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Interview with Kevin Miller, record-setting kick returner for the Minnesota Vikings

There are a lot of things to enjoy about football. It’s violent, team centric, and there is a level of eccentricity and toughness required just to be willing to get on the field. In the past, the embodiment of those characteristics could be found in kick returners and punt returners, underpaid specialists who put their lives on the line every time they decided to touch the ball. What we now call “special teams players” used to be known as “the suicide squad”, and many of those players were just young men looking for their break into the big time and have paid the price ever since. Many of them are bitter and resentful, their bodies racked with aches and pains they have no hope of recovering from but Kevin Miller harbors no such resentment.

“I’m still above ground and I’m happy about that.”

Miller was an undrafted free agent out of Louisville university, an undersized slot receiver who made his mark playing one of the most unforgiving positions in football during its roughest era. Utilizing a rare blend of speed and grit, Kevin carved out an accomplished albeit short career as a Minnesota Viking by working his way into the position of being their starting kick returner. As a rookie, Kevin set several Vikings records including the most punt and kick returns in a season, most punt returns in a game, and the most punt returns by a rookie.

“Being a special teamer, I viewed returning the ball as a way to try and make something happen. You didn’t fair catch the ball, because that might be your only opportunity to touch the ball all game.”

Kevin played during an interesting transitional period in the history of the Vikings franchise. By 1978, Bud Grant and the Purple People Eaters were aging out and were largely on the decline. It was Frank Tarkenton’s last year, and many of the defensive stars such as Alan Page, Paul Krause, and Jim Marshall were well beyond their golden years. More interesting than that, they transitioned to an odd West Coast offense style that featured Fran Tarkenton throwing the ball nearly 600 times, a harsh departure from the conservative play calling that had defined Bud Grant’s tenure on the team.

In this series, I intend to delve into many of the topics a Vikings fan might have about the team from that time period, and also a lot about the league itself from a perspective I believe is underserviced. The NFL runs on players like Kevin Miller, gritty players who scratch and claw for a roster spot that (especially at the time) promised them very little in terms of money or future gains. He risked his well being in an era where the rules did nothing to protect him, and he can honestly say he did it for the love of the game and the team he was on. Kevin Miller was a normal guy in a league of athletic freaks, and for three years he clawed out a career beside them. For me, the Kevin Millers of the league are what I love about football, and I hope I can impart that on you as well.

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