BENTON, Tenn. — Like countless other Friday night high school football heroes, Zach Miller believes he is destined to continue doing what he loves on Sundays.
But while many players dream of an NFL future, Miller feels he has an even higher calling. Instead of bringing people to their feet with a pigskin tucked under his arm, the Polk County senior believes he can stir people's faith with a Bible in his hand.
And the 17-year old has already begun to follow the career path he feels he's being led toward.
Miller is used to having thousands of sets of eyes focused on his every move on the football field each Friday night. But two Sundays ago, during an evening service at the All Nations Church of God near Cleveland, Miller admitted to having butterflies while the congregation sat attentively as he preached his first sermon.
"I preached on forgetting your past," said Miller, who has studied the Bible for about four years. "In life, people's past can hold them back sometimes, but in the Bible God used many people who had a troubled past."
Polk County coach Derrick Davis said he has a lot of respect for Miller.
"He leads his life by what he believes, so I wasn't surprised when I heard he's already preaching," Davis said.
Miller says he was "raised in church."
"I've got two uncles who preach and a couple of months ago I felt like I was being called to do it," he said. "During one service I finally just said, 'God, if you really want to use me, OK.' Without me even saying anything to anybody else my preacher called me out a little later during that same service. He asked me to stand up and said he felt like God wanted to use me for His service. I got chill bumps right there."
While he is humble about his faith and his calling, Miller admits he knows how to flip the mental switch to become one of the most physically imposing players in the area on Friday nights. And he doesn't believe there's anything wrong with a healthy dose of aggression.
"In the Bible it says you can be angry but not to sin," Miller said. "I do play with anger, but I don't go out and cuss or do anything that would make people think I'm not a Christian. I just try to be real physical.
"I feel like God has blessed me with some ability to be a good athlete and that's how I play. You can play hard and be aggressive and still have good sportsmanship. It's a game, but it's a very physical game."
Known for his bruising style on the field, the 6-foot-1, 235-pound Miller was named All-State last season when he ran for more than 1,930 yards, scored 22 touchdowns and also led the team with 98 tackles to help the Wildcats claim their fourth straight district championship. He also set the area's single-game rushing record with 411 yards and six touchdowns on a punishing 44 carries in a win over Sequoyah.
In the first two games of this season Miller already averages 193 yards rushing per game with five touchdowns. He caught a TD pass and even completed a 10-yard pass to convert a fourth down in a two-point upset win over Class 6A rival Bradley Central in the season opener. He followed that by returning from a leg injury near the end of the first half of last week's game to gain 84 more yards in the second half as the Wildcats pulled away for a second straight win.
"Everybody knows what he does for us on the field, but the biggest thing I'll miss about him when he's done this year is just having him around as a person," coach Davis said. "We love the 200 yards he runs for every week, don't get me wrong, but I really love Zach as a person.
"He's always helping other people, whether it's teammates or even coaching little league with his dad on Saturdays.
"Sometimes I may get caught up in the heat of the moment during a game and use some words I probably shouldn't," Davis said. "When I do, if he's around me on the sideline, I usually have to say, 'Sorry for my language Miller.' I respect him because I've watched him for years and I know he's not a hypocrite."
Being a teenager surrounded by temptation is a daily test of Miller's faith. Especially for a star athlete in the public eye.
"There have been people who have offered me things that I knew were wrong," Miller said. "They were testing me to see if I was for real with my beliefs. Some people just want to see a Christian fall, so I know I have to be careful with who I'm around and how I carry myself."
And while the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion group has worked since last summer to shut down organized prayer by public school coaches and administrators as well as pregame prayer over public address systems at area games, having a student like Miller in the school and on the football team has helped ensure that those who do want to share their faith in those settings can do so.
He serves as a Fellowship of Christian Athletes leader in school and typically leads the team in prayer before and after practice as well as games.
"I'm not looking to offend anyone," Miller said. "I have my own beliefs and for the people who share in that, I want to be a leader. I understand not praying over the PA so that some in the crowd aren't offended. That's OK with me.
"I don't understand why we can talk about abortion or things like that in school, but not God. But that doesn't keep me from doing what I believe is right. Christians aren't perfect. I make mistakes. But I know God is merciful and He forgives me when I do sin," he said.
"I'm just a kid who is blessed to get to do what I love, play football and share my faith."
Contact Stephen Hargis at email@example.com or 423-757-6293.
Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 24 years, having been with the Times Free Press since its inception, and has been an assistant sports editor since 2005. Stephen is among the most decorated writers in the TFP’s newsroom, winning numerous state, regional and national writing awards, including seven in 2013 and a combined 12 in the last two years. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers ...