The Men Behind the Steel Curtain
James Farrior and Heath Miller inspire teammates and fans with leadership
As if the Pittsburgh Steelers weren’t formidable enough.
In an offseason marked by strife between players and owners, the Steelers have a unifying factor that many teams envy.
They have the combination of James Farrior (Col ’97) and Heath Miller (Col ’05).
The two veterans—Farrior an inside linebacker and Miller a tight end—are team captains. Last season was the seventh for Farrior in that role; it was the first year Miller had been voted captain.
Both played their college football at UVA, and both exhibit the kind of leadership—on and off the field—that brings a team together.
“[Farrior] always led by example, by the way he worked and the way he played,” says Anthony Poindexter (Col ’99), special teams coordinator and safeties coach for the Cavaliers. “But if something needed to be said, he spoke out.”
Poindexter knows Farrior and Miller well. He played against Farrior in high school and with him at Virginia, when Poindexter was an All-America safety. Farrior provided the same inspiration then that now makes him a pillar of the Steelers.
“Our unquestioned leader is James Farrior,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin said in remarks to the media before this year’s Super Bowl, the third trip to the Big Game for the Steelers with Farrior and Miller on the roster. “I think if you polled anybody, player or coach, equipment man or receptionist, they realize he sets the tone for this outfit.”
Fellow Steeler linebacker Stevenson Sylvester put it this way in an interview with the Associated Press: “I don’t know how to explain it. He’s just a guy that you want to be around. James, he gets you going, the kind of leader you can really bond with, your friend and your coach at the same time. When you need influence, you go to him; [he’s a] guy you just want on your side in a fight.”
Farrior is the senior of the two former UVA players—36 years old with 14 seasons as a pro. Though Farrior is the Steelers’ rock, Miller, who is 28 years old and has played six seasons as a pro, is no less an inspiration.
“He isn’t a rah-rah guy,” Poindexter says of Miller. “You spend 24 hours around him and you might not hear him say three sentences. ... He’s the same on the field. His game speaks for him. They call him ‘Big Money’ because he comes through with so many big plays. But he doesn’t brag; he doesn’t show off. He scores a touchdown and he doesn’t spike the ball, he just flips it to the ref.
“He’s got the athletic skills, and he’s a great football player, one of the smartest in the game.”
When Miller came out of UVA, scouts knew he had extraordinary skill as a receiver but questioned whether he would deliver the path-clearing blocks expected of an NFL tight end. Now Miller is widely regarded as one of the league’s best blockers at his position. In an interview with Pittsburgh Magazine, Miller said whatever improvement he has managed has been the result of tireless work.
“The longer I’ve been in this league,” he said, “the more I’ve realized that hard work is the way you stick around. Every year, you see so many talented guys come and go. I take pride in doing whatever I’m asked to help the team win.”
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that Miller focuses on winning, and he isn’t one to complain if passes—or glory—don’t come his way.
“I’ll come off to the sideline and ask him if he was open on a play,” Roethlisberger said, “and he will tell me ‘No.’ I’ll go look at it on film, and he was wide open.”
That kind of unselfish play, combined with toughness and talent, makes any coach’s job easier. Pittsburgh’s Tomlin has had an up-close-and-personal encounter with Farrior’s determination and skill. Just two years older than Farrior, Tomlin was a wide receiver when he played at William and Mary. In a UVA-W&M game, Tomlin had the unenviable task of tackling Farrior.
It wasn’t a good moment for W&M, Tomlin recalled, because the only reason he’d need to tackle Farrior was if Farrior had just intercepted a pass, which he had.
Poindexter also had occasion to butt heads with Farrior, just before both became Cavaliers. His Jefferson Forest High School team beat Farrior’s Matoaca High squad 34-15 in their 1992 state championship game.
Though he has bragging rights there, Poindexter says, “[Farrior’s] got more Super Bowl rings.” Poindexter won one with the Baltimore Ravens during his two-plus seasons in the NFL; Farrior has two with Pittsburgh.
Miller’s high school days were spent at tiny Honaker High School in far Southwest Virginia. His high school coach, Doug Hubbard, told Pittsburgh Magazine that Miller, who played quarterback in high school, took pains even then to share the spotlight with his teammates.
“That was the kind of leader he was,” Hubbard said. “There would be times when we ran the option and Heath could have just strolled right into the end zone. But instead, he tossed the ball back to a teammate and blocked for them just so they could score.”
Farrior had the ball figuratively tossed to him when the Steelers needed a leader. After linebacker Joey Porter—the Steelers’ designated pregame locker room speaker—left the team in 2007, the players turned to Farrior.
“My teammates gave it to me,” Farrior told the Richmond Times-Dispatch, “all of them. Nobody wanted to do it. They said, ‘You have to do it.’ I got anointed.
“Being the old guy in the locker room, I think guys respect me and respect what I do on the field. If I need to talk about something or I have a message to get across, all the guys pretty much listen and follow.”
This past season, they followed Farrior and Miller to the Super Bowl, where the Steelers were victorious in 2006 and 2009. This time they lost to the Green Bay Packers, 31-25.
That setback doesn’t diminish their stature or respect. “Both are great people, both humble,” says Poindexter. “They are great guys to know, great guys to be around. You don’t want to let them down.”
Inside linebacker, 6-foot-2, 243 lbs.
High school: Matoaca High, Ettrick, Va.
- Parade Magazine All-American
- All-State selection
- Richmond Times-Dispatch Player of the Year
- Fifth in career tackles with 381 (252 solo)
- Led team in tackles in 1995 with 122 (72 solo)
- Second-team All-ACC, 1995, 1996
- Drafted 8th overall by New York Jets in 1997 draft
- Signed with Pittsburgh Steelers as free agent for 2002 season
- Pro Bowl selection—2005, 2009
- Super Bowl wins—2006, 2009
Tight end, 6-foot-5, 256 lbs.
High school: Honaker High, Swords Creek, Va.
- All-State selection
- All-Southwest Virginia
- Group A Player of the Year
- 2004 Mackey Award as the nation’s best tight end (first ACC player to win the award)
- 2004 unanimous All-American
- Second in career receptions with 144
- Seventh in career receiving yards with 1,703
- Led 2003 team with 70 receptions (second-highest UVA single-season total), 835 yards
- Led 2004 team with 41 receptions, 541 yards
- First-team All-ACC 2003, 2004; second-team All-ACC 2002
- Drafted 30th overall by Pittsburgh Steelers in 2005 draft
- Set Steelers’ season record for tight ends with 76 receptions in 2009
- Pro Bowl selection—2010
- Super Bowl wins—2006, 2009