Many people have had an impact on Matt Millen's football life, most of them household names, some who have turned in Hall of Fame careers.
It's those relationships he has developed during his long career, both on and off the field, that have made Millen who he is today. On Jan. 11, Millen will be honored with “The Man of the Year” award by the Walter Camp Football Foundation.
“You understand that it has nothing to do with you. It's all about the people who have helped you get to where you are,” Millen said.
The award honors an individual who has been closely associated with football and who has attained a measure of success and been a leader in his chosen profession. The winner also must have contributed to public service in some fashion.
Millen, a defensive tackle and linebacker during his playing days, was named a Walter Camp All-American at Penn State under the tutelage of Joe Paterno before starring in the NFL with the Raiders, 49ers and Redskins.
Millen was drafted in the second round by the Raiders in 1980, and there two more men shaped his life: head coach Tom Flores and the team's maverick owner, Al Davis.
“Al Davis was larger than life,” Millen said. “I was fortunate to have a relationship with him for the next 30 years. He taught me so much about the game and about people. Al was a piece of work.”
Millen said Flores “was the perfect guy” to coach the Raiders. As the middle linebacker, Millen helped run a defense that was a key ingredient in winning Super Bowl XVIII in 1984. He was an All-Pro selection the next two seasons.
He played under George Seifert for his second Super Bowl (XXIV) win with San Francisco in 1990 and then won his third two years later for the Washington Redskins under Joe Gibbs. He retired in 1992.
Millen had success as an NFL color analyst, first at CBS, then at FOX, and credits John Madden for helping him achieve that. Millen is now involved in charity work and broadcasts college football games for ESPN.
But Millen's career hasn't always been draped in success.
Millen said Detroit Lions owner William Ford asked him more than once to become president and CEO of the franchise. You may know the rest of the story.
From 2001 until Week 4 of the 2008 season when he was fired, the Lions went 31-84. But Millen has little regret about his time in Detroit.
“I learned a ton. You are always learning. If you are not learning, you may as well step aside,” Millen said. “I learned a lot about organizational behavior.”
Millen said he had been approached “a couple of times” by owners inquiring if he would be interested in being a GM for their franchise, Davis among them.
“Would I do it again? Certain teams inquired,” Millen said. “No, it's not for me.”
Millen's biggest regret is not his tenure with the Lions. It's that he didn't become a wrestler. He said it's something he would make mandatory for any high school athlete.
“The very first match I sat and watched (at Penn State), my jaw dropped,” Millen said. “That was a perfect sport for a rockhead like me. I think every football player should wrestle because of the self-discipline you need in regard to how you push yourself, how to handle pain, how to think on your feet, how to handle pressure and how to understand leverage and positioning.”
Millen has learned so much from so many different people, and that's part of the point he intends to get across in his speech at the Walter Camp dinner.
“The greatest lesson I learned in sports was to consider one another more important than yourself,” Millen said. “That finally clicked for me in year three of the NFL. You need to make others around you better and in turn, you will get better yourself. If you think about someone else other than yourself, you will be OK.”