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Holding On: Zach Miller’s fight back

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In the Millers' Omaha, Neb., home, 15 footballs sit in display cases.

There's one for every touchdown Zach Miller has caught in his nine-year NFL career.

Each ball has a painted white panel that details each catch with the opponent and date listed. Thin lettering spells out "Touchdown Catch" down the middle.

They used to sit on top of the family's entertainment center in the living room, but since the Millers welcomed their third child to the world, a baby boy in June of last year, the living room has been converted to a nursery, and the balls were forced to relocate.

There's only one problem, though, according to Miller. One ball is missing.

Check all the box scores, scour the game logs, and they'll tell you nine-year NFL tight end Zach Miller has recorded 15 touchdown receptions, four during his three seasons with the Jaguars and 11 since joining the Bears.

Miller has a different tally. He adds one more ball to that collection.

It's the ball he came down with in the right corner of the end zone on Oct. 29, 2017, in a Bears-Saints Week 8 matchup in New Orleans.

A third-and-10 corner route turned from touchdown to overturned incompletion to disaster in a span of minutes.

It's the ball that led to the sound of sirens en route to a nearby Level 1 Trauma Center. The ball that made the possibility of Miller losing his left leg a potential reality. The ball that produced nine surgeries over the following months.

You won't find that touchdown catch listed in any official stats. After review, officials reversed the call, saying Miller lost control of the ball.

Miller knows better than that. He remembers the play. For him, it'll always count.

He knows he held on.

Something didn't feel right

For Miller, that fall Sunday a year ago felt off from the very beginning.

"Just from the moment that I walked into the Dome, something just didn't feel right," Miller says, recalling the hours leading up to kickoff. "Really that kind of carried on throughout the whole game. It's hard to explain."

It was a gut feeling that was a sign of what was to come.

The Bears trailed the Saints 14-3 after two quarters. After a three-and-out to start the second half, the Bears maneuvered down the field on their next drive.

On a third-and-10 at the Saints' 25-yard line, Miller lined up on the left side and then came over to the right on a motion set up. Quarterback Mitchell Trubisky took a shotgun snap and dropped back. He saw Miller on the right side and launched an arc toward the end zone. Miller went up above Saints safety Rafael Bush and came down with the ball.

"I remember everything," Miller says. "I knew just from the set up and the way the defense was aligned, that we were going to have a touchdown, and I was just ready to get to that point, get in position."

When Miller hit the ground. he immediately reached for his left leg.

He still remembers the pain.

"Between like a burning and a very sharp pain," he says. "Just a really intense feeling that I had. All I wanted to do was hold onto the ball as long as I could."

Miller eventually let go of the ball, and the Bears training staff rushed over. They carted him into the locker room and began examining his left leg.

"I had no idea the severity of it," Miller said. "I didn't know that I'd dislocated it. I didn't know that it snapped back that far. That angle, the severity of it, the gruesomeness."

Back in Chicago, Kristen Miller, Zach's wife, was watching with friends.

At first, like everyone else, she celebrated what she thought was a touchdown catch.

"Then all of a sudden, I see him not get up, and that's when I was like, 'Oh no,'" Kristen said. "I grabbed my phone right away and Zach probably called me within 10 minutes."

She asked if he could feel his foot. He said he could. They got off the phone, and that's when his situation took a turn.

Miller began losing feeling in his foot. His leg turned a shade of blue.

"Twenty minutes later I called him back and there was a bit more panic in his voice," Kristen said. "I could tell something wasn't right."

The Bears medical staff loaded Miller into an ambulance and readied to head to a local hospital.

The standing operating procedures for player injuries in the stadium called for Miller to be transported to a hospital more than 20 minutes away. Bears former assistant athletic trainer Sid Dreyer knew Miller needed more immediate attention and demanded an audible. They'd go to a Level 1 Trauma Center about five minutes from the stadium. It was an on-the-fly decision that may have saved Miller's leg.

At the hospital, doctors determined that Miller had dislocated his left knee and torn his popliteal artery in his left leg, which cut off most of his blood supply below his knee. Typically, in this scenario, if blood supply isn't restored within hours, it leads to amputation.

The medical staff prepped Miller for surgery.

"Last thing I said was just, 'Doc, don't cut my leg off,'" Miller said.

After a seven-hour operation, Miller woke up in the hospital. A little groggy from the surgery, and with his lower body covered with a hospital sheet, he initially had no idea if the doctors had been able to save his leg.

"It took me a good 20, 30 seconds to finally say 'OK, you gotta look.'" Miller said. "My fear was I got to check underneath this sheet to see if my leg is here or not."

"You lift the sheet up and I peeked my head sideways, and I had these metal bars sticking out, and my initial reaction was just, 'What the hell is this?'"

During the surgery, doctors had remotely gotten the go ahead from Kristen to insert an external fixator into his leg, two metal rods to help stabilize the leg.

The first surgery, by all measures, was a success. He had two more surgeries in New Orleans, and on Nov. 6 he traveled by medevac to Chicago where he was transferred to North Shore Hospital.

In total, he had nine surgeries. Two weeks after relocating to Chicago, Miller was sent home from the hospital on a stretcher. On Dec. 8, six weeks removed from the initial injury, Miller returned to the hospital and had the two rods supporting his leg removed. Nine days afterwards, he walked for the first time on his own since the injury.

Never had a woe-is-me attitude
Miller was essentially bedridden for six weeks, and his mobility afterwards was limited.

With no football, and no place to go, Miller didn't mope. Instead, he found new ways to keep himself entertained.

"He has never had the whole, 'Why did this happen to me' type of attitude," Kristen said. He's always just taken this injury day by day."

He picked up playing the piano, just to challenge himself, and played more rounds of FIFA on Xbox than he remembers.

"I had a number of things I could do to try to keep me busy," Miller said. "It's weird because I look back on it and in that moment time just feels like it's standing still. It's just so slow, and now we're already approaching a year, it's like it just went by in the blink of an eye."

Away from his Bears teammates, Miller also found time to forge a special friendship with another young football player, Alex Ruiz.

Ruiz was a high school junior quarterback at Linfield Christian School in Temecula, Calif. Three weeks before Miller's injury, Ruiz suffered a nearly identical one on Oct. 6. He ran a zone-read and opted to keep the ball. He got caught up by defenders at the line of scrimmage and waited for the whistle. Before the play was blown dead, one more player ran into the pile. Ruiz went down, but his cleat got caught in the grass. His right leg snapped.

"I just heard a pop and then everyone was on top of me and they all got off screaming for help," Ruiz said. "I just kept telling myself this is a dream, this is a dream, this isn't happening."

After waiting 25 minutes for an ambulance to get to the field, Ruiz was rushed to a hospital. Originally, it was believed it was just a dislocated knee. Later, he received the same diagnosis Miller would: a torn popliteal artery.

Three weeks later, Ruiz was watching the Bears-Saints game on TV and saw Miller's injury live. He thought nothing of it at first.

His mom, though, learned of Miller's injury and reached out to the NFL star. She told him her son had just suffered the same injury, maybe the two could talk.

Nearly two months after the Oct. 6 injury, Ruiz got a text from a number he didn't recognize while he was playing Fortnite with his friends. It was Zach.

He told him they had some tough times ahead, but together, they'd get through it.

The two swapped stories and formed a fast friendship. Ruiz talked Miller through some of the things to expect following the surgeries. Miller, in turn, kept Ruiz motivated on days he felt like giving up.

"He's gonna be the person to tell me to get my butt out of bed and go face the day because that's just the type of person he is," Ruiz said. "That's the type of person I am. We're both competitors and people who like to compete to win. And that's really what life is, and I think if football teaches us one thing, it's exactly that. Football just teaches us that no matter how hard it gets, there's always a will to win and there's always a way to win, so if you have that grit and you have that desire to truly be the best, and you take that into life, nothing's going to stop you."

Ruiz wasn't as lucky as Miller, though. The discovery wasn't made early enough. The tissue had been permanently damaged, and it was determined that amputation would be the best route. On Feb. 26, Ruiz's right leg was amputated. Since then he's received a prosthetic leg and returned to some of his normal routine.

On Friday night, 385 days removed from his injury, Ruiz went back on the field to play in his team's senior night game. On his second play in the game, late in the first quarter, Ruiz connected with a receiver for a touchdown pass.

While Ruiz has counted on Miller for support, Miller knows it has gone both ways.

"As much as people think of Alex leaning on me, I was doing the same thing leaning on him."

In Ruiz's reality, Miller sees what his alternative could have been.

"That could have very well have been me," Miller said. "I look at that situation and I feel extremely bad. I feel sad, a lot of feelings that you feel for Alex, but that's really real. That could've been me within an instant."

An extraordinary situation
On June 4, Bears general manager Ryan Pace called Miller into his office. He told him that the Bears were going to sign him to a one-year league-minimum contract. Miller would be a part of the team and have access to the Bears training facility and staff to continue his rehabilitation.

The next day, the team placed him on the physically unable to perform list, effectively ruling him out from playing for the 2018 season.

"Most of these situations they don't really end the way that they are for me," Miller said. "It's an extraordinary situation where the loyalty that the franchise has to me has been unbelievable, and that was for sure an emotional meeting for me just because I felt very grateful and thankful for what they've done for me and continue to do for me."

As a result, Miller has done his best to pay it back.

Though unable to play, that hasn't kept him from contributing to the team.

He's worked with the tight ends, providing another set of eyes and a veteran voice.

He cuts game film each week and helps game-plan for upcoming opponents, breaking down schemes and situations with the younger tight ends. But his role has extended beyond just a player-coach, to mentor, cheerleader and friend.

"He's somebody when you're having a bad day you'll go hang out with and he'll cheer you up immediately," tight end Trey Burton said. "He doesn't have to be there, but he is."

Miller's been there for other players too, particularly second-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky.

"He's like an older brother to me," Trubisky said. "To have someone that truly believes in you, there's no substitute for it. So I just think he's just so genuine in the way he believes in other people and how much he loves this game and loves being part of this family."

When he's not working with the tight ends or mentoring the younger guys, he's working with trainers to rehab.

He's made huge strides from a year ago, but he knows the reality is he may not play again.

"I don't need to go back on the field just to climb that mountain," Miller said. "I can climb this mountain without that having to be the end goal. That's just what I want to do. I love the game of football. I want to continue to play. If I can't, I've got to accept that."

Remarkable touchdown catch
So, about that missing ball — the would-be 16th touchdown reception of Miller's career — the one that set into motion the events of the last year.

Bears chairman George h. McCaskey hand-delivered it to Miller when he was in the hospital in New Orleans.

Now, it's at the Millers' home in the Chicago area, except it received a slightly different paint job than the other balls.

Etched above "Touchdown Catch" is the word "Remarkable."

"Right now, that's my last touchdown catch right there," Miller says. "You can say whatever you want about it, but that was a touchdown catch, because I know for a fact that I caught it, and I made a point to hold onto that thing."

Besides being separated from the other touchdown catch balls in his Omaha home, Miller isn't sure of any long-term plans to display the ball differently than the others.

"That's something that as I grow older and I become a wise old man, I'll have a story behind it." Miller said. "I'm sure there will be some lesson that you can teach from it."

Asked if he knows that lesson yet, Miller thinks for a moment.

"Hold on," he replies.

A year ago in New Orleans in the end zone, and every day since, Miller has done exactly that.

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