensive linemen will take one or two steps with a block and fall, but Bryan stays with his blocks."
Says Chick Harris, coach of Seattle's running backs, "Bryan runs into people and knocks them down over and over again. Our running backs love to run behind him because they know there's going to be a big collision in front of them."
Seahawk running back Curt Warner has been the biggest beneficiary of these collisions. In his five-plus seasons with Seattle, Warner has rushed for 5,752 yards and 48 touchdowns. "If Bryan played in Chicago, New York or Los Angeles, he'd be a Pro Bowl player," says Warner. "None of the guys here have been given any recognition. No one seems to pay attention to what we're doing up here."
Recognized or not, Millard plays football with passion and conviction. After most plays he stalks to the huddle, curses himself, screams for quiet and demands that the Seahawks score a touchdown. When New Orleans's Dave Waymer returned a blocked field goal 58 yards for a touchdown against Seattle earlier this season, Millard stormed off the field and kicked the bench. Hard losses always make him cry.
"Bryan's thing is, when you work, work hard," says Steve Largent, the Sea-hawks' veteran wide receiver. "He's intense, and he takes a lot of pride in his performance. He's very protective of his teammates, more so than anyone else on the team. If there's any indication of a late hit or a cheap shot, Bryan will be the first one pulling a guy off you."
Millard drives a black Chevy pickup he calls the Pig Truck. "The only time it gets washed is when it rains," he says. The transmission has been rebuilt three times, and the odometer shows more than 60,000 miles. "It gets me from point A to point B when it's running," he says. "I don't need a fancy jeep, because it couldn't pull my boat."
He favors plaid, Western-style shirts designed and sewn by his mother, Judy. They have snaps, of course, instead of buttons. He owns eight pairs of cowboy boots. Given his choice, he would never wear a tie. "I hate it when people call me mister or sir," says Millard. "It's O.K. for kids to call me that, but to a waitress, a secretary, a gas-station attendant, the person behind a cash register, I should be just Bryan."
A tour of Millard's two-story home in Redmond, Wash., begins and ends in his two-car garage. How many people who make $275,000 a year show off the oil stains on their garage's cement floor? Hanging next to the workbench are three pairs of waders, several duck decoys, rubber boots, high-top sneakers, tennis shoes, a shotgun-shell reloader, 20 fishing rods, tangled lines, loads of lures, a chain saw and a stereo system. Mountain bikes, coolers and Christmas decorations are scattered everywhere. Millard proudly opens the freezer, which is overflowing with game he has shot or caught: ducks, pheasant, geese, king salmon, bass, halibut. On the inside of the garage door hangs a dart board, complete with pencil and score pad. "When the boys come over, this is where I entertain them," he says.
Millard still wonders why his wife, Connie, insisted on buying a black lacquer dining-room set and on redecorating the living room with plush burgundy love seats. He'll concede, though, that the "fancy sittin' room" has turned out to be a good place to display the Baccarat vases, decanters and wine glasses he recently started collecting. Bryan teases Connie incessantly about everything from her driving to her obsession with neatness.
Bryan and Connie met at Dumas (Texas) High in 1979. "I bumped into Bryan in the school parking lot," Connie says. "He had just gotten a new Thunderbird. He asked if he could take me for a ride and buy me a Coke."
Four years later they were married at the First Baptist Church in Dumas. After a cake-and-punch reception for 200 guests, Bryan hauled Connie out the front door in a wheelbarrow, which she says is a custom in her family. Both of them are big on old-fashioned traditions and values. Connie starches and irons Bryan's jeans, and she cooks him elaborate Texas-style meals: chicken-fried steak, pork chops, beef brisket, mesquite-barbecued chicken, meat loaf, calf fries, mashed potatoes and gravy, corn on the cob and cherry pie.
He and Connie have only one major problem—his taste in music. "I like all kinds," Bryan says. "Country and western. And country and western."
Connie, who prefers rock, says, "He's got a very open mind, too."
Four years ago Millard bought a $70 acoustic guitar and signed up for weekly lessons from Dave Head, an instructor at Bandwagon Music, a store in Redmond. "Bryan practiced so much he got callused fingers," says Head. About a year later, Millard appeared on stage for the first time, singing and playing with Head's band, Dix Delux, at the local VFW hall. The affair was a BYOB Valentine's Day dance with a $4 cover. "I was so nervous," says Millard. "Dave told me if I did something wrong, I should throw the audience off by giving the boys dirty looks."
These days the boys jokingly refer to themselves as the Hank Millard Jr. Band, and they play gigs at joints in the Seattle area. Millard likes to lead offsets with a Hank Williams Jr. tune, I Really Like Girls, but his idol is Merle Haggard. "Merle Haggard and Merle Haggard are the alltime best singers," says Millard. "Man, oh man, my dream in life is to sit with the Hag on his bus, open a beer and do one of his tunes with him. You could stab me with a dull scissors right then and there, and I'd die happy."
Millard was born in Sioux City, Iowa, the second of Duke and Judy Millard's four children. When he was four, an accident turned the family upside down. Duke, then 24 and working in a slaughterhouse, was badly cut while butchering a steer. The gash in his left arm took almost 900 stitches. While Duke was recuperating, the family moved to Storm Lake, Iowa, 65 miles east, and Duke bought a small roadside restaurant. The family lived in a rundown four-room bungalow. "I called it the Sugar Shack," says Bryan. "I didn't know any better."
Duke eventually returned to the meatpacking industry, working his way up to plant manager as the family hopscotched around Iowa, Kansas and Texas. Bryan was a shy, overweight child who wore horn-rimmed glasses and corrective shoes. "My mom called me 'husky,' " he says, "but I was fat and uncoordinated. That's what a Slurpee and three candy bars before supper will do."
When Bryan was in the sixth grade, the family moved to Dumas, a farming and ranching community 45 miles north of Amarillo, in the heart of the Texas panhandle. The town was mad for football. More than 3,000 fans would pack the local stadium on Friday nights to watch Dumas High play. Swept up by that spirit, Bryan joined the Hillcrest Hawks elementary school team, and by high school, he had made himself into an all-district offensive tackle and an all-state defensive lineman. He had even more success in track and field: Millard won the state class AAA shot put championship as a senior with a throw of 61'7".
Every Division I football school in the state recruited Millard. He chose Texas because he had so much fun on his recruiting visit. "John Mize, an assistant coach, brought a twin-engine plane to pick me up," says Millard. "That was a big deal. Why, the Dumas Airport only has a wind sock. Because of fog, we got to Austin late. When we finally arrived at the stadium, Steve Massey, a defensive tackle who was my escort for the weekend, screamed, 'Mize, where the hell have you been? My liver's on fire. I need a beer.' I thought, This guy is a player?
"After a few beers, we went to a Jerry Jeff Walker concert. I ate more chili peppers than I'd ever seen in my life. After that, we went to a game preserve and shot a pronghorn antelope. We took it over to the football dorm and hung it in the shower. It was the wildest night ever."
Millard became a starter in his junior season, and the next year he made first-team All-Southwest Conference. In January 1983, the New Jersey Generals of the then brand-new USFL made Millard their 12th-round pick in the draft. "Chuck Fairbanks, the Generals' coach, called," says Millard. "I asked, 'Where's New Jersey?' He said, 'It's next to New York.' I said, 'Do they have country music up there?' "
Millard signed a two-year, $140,000 contract with the Generals. At training camp in Orlando, Fla., he was given $5 a day for meals. The first $15 he earned hangs in a frame in his office at home.
"My first year," he recalls, "in a game against the Washington Federals at Giants Stadium, I blew out my knee. My season was over. On the way to the hospital, my throat felt parched, so I told the ambulance driver to pull up to a bar. I gave him $10 to buy me a six-pack. Hey, they don't allow beer at the hospital unless your wife has just had a baby.
"In 1984 we played the Blitz in Chicago on Memorial Day," he recalls. "It was rainy and freezing cold. Our equipment guy didn't have any long-sleeve shirts or sideline jackets. So he went to a sporting-goods store and bought some windbreakers. But he only gave them to the guys he liked. The stands were nearly empty. We had to I whisper in the huddle so the defense wouldn't hear what we were saying."
When his Generals contract expired in July 1984, Millard signed as a free agent with the Seahawks. He wallowed through the '84 season as a reserve guard and tackle. By year's end, he had played 38 games in 11 months. "He'd come home, sit in a chair and be out," says Connie. Only an expanded 49-man roster—a result of the 1982 players' strike and the threat of the USFL—kept Millard on the team. "That's the reason I'm in the NFL today," says Millard. "If not for that, I'd be back in Dumas, working in the slaughterhouse." Two years later Millard became the first-string right guard.
Seattle has been good to the Millards. Last December, Connie graduated from the University of Washington with a B.A. in psychology and a 3.43 grade point average. She's now an account executive for a freight distributor. Bryan is one of the Seahawks' most sought-after speakers. Last July he was asked to introduce Merle Haggard at a concert in the Tacoma Dome. After the show Millard sat in Haggard's bus, and the two talked fishing and football. "I tried not to drool," says Millard.
Two weeks later, on their fifth wedding anniversary, Connie presented Bryan with a small Baccarat box. Inside it she had placed a travel brochure of Alaska, some old lures and a Haggard CD. Bryan politely thanked her but couldn't hide his confusion.
"Bryan, think about it for a minute," said Connie.
He scrunched up his forehead. "Does this mean we're going fishing in Alaska sometime?" he asked.
Connie smiled. "Well, you are," she replied, "but I'm not."
Millard was stumped. After a few minutes, his eyes grew wide and his mouth dropped open. "Am I going fishing with the Hag?" he shouted.
"Yep, next June."
"This is the alltime, alltime best present ever!" said Bryan. Then he wrapped his big arms around Connie and gave her a kiss.
To see Millard careening across Lake Sammamish in his boat is to see a contented guy.
Not all of Millard's trophies are of the football variety.
STEPHEN DUNN/ALLSPORT USA
Second effort is second nature to Millard, here grabbing a fumble against the Raiders.
Bryan and Connie are still wheeling after starting married life in a barrow.
After a game of darts in the garage, the host will probably show his guests the oil stains.