Wiedmer: Miller does Ultimate for Mocs

Wiedmer: Miller does Ultimate for Mocs

September 21st, 2011 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - College

UTC linebacker Gunner Miller.

UTC linebacker Gunner Miller.

Photo by Robin Rudd /Times Free Press.

At roughly 3:10 Saturday afternoon, with pregame warm-ups at Appalachian State's Kidd Brewer Stadium completed, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga sophomore linebacker Gunner Miller will return to the visitors' locker room and begin the transformation.

And just what is the transformation?

"The Ultimate Warrior, that's what I'm going for," Miller said Tuesday without the slightest hint of a smile. "The idea is to pretty much black in my whole face except for my eyes."

For those unfamiliar with professional wrestling, the Ultimate Warrior pinned Hulk Hogan in WrestleMania VI. The less reverential among us might say the Warrior's greasepaint strongly resembled KISS rocker Gene Simmons' makeup, or that of the steroids-stoked character Steve Lattimer in the football film "The Program."

And Miller has heard the Lattimer comparison more than once, despite his facial art being all black as opposed to Lattimer's multicolored design.

"But I'm trying to copy the Warrior mentally," Miller said, surely mindful that the Warrior's chief goal in the ring was to be, in the wrestler's words, "out of control and intense."

There's no question that UTC coach Russs Huesman might wince at the "out of control" part, but he insists that he is yet to notice the physical change that overtakes Miller's face in the locker room between the end of warm-ups and the opening kick.

"As long as Gunner tackles people, I don't care if he wears a dress out there," Huesman said with a grin during Tuesday's media lunch. "But I really haven't noticed it. If I did, I might say, 'Gunner, you look like an idiot.' But I really haven't seen it."

Not that anybody has called him an idiot yet. Even his mother seems to like it.

"And if my mother's OK with it, everybody's probably OK with it," said Miller, whose sister April Raschke was inducted into the UTC Sports Hall of Fame in 2004 as the school's first softball ace.

He began painting his face near the end of his East Ridge High School career, but he never reprised the practice during his freshman season with the Mocs.

But this year he decided to bring back the Ultimate Warrior, and he's fourth on the team with 17 tackles while the Mocs have risen to No. 13 in one poll.

"It starts right after warm-ups," Miller said. "First I dry the sweat off my face. Then I take an eye-black stick and go to work. It usually takes about five minutes."

It's not all about intensity and intimidation. Eye-black has been around for decades. In the really old days, players would even burn the end of a wine cork, then rub the charred part across their cheeks in trying to cut down the glare of the sun.

Now players have choices ranging from eye-black sticks to black stickers that can be written on.

"It's actually my eye-black he's been using," said senior receiver Sloan Allison, who hauled in a career-long 39-yard grab in last weekend's victory at Eastern Kentucky. "But I kind of go with the traditional stripe under the eye. It really does help with the sun, though."

It's not talked about much, but the sun can play a huge role in a football game, especially if it momentarily blinds the quarterback or receivers during a pass play. To that end -- in addition to the eye-black -- Allison said he and the other receivers will tell quarterback B.J. Coleman if there are spots on the field where they can see the ball better than others.

To prove his point about the sun's impact, Allison recalled a catch he made near dusk during the Jacksonville State game two weeks ago when "I didn't see the ball until it hit my facemask."

Of course, Miller hopes just a glimpse of his blackened face will instantly cause the players behind the opposing facemasks to collapse from fear. Especially the No. 3 Mountaineers, who trailed 35-14 late in last season's game before rallying for a 42-41 win.

"We let it slip away last year," he said. "We can't let that happen again."

But why can't Miller just slap on some black stickers after warm-ups instead of taking five minutes to paint on his Ultimate Warrior mask?

"No, you've got to paint up," he said.

Let the Mocs return victorious from Boone, N.C., on Saturday night and Moc Maniacs the region over may paint the town red. Or at least UTC blue and gold.