Ex-Colts standout Randy McMillan, down and nearly out after a 2002 automobile accident, finally feels alive again

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When he's finished, his clothes are usually soaked with sweat, and his muscles are on the brink of exhaustion, but more importantly, he feels something else. It's a feeling that disappeared after he was told to come to terms with the idea that he'd be paralyzed forever. It's a feeling that has since returned.

He feels alive.

On the days that Randy McMillan - a former NFL running back who grew up in Jarrettsville and was one of the last Baltimore Colts - struggles to climb the three flights of stairs to his third-floor apartment in Mount Washington, he feels, once again, alive.

And at the end of the day, lying in his bed, isn't that the least a man can ask for?

If, at some point during this article, you start to feel sorry for Randy McMillan, stop reading.

That's what he would prefer. He's not interested in pity. In fact, just thinking about it makes him uncomfortable. McMillan, 46, will point out that he's a grown man, one who made his own choices in life - some good, some not - and now he's the one who gets to live with them. Ask him, and he'll tell you that he's at peace with the way his life has unfolded.

He's a private man. Proud, too. He didn't seek out attention even when he was playing, when he was bowling over linebackers and making headlines, and things are no different now. But after some serious thought, he's ready to talk about what happened: two car accidents, one public, one private, each occurring more than a decade apart. Both threw his life into temporary chaos, and both left him with scars, but each one affected him differently. It's not an easy story to tell. Pain. Anger. Disappointment. Fear. It's all there, stronger in some places than in others. And he's still a little unsure about unearthing some of those memories. After all, how often does one spill his guts to a complete stranger, much less one with a tape recorder and notebook?

But every so often, when he's searching for the right phrase or the right description, McMillan will pause, spit some chewing tobacco into a plastic milk jug he keeps next to his chair, and break into a grin that puts the whole room at ease.

"I look at life and I laugh," says McMillan, who is thinner now than he was 20 years ago, but just as soft-spoken. "If you can't laugh at yourself, then something is wrong. Because life could be over tomorrow. You just don't know, do you?"

Part of Colts history

It's difficult, sometimes, to remember all the details of that last generation of Baltimore Colts, but easy to understand why. After the denial faded, along with the television images of Mayflower moving vans, this city had to force itself to forget, if only as a method of coping with Robert Irsay's betrayal. But McMillan was a part of that generation, a part of Baltimore's football history, even though most people have forgotten exactly what happened to him. He was a hometown kid, a 1977 graduate of North Harford High School who was living the dream, and he looked at times like he was on the verge of becoming an NFL star. People compared him to Earl Campbell, Jim Brown and Franco Harris, and did it with a straight face. For a kid who grew up on a five-acre farm in Harford County dreaming of becoming the next Tony Dorsett, it was hard to imagine a better life.

"I remember when I was a kid, my friends and I would go watch Colts training camp," McMillan says. "I told them, I'm going to be there someday, you'll see. My friends said, 'OK, Randy, let's consider the facts. You live in Jarrettsville, Maryland, a town with one gas station. This ain't the place for NFL football players.'"

It doesn't matter where you come from, he told his friends. It's what you do. And in time, he proved that he was right. He didn't quite have the grades initially to get into a major college, but he dominated at Harford Community College for two years, and University of Pittsburgh coach Jackie Sherrill practically begged him to become a Panther. Oklahoma, Nebraska, Penn State wanted him, too, but when Sherrill introduced him to Dorsett, it was an easy decision.

"Tony Dorsett is the only reason I went to Pitt," McMillan says. "He was my idol."

McMillan didn't even get the ball much in college, especially after a brash, young quarterback named Dan Marino showed up on campus, but he was such a good athlete, by the time he was a senior, NFL teams were enamored by his potential. He was 6 feet 1, 220 pounds, and could run a 40-yard dash in 4.57 seconds. He could easily dunk a basketball, even though his hands were too small to palm one. Dolphins coach Don Shula told McMillan at the Senior Bowl that if he was available when it was Miami's turn to draft in the first round, the club planned to grab him with the 13th pick. He showed up in New York for the 1981 draft, dreaming of sandy beaches, warm breezes and the beautiful women of South Beach.

"Baltimore had the 12th pick, and right before they went, John Madden says on TV, 'I think they might be thinking about Randy McMillan here,'" McMillan says. "I wasn't thinking about the Colts at all. They'd just drafted Curtis Dickey out of Texas A&M; the year before. But they picked me. After they made their pick, Madden looked at me and said, 'Well, are you happy?' I said, 'I'm ecstatic.' But really, I wasn't. I couldn't tell the truth."

Early success

In the beginning, he made it look easy. Against the New England Patriots, in the first game of his career, McMillan rushed for 146 yards and two touchdowns. Newspaper stories the next day compared him to Alan Ameche, Jim Brown and numerous others. One columnist dubbed him "Randy McMillion."

"He reminds me of Earl Campbell," Colts back Don McCauley said that day in the locker room.

"Randy did a fantastic job of running, blocking and catching," added Dickey, who split carries with McMillan in the win. "If we keep everybody healthy, we have a chance to go all the way."

The enthusiasm was short-lived. The Colts went 2-14 that year, attendance fell, and whispers that Irsay wanted to move the team out of Baltimore found their way into the newspapers with increasing frequency.

Dickey's and McMillan's relationship started out as a friendly one - they even lived together at one point - but that, too, was short-lived in the years to come. Dickey was a star, albeit an injury-prone one, and he told McMillan he wasn't interested in sharing carries.

"That guy was a pistol," McMillan says. "If I'd have a 100-yard game, he'd be upset. I'd be like, 'Dude, what is your problem?' He'd say, 'You're a fullback. Fullbacks are supposed to block.' I said, 'Not this one. That's old-school thinking. This is the new age, baby.'"

Even early in his career, McMillan was something of a renaissance man. He loved reading books, liked to travel, enjoyed fine art and made it a point to hang out with people who had no connection to football.

"He'd come home from practice and we'd play backgammon," says Gerry Veydt, who lived next door to McMillan in Timonium. "We loved to play backgammon. We became really close friends because of it."

Occasionally, McMillan and Veydt would go jogging. One day, they happened to be working out close to a football field, and Veydt decided to pose a question that had always nagged at him: So Mac, just how fast are you?

"I'm pretty fast," McMillan said. It sounded like a statement of fact, not a boast.

"Why don't we race?" Veydt said. "You spot me a lead."

Sure, McMillan said. You start at the 50-yard line. I'll start at the goal line. First person to the other goal line wins.

Veydt was no pro athlete, but he was no klutz either. There's no way he can catch me, Veydt thought. Too much ground to make up. At the start of the race, Veydt took off, arms pumping furiously, eyes focused on the finish line. With 5 yards to go, McMillan caught him. The way Veydt remembers it, McMillan wasn't even breathing hard.

Forgettable night

He saw the car coming. He saw its headlights, watched it get closer, and to be honest, he assumed the driver saw him walking. There was a crosswalk right there, after all, with lights. But as the car got closer, McMillan realized it wasn't slowing down.

It was 2:18 a.m., April 27, 1987. Several years had passed since the Colts slithered out of Baltimore in the middle of the night, and McMillan had continued to put together a solid, if somewhat unspectacular, career. He hated it when Irsay moved the team - in fact, he said so in the media - but people sent him hate mail and called him a traitor anyway. (One person sent him a toy Mayflower van, and it's still on display in his living room.) He didn't mind Indianapolis, but he kept returning to Baltimore during the offseason. It would always be his home.

He and a friend had been at a nightclub and were driving home on York Road in separate cars when she got pulled over by a state trooper just across from the state fairgrounds. Expired tags, as it turned out.

McMillan pulled over, too, into the shopping center across the street, and started to walk across York Road to make sure she was OK.

"After I realized how close the guy was, I knew he wasn't going to stop," McMillan says. "At the last minute, I jumped up in the air."

The impact - which came from a 1983 Cadillac - tossed McMillan 17 feet. The tibia and fibula bones in his left leg were both shattered. He had nerve damage in his leg and needed plastic surgery on the right side of his face. Doctors eventually would insert a metal rod and four screws into his leg to help him heal. No charges were filed against the driver.

There would be 15 months of painful rehab, during which McMillan quickly realized the Colts wanted no part of him. Irsay banned him from the team's facilities, citing liability concerns. Then the owner said he wouldn't honor McMillan's contract, which owed him $320,000, because he had suffered a "non-football related injury." McMillan's agent, Reggie Turner, called Irsay a "pimp."

"Irsay's an idiot," McMillan says. "Dollar bills were everything to that guy."

Eventually, Irsay coughed up half the money after a lengthy negotiation. A week after it was settled, McMillan's mother, Edna, died of lung cancer.

The Colts cut McMillan during training camp before the 1988 season. He wasn't the same. He hesitated too much and he knew it, but he felt like the team didn't give him much of a chance anyway. When he failed to catch on with the Dolphins that same year, he decided that was it. His NFL career was over.

"I was disappointed," McMillan says. "For a year, I kind of isolated myself. I didn't want to be around anyone. But after a while, it's like hey, life goes on."

If there's a story about Randy McMillan that most people remember, it is that one. Home-grown Colt, hit by a car on York Road, cut down in his prime at the age of 29. Awful? Unfair? Absolutely. But not quite a tragedy.

A second accident

There's another story, however. Another accident. Only a handful of people know the details of this one. But every day, McMillan has to deal with its aftermath. It's this story that's hard for him to tell, even today.

He bounced around for a number of years, working different jobs to keep himself busy. He coached at Purdue for a spell, managed a few health clubs, then bought and sold antique furniture. It wasn't a bad life, really.

The best part of his day, though, was always the few hours he spent jogging. It became an obsession, almost. He loved pushing himself long distances, often running up hills, urging his body to go faster. With his arms pumping, with the sun and the breeze bouncing off his face, and his feet rhythmically thumping against the pavement, he could feel truly happy.

"I didn't want to be one of those players that start looking like somebody else when they get out of the NFL," McMillan says.

Dec. 21, 2002, began for McMillan like so many other days had. He and a friend heard about some antiques a dealer was selling up on Long Island, so they made a day trip to New York to check them out.

"I got up at like 7 a.m. that morning because I wanted to run before we left," McMillan says. "I knew I wasn't going to have time to do it if I didn't do it then."

That night, after he got back to Baltimore, he and some friends met up downtown. He says he had a few drinks, but not many. When the gathering moved to a friend's house, McMillan started to feel the effects of a long day. He fell asleep on the couch, only to be awakened by his friends somewhere around 2 a.m.

"They told me to sleep there, but I said, 'No, White Marsh isn't that far away,'" McMillan says. "I can make it home fine.'"

In his own car, it might have worked out that way. McMillan still believes that, even now. But on that day, he happened to be driving a unfamiliar dealership car he had been given to use until his new car - a Porsche - came in.

"I pushed every button in that damn car, trying to figure out how to get the window down," McMillan says. "But I couldn't make it work."

At some point, he fell asleep behind the wheel. For years, people would ask McMillan if he was drunk that night, and he swears that he was not. He passed a sobriety test at the hospital that morning, he says.

When he woke up, doctors told McMillan that he'd slammed his car into the guardrail. He couldn't move his legs. Before long, someone came to talk to him about being in a wheelchair.

"At that point, my life was pretty much done," McMillan says. "As a human being, I was done."

He was angry, bitter, depressed, and he bottled up those emotions for close to a year. He attended physical therapy at Kernan Hospital, and the doctors there were always positive, but progress was slow, at best. His spinal cord had been badly bruised in the accident, with bone fragments getting pushed into his spinal column, but the cord had not severed. He eventually would be able to wiggle his toes, but beyond that, nothing.

Getting it together

Even though they had lost touch years ago, Gerry Veydt never stopped thinking about McMillan. Veydt lived in Towson, working as an insurance agent and a stockbroker, but he was also one of first people to get certified by the NFL Players Association as a financial adviser. He and Jean Fugett, a former tight end with the Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys, had started a company called Integrated Financial Services, which was seeking to give professional athletes career and financial advice. Football was never far from his mind. One day, he got a random phone call from a friend.

"Did you hear about Mac?" the friend said. "He's still living here in town. And he's in bad shape. Maybe we should do something."

Veydt sprung into action. He tracked down McMillan's address, called him, and said he was coming over. What he found devastated him.

"He was living in this dark, dank first-floor apartment in Hunt Valley, and when I walked in there, I think I saw two sticks of furniture," Veydt says. "He didn't even have a lamp. It was so depressing. And he was absolutely done with life. I was really worried about him, both financially and emotionally. He was really depressed."

Veydt's first move was to get McMillan's finances in order. Years ago, when he had signed his last contract with the Colts, McMillan agreed to defer a significant portion of his salary. Problem was, he never saw any of the money.

"My partner Jean, got the players union involved, and as soon as he did that, the Colts decided to write out a check," Veydt says. "It was significant, especially with all the accrued interest."

But Veydt wasn't finished. He figured McMillan also was owed money from the league because his career had been ended by a disability. No one had ever pursued a claim on his behalf.

"Mac said, 'It was so many years ago, don't even try,'" says Veydt. "But I told him, 'No, we're pursuing it.' It was a pain, but we got an award. And damn if he didn't get a pension for the rest of his life."

There was one more step Veydt wanted to take, however, and it had nothing to do with money. A golfing buddy of his is a doctor, and through the grapevine, Veydt had heard that Dr. John McDonald, the world-renowned spinal cord specialist who treated actor Christopher Reeve before he died, was moving his cutting-edge program from Washington University in St. Louis to the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore. Could they get McMillan in the program? Absolutely, it turned out.

"Gerry was really the sunshine in my life, to be honest," McMillan says. "I hate to say that about another guy, but it's true. Without him, I don't know that I'd have any contact with anybody."

McDonald is one of the country's most outspoken advocates of a growing trend in spinal cord rehabilitation called activity-based therapy. In the simplest terms, it's the idea that sustained repetitive activity can generate cell growth, as well as form new connections between the brain and the nervous system. Patients wear electrodes that stimulate muscle contraction. In some instances, they ride a stationary bike that they power on their own. In others, the bike moves the patient's legs for them.

"In order to allow the body the potential for maximum recovery, we mobilize all the segments below the level of the injury," says Dr. Cristina Sadowsky, McMillan's primary doctor and the center's clinical director. "You attempt to maintain the normal amount of muscular and electrical activity to those areas."

When doctors at Kennedy Krieger examined McMillan, they found several factors that contributed to his paralysis. For starters, congenitally, he had a narrow spinal canal, which increased the pressure on his spinal cord during the accident. Secondly, years of taking on linebackers helmet-first likely increased the normal wear and tear on his spinal cord.

But even with those factors, McMillan improved drastically with activity-based therapy. His strength was better, and so was his endurance. Before long, he was using a walker in the hallways of the clinic. Next, he was using the walker to climb three flights of stairs to his new apartment. In time, he plans to ditch the walker for a cane, and someday, ditch the cane as well.

"I didn't think I'd ever be this mobile, this quickly," McMillan says. "I'm starting to think now that I can make it all the way back."

The lonely days in that dark, dank apartment - the times when he felt like his life was over - no longer exist. In fact, McMillan lately has been spending much of his time out in the community, traveling with Veydt or Fugett, working for Integrated Financial by talking to former NFL players in situations not all that different from his own.

"It's such an amazing story," Fugett says. "And there are others out there like him. I just feel lucky that I got to meet him. He's one of the last Baltimore Colts, and I'm sure people out there will want to know that he's doing OK."

One more dream

It not quite over, though. Not yet, anyway. There's one more story to tell, and it might be the most important one. For now, it doesn't exist anywhere but inside McMillan's head. For now.

At night sometimes, when he drifts off to sleep, Randy McMillan dreams about running. It's never with a football, though. In these dreams, he's jogging. He runs down the stairs from his apartment and takes off. He can feel the breeze in his face, the sun on his neck and his feet as they pound the pavement, mile after mile after mile.

kevin.vanvalkenburg @baltsun.com

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