PRP’s Bill Miller feels ‘blessed’ in fight against cancer

April 15, 2016 FieldsColumn

BY MIKE FIELDS

LOUISVILLE — The feel-good story of this high school baseball season is that legendary Pleasure Ridge Park Coach Bill Miller feels good.

Upgrade that: “I feel great!” Miller said before a Panthers’ practice this week.

That’s a remarkable statement coming from a guy who, even though he has never smoked, was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer six months ago.

Miller, 66, knows how lucky he is to be feeling great and to be surrounded by people who care about him

“I’ve been blessed,” he said. “God’s been good to me, and I didn’t know that before.”

 

Bill Miller ????

Bill Miller is Kentucky’s all-time winningest baseball coach. In 37 years at PRP, his teams have won 1,074 games and 5 state championships. (Photo by Mike Fields)

Miller’s frightening medical odyssey began in late September. The night after unloading two tractor-trailer loads of sod, he woke up with back pain. He figured he had pulled a muscle. When the discomfort persisted, he called his doctor, who directed him to the emergency room.

A scan revealed that Miller had a kidney stone. That was the good news. The scan also revealed a growth the size of a small lemon in Miller’s lung. That was the bad news.

A subsequent biopsy and PET scan of the tumor delivered even worse news: “I knew there was something wrong,” Miller recalled. “I could read my doctor’s face. He said I had stage 4 lung cancer. That didn’t mean a thing to me. I asked him straight up, if I don’t do any chemotherapy or any kind of drugs, what’s going to happen? He said, you’ll probably live about 6 months.

“So I asked, say I do chemotherapy and that other stuff, what’s my prognosis? He said probably 2 or 2 1/2 years. That not what I wanted to hear either.”

After considering his options, Miller opted for a daily drug — an aspirin-size pill he takes each night — to fight the cancer. It seems to be working. Two months into his treatment, the tumor had shrunk to half its size. Three months later, it had shrunk by half again. The cancer elsewhere in his body, including his pelvis and shoulder, is in remission.

Except for a small rash on his face and chest, Miller has had no side-effects from the medicine. He attributes an occasional shortness of breath to his lung collapsing twice during the biopsy.

“I know the cancer could come back with a vengeance tomorrow,” Miller said. “But I’ve never been sick a day since this all started. I kind of feel like the kid that cried wolf.”

Before his diagnosis, Miller, a bear of a man, had been trying to get in better shape. He had trimmed down to 250 pounds. After his diagnosis, his wife and daughter told him he shouldn’t try to lose weight while fighting cancer. He took their advice, and now he’s back up to 285.

“I guess I’m the only guy with cancer who’s gained 35 pounds,” he said with a laugh. “When people see me, I know they’re looking at me like they’re looking for somebody that’s really sick. But I feel great.”

He has continued to work every day, both in baseball and in his field-building business.

In his 37th season at PRP, Miller is the state’s all-time winningest coach with 1,074 victories. His teams have won 5 state titles, had 4 runner-up finishes and been in the final four 15 times.

That Miller is battling cancer with unflinching determination is no surprise. He’s a tough guy — a former catcher in baseball and fullback in football. (He played both sports at PRP, class of 1967, and went on to play baseball at Alabama.)

“At the beginning the prognosis was awful. We all just couldn’t believe it,” said Sherm Blaszczyk, who’s been on Miller’s staff for 26 years. “But he’s faced it head-on, and the results are encouraging.

“He’s still the same ornery S.O.B. he’s always been, and there’s a sigh of relief about that. This hasn’t changed how he’s gone about his business.”

Miller admits he’s been overwhelmed by the warmth of support, not only from his immediate family (wife Vicki, daughter Megan, who’s the softball coach at PRP, and son Matt) and his extended PRP family, but also from people he doesn’t even know.

“I got a card in the mail from a prayer group in Florida, and about 20 people signed it,” he said. “I can’t figure out who they are.”

A few days ago he got an encouraging phone call from former New York Yankees’ star Bobby Richardson, whom Miller had never met or talked to before. “He called me out the blue,” Miller said.

“Then there are people in the field-building industry who’ll call and say that if I’ve got work I can’t take care of, they’ll send some guys down to finish it for me.

“So many people reaching out to me. It’s hard to believe, just hard to believe.”

In December, PRP held a celebration of its baseball program, an event that was planned before Miller was diagnosed with cancer. More than 500 people showed up to honor the Panthers’ standard of excellence, and the man who pushed them to establish that standard.

“It was great,” Miller said. “There were people and former players I hadn’t seen in years. It wasn’t a tribute to me. I didn’t want that. I got a lot of recognition because I’m the face of the program, but the reason this program has been so good is because of the guys who’ve been with me so long (including assistants Blaszczyk and Richie Hawks) and the administration here that’s supported everything I’ve wanted to do.”

Miller has no plans to quit coaching anytime soon. At the December gathering, he said he wanted to stay at PRP another four or five years. Battling cancer hasn’t affected his commitment to pushing the Panthers to be the best they can be. He’s still the demanding, no-nonsense coach whose game face is as fierce as any in sports.

But battling cancer has given Miller a new appreciation for life, and for those who care about him.

“I’m almost glad this happened to me,” he said, “because until it did, I didn’t realize how blessed I was.”