Every morning, around 5 a.m., before the sunlight splashes on the beige bedroom walls of the weathered farmhouse in Upperco, Charlene Miller stirs, yawns — and prays.
Thank you, Lord, for helping me come through the night.
She doesn't get up. Several hours later, she nudges her husband of 49 years. Fred Miller wakens grumbling, as usual. But the old Baltimore Colt lineman rises, circles the bed and kisses her gently on the cheek.
Charlene stays put. Fred lumbers downstairs, rustles up breakfast and starts his chores around the 46-acre farm. He mows, stacks firewood in the corncrib, weeds the garden filled with tomatoes, eggplants and black-eyed peas, and tries to stay within earshot of the woman he dotes on, day and night.
Charlene Miller, 69, suffers from scoliosis, an abnormal curvature of the spine, and related degenerative back ailments. That, coupled with a stroke in 2009, has left her mostly bedridden for the past two years.
When she became disabled, Fred, an All Pro defensive tackle who played for Baltimore's 1970 Super Bowl champions, became housekeeper. At 70, he cooks, cleans, shops for and fusses over the woman he met while both attended Louisiana State.
"I'm not going to take her to a nursing home, leave her, and walk out the door like some people do," Fred said. "Our marriage vows said, 'in sickness and in health.' This is what it meant."
The back pain began before Charlene had her first child, in 1963 — a dull, throbbing ache that she attributed to her pregnancy. Doctors discovered scoliosis and warned that more pregnancies would aggravate her curved spine.
"Watch me," said Charlene, who bore four sons in six years.
"It wasn't a decision that was flagrantly made," she said. "Fred and I talked and prayed about it. He was the only male Miller in his family. I wanted more boys, if I could, for Fred."
The pain worsened and, in 1972, Charlene had disk surgery, the first of four back operations over the next seven years. She continued to care for family and farm. She was a den mother with the Cub Scouts and the hostess to Colts' families who came to the homestead for hayrides and pig roasts.
"I was hurting, but I didn't let it stop me," she said. "I chose to get up, and to do, and to make our lives as normal as a family could be. I felt like hell, but God got me through it."
At what price? Charlene now uses a walker to hobble around, and an electric stair lift to cheat the steps. Air horns scattered about help to beckon Fred, who has grown hard of hearing. Football took its toll on him: the man has had three back surgeries, and his left knee, he said, is "store-bought." But he muddles on, caring for Charlene with a stoic resolve.
At bedtime, after he has washed the dishes, brought in the dog and dispensed Charlene's meds, Fred tromps upstairs and curls up beside her, a cowboy book by Louis L'Amour in hand. She reads Danielle Steel. Sometimes, they watch TV. Ladies' choice.
"Usually, I'm harangued into watching [reruns of] 'The Waltons,' or Dr. What's-Her-Name, Medicine Woman," Fred said. "Every once in awhile, I'll sneak a cowboy movie in there."
Then it's lights out.
"At night, we hold hands and say the Lord's Prayer, and what's in our hearts," Charlene said. "I thank God for this man, this wonderful gift right out of His hands. He took those vows and has kept every one.
"He loves me, even though I look like a banana when I walk. I can't go out dancing with him, but I love him more than anything — and I believe he loves me that much, too."
Opposites (eventually) attract
Why they hit it off is a mystery, those who know them say. Fred David Miller grew up dirt-poor, the son of a hard-working Louisiana sharecropper. Charlene Coco's daddy was a prominent and affable politician who loved to pamper his little girl.
Fred lived in stark wood cabins with no electricity or plumbing. Charlene's ancestral home had 14 rooms, high ceilings and a wrap-around porch with stately white columns. As a youngster, she frolicked around the state capital building in Baton Rouge amid senators, lawyers and a governor who kept a stash of Hershey bars in his desk, just for her. Fred hobknobbed with pigs, chickens and a crotchety mule named Crow.
Fred worked the nearby cotton fields, shaping the steel will that would steady him in football and beyond. Come harvest, he'd pick cotton at 6 a.m. before going to school. Charlene had a nanny, her own motorboat and a car, which she drove to the country club to play tennis. Her father, an attorney and state senator, owned oil fields, a dairy farm, a lumber yard, and the radio station in town.
"They were polar opposites," David Miller, 47, said of his parents. "Mom came from a very refined and proper southern family with social status. Dad came from proud people who had nothing — and were judged on their character and actions."
Through high school, Fred's attire was right out of a Mark Twain novel: a pair of drawstring pants and cotton feedbag shirts.
"His grandmom would go with him to the store to pick out bags of chicken feed with patterns on them, so she could make his clothes," David Miller said. Come graduation, in 1958, towns folk in Homer (pop. 5,500) chipped in and bought Fred a suit for the ceremony.
Meanwhile, three hours down the road in Marksville, Charlene had blossomed. She was homecoming queen, state farm bureau queen, a cheerleader and the heartthrob of the young men in the parish. By 21, she'd had four marriage proposals, including one from the local district attorney. She turned them all down and headed to Louisiana State to study nursing.
Fred landed at LSU, too. At tiny Homer High, he had led the Pelicans, a hardy squad of 19 players, to the 1957 state championship game where they lost, 19-7. But Fred caught the eye of college scouts and LSU gave the burly lineman (6-3, 210) a football scholarship.
His work ethic was legend. As a kid, after chores — splitting wood or picking corn or plowing the sandy clay soil — Fred would wipe his brow and head for the woods, his training ground for football. He did chin-ups on tree branches, and ran through the grassy firebreaks amid the scrub pines, pushing ahead until he collapsed. Then he'd pick up a rock and mark the spot, intent on running further next time.
In college, Fred flourished. A strapping defensive tackle, he gained 30 pounds, made All-American and led LSU to consecutive victories in the Orange and Cotton Bowls. As a junior, he so impressed the Baltimore Colts that they picked him in the seventh round of the 1962 NFL draft, giving them his rights when he finished school.
That wasn't the only thing about Fred's future that changed that year. On Feb. 17, he and Charlene met, at a weekend party her father gave for the LSU football team at the family's expansive camp house.
Smitten from the start by the auburn-haired coed, Fred's initial overtures were rebuffed.
"He didn't attract me," Charlene said. "I liked his roommate, (halfback) Ray Wilkens. He was cute."
But the big lineman persisted, kept after her to dance and she finally agreed as the band struck up "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes."
It only took one dance.
"He was so much taller than me. My head came up to his armpits," Charlene remembered. "But I danced with him more and more, and when I looked up at him I thought, 'Hmmm, why didn't I see this guy before?'"
On the dance floor, grasping her waist with calloused hands, Fred felt the same. "It just seemed like we fit together, for whatever reason," he said. "God put us together. It was meant to be."
Back on campus, Charlene confided to her roommate, "I think I met the guy I'm going to marry."
"No way, Charlene!" the roommate cried. "You've dated so many."
That week, she kept a long standing blind date. But the next night, Fred asked her out and made his feelings known.
"I really would like it if you don't see any other boys," he said.
One year later, they were wed.
It wasn't your normal courtship. For instance, Charlene was no football fan, and her beau wasn't one to boast.
One night, as they snuggled at the drive-in, Fred whispered, "There's one thing I haven't told you."
Charlene's heart sank.
Oh my God, she thought, he's going to tell me he's been married.
"What is it?" she asked.
"I've been drafted by the Baltimore Colts."
Early on, the match had its skeptics.
"Fred's daddy was worried about me," Charlene said. "He said, 'Fred David, she's too little. She's not going to get you any boys."
Charlene's father wondered about Fred's prospects.
"You're not going to do 'poor' well," Chester Coco warned his daughter.
Charlene's mother worried they might starve, for other reasons.
"I knew how to make two things — fudge and fig preserves," Charlene said. "Momma would say, 'Fred, I hope you like water, because you'll be getting a lot of it.' "
They were eager to marry, but Fred had promised his mother that he would wait until finishing college. On Jan. 29, 1963, he graduated from LSU with a degree in forestry. Four days later, he and Charlene were wed.
Fred's family was Baptist; Charlene was Catholic. Fred's favorite aunt wouldn't set foot in the church in Marksville, or attend the reception, because booze was served.
More than 600 people attended the wedding, including the governor of Louisiana, and then dined on roast pig and all the trimmings. Fred enjoyed none of the repast, a fact that still sticks in his craw.
"Everyone else was drinking and eating and dancing and singing, and there I was, standing in the reception line, giving hugs and kisses to every old lady in town," he said. "I shook hands 'til I was plumb wore out. Then they took pictures, and did the thing with the cake, and we left. Never got one drink of champagne.
"As a matter of fact, they put two bottles of champagne in our car, and when we stopped to get gas, one of them fell out and broke."
The honeymoon, in Biloxi, Miss., was underwhelming.
"I got sick kissing all them old ladies at the wedding, and it gave me the backdoor trots," Fred said. "We came home early."
Football beckoned. That summer, the Millers packed the car — a used 1961 Ford station wagon — and headed for Baltimore, where both would allay their parents' fears. A starter from his second game with the Colts, Fred anchored their front four, rose to defensive captain, played in three Pro Bowls and helped Baltimore win its first Super Bowl in 1970.
"Fred would stop runners in their tracks," said guard Dan Sullivan, who played with Miller for 10 years. "He was quick to learn and strong as a bull, though I don't think he ever lifted a weight in his life."
Teammates called Fred "a pro's pro" and respected his quiet clout.
"Fred never has a bad game, and he'll never tell you he's in pain," Colts' head coach John Sandusky once said.
At home, Charlene prospered. She taught herself to cook, make biscuits and bake bread. She attended her kids' rec league games, planned fundraisers and arranged their road trips. She went to every Colts' home game, staged the wives' annual fashion show and held team parties at the Millers' home in Timonium.
"When we first moved there (1966) we didn't have much furniture, so the Colts players and their wives all sat on the living room floor and played games," Charlene said. "That's the kind of team we were. We'd blindfold the men and then take off our shoes and let each of them try to guess his wife's foot by feeling it.
"Fred never once guessed mine."
Classic love story
In 1973, when she and Fred bought the farm in Upperco, Charlene tackled much of the work. She helped raise the family's beef, pork and poultry, and plucked or skinned whatever else her brood dragged in.
"Mom was a real trooper. She cleaned and cooked all the game that we hunted," David Miller said. "Rabbit, squirrel, raccoon, dove, quail, even groundhog. She has recipes for most all of God's creatures."
Charlene delivered calves, gathered eggs and, at one time, cared for 76 squealing pigs behind their 19th century farmhouse.
"Mom was the spirit of the household," said Jake Miller, 42. "She worked a one-acre garden and canned enough vegetables and fruit each year to feed an army, until she was physically unable to do it."
Routinely, livestock ambled through the house, alongsidedogs named Tackle, Blitz and Mac (for Colts' head coach Don McCafferty). There was a pig, Cinderella, who liked to curl up in the living room, beside the wood stove. And a sheep, named Bert, who sometimes couldn't sleep at night and had to count people.
"Once, I woke up to this 'click-click-click,' " Charlene said. "Bert came up the steps and jumped into bed with us — all 90 pounds of him."
In the Colts' heyday — they played .710 football with Fred there — the Miller home was a magnet for players and their kin. As much as Fred helped the club on the field, Charlene did off of it.
"She was one of the key figures in keeping the team as close as it was," said Charlene Volk, whose husband, Rick, was an All-Pro safety. "If you faced a trauma in your life, Charlene would be there. When people were feeling down and out, they rode out to see her — and then worked through it. She was very intuitive; she came to the rescue of everybody."
Before Charlene was laid up, state troopers responding to accidents on the serpentine roads around Upperco would fetch her for medical support. Fifteen years ago, while dining in a Baltimore restaurant, she saved a woman who was choking to death.
"Though in pain, mom popped out of her chair, rushed over and did the Heimlich Maneuver," Jake Miller recalled. "She didn't have Ray Lewis speed, but she was amazing."
In 1997, when Janice Braase, whose husband, Ordell, played for the Colts, contracted amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease), Charlene helped nurse her to the end.
"Her compassion, and awareness, were wonderful," Braase said. "I couldn't thank Charlene enough for what she did for Janice."
Not that the Millers are saints. Like other married couples, they've bickered at times.
"Sure, they've had arguments," Jake Miller said. "But, before he said something terrible, my dad would always leave and cool down. He would walk out to the woods, or to the barn, until he could think straight. He did it out of respect for my mom. That's probably the most valuable thing I've learned from him."
Jake can still see his father shielding his mother as a brawl erupted after one of his high school football games.
"Things got heated in the parking lot, and the (Boys Latin) coach shoved us onto our bus," Jake said. "From my window, through the (scuffling), I saw mom being engulfed by this man. Dad stood there, with both arms around her, like nothing else mattered. There was stuff going on all around, but he was perfectly calm in that little area that he maintained, like the eye of a hurricane."
But Fred couldn't save Charlene from her genes.
His attitude toward her disability isn't surprising, Miller's old teammates said.
"He approaches this the same way he played football — with patience and dependability," said Bob Vogel, the Colts' Pro Bowl offensive tackle who roomed with Miller for a decade. "You always knew what Fred would do, on the field or off. That level of integrity is precious."
Time hasn't changed Miller, Gino Marchetti said.
"Fred is right there to do the things that a lot of guys wouldn't do," said Marchetti, the Colts' Hall of Fame defensive end. "No matter how much they love their wives, some guys just aren't that type."
He never hesitated, Fred said.
"God put us on earth to accept what he sent," he said. "Me? I'll get over it, I'm a big boy. But I feel bad for Charlene because she hurts so bad and there ain't nothing I can do. Her disks are degenerating. Her lower back is just a mass of whatnot, and the nerves are all confused. She's gradually getting bent over, and it's not gonna stop."
Charlene takes about 15 pain pills a day but denies herself the strongest meds.
"I want to save that stuff for when things get really bad," she said. "As I get weaker, and more crooked, things will get worse. I'm not stupid; I'm a nurse."
The farm is still a refuge for old Colts. Several months ago, quarterback Bert Jones stopped by, as he'd done many times while playing for Baltimore in the 1970s.
"I'd go there to relax and for a home-cooked meal," said Jones, himself an LSU grad. Nowadays, he visits to pay his respects and to cheer up Charlene.
"She is going through some pretty tough times, but they are soul mates who are dealing with life's challenges as best they can," Jones said. "Theirs is a classic love story."
One recent afternoon, as Charlene napped, Fred puttered in the kitchen, preparing a slow-cooked meal of Cornish hen, potatoes, carrots, celery and herbs.
"Me and the crock pot get along pretty good," he said.
Upstairs, Charlene awakened.
"I need you to help me, baby."
"Just a second," he said, wiping the countertop. "I'm a-comin'."