Last in a series on the challenges of state athletes and their families.

Gary Miller is not a famous athlete. But like a lot of us, he can chart his life by the sports he played and the uniforms he wore.

He grew up in Detroit, during World War II, and played American Legion baseball on a sandlot behind a bowling alley. He wore a gray-and-red pinstripe jersey. His position was catcher.

Later, he joined the Navy, at the end of the Korean War, and was stationed in Newfoundland, where he found a slow-pitch softball league. Again he played catcher. Again, a gray uniform. This time the words “Supply Dept.” were across his shirt.

After the service, he moved to Warren, where he found work in the insurance business. On weekends, he and his buddies would ride over to Canada to play hockey. His uniform was an oversized sweater and leather shin guards.

Later, he took to bowling, at the old Continental Lanes in Roseville. He used a simple black ball and wore a blue-and-white bowling shirt with the sponsor’s name across the front — “Dominion Tool,” if his memory serves.

Finally, in 1969, when he made the big move to the tiny town of Ludington, on the banks of Lake Michigan, with its lighthouse and sandy beaches and ferry boats to Wisconsin, finally, he fell in love with golf.

He played through his 30s and 40s, his boom years as an insurance agent. He played through his 50s, when they closed his office. He played into his 60s, when he drove a bus for Ludington mass transit. Whenever he helped board wheelchair-bound passengers, he thanked his lucky stars that he was still healthy enough for the golf course.

One year, for Christmas, his wife bought him a fine set of clubs, and he smacked golf balls into the woods behind his house, the same three-bedroom ranch he’s lived in since 1969. His sports “uniform” was a golf shirt from Marshall Fields and a pair of FootJoys.

He was not a famous athlete, just a grandfather, a husband, a retiree and a duffer — delighted, like many of us, when he uncorked a good tee shot.

He went on like that for years.

And then it stopped.

The agony of aging

“In 1999, I felt this tingling in my feet,” Miller recalls. “I shrugged it off, like most males do.”

It didn’t go away. His golf game suffered. His tee shots shortened. His aim was untrue. One day a buddy said, “What’s going on? You always hit it farther than me.”

On a golf course in Arizona, Miller lost his balance. His left foot was dragging. His shots were terrible. He got so frustrated he quit on the 14th hole. Got in the cart and rode off.

It was the last round of golf he’s played.

“Last year, I woke up with a numbness in my rear end and halfway up both feet,” he says. “I went to the doctor. We did lots of tests.

“A few weeks later, we were down to two possibilities: a malignant tumor, or multiple sclerosis.”

The good news: it wasn’t the tumor.

Which left the bad news.

Keeping a positive outlook

Today, at age 67, Miller uses a cane, and must lift his left leg to enter the shower or put on his pants. He endures a chemotherapy treatment every three months — something French doctors claim slows the MS progression. His loving wife of all these years, Ann, mixes his interferon before he injects it. He has eight spots to insert the needle — including the sides of the stomach, the thighs, the buttocks and the arms. He and Ann started charting the shots
“because I have to do it every other day,” Miller says. “Who can keep track of where you stuck yourself?”

For months, his golf clubs sat in the garage. Once in a while, he’d go to the backyard and try to smack a ball into the woods. “I almost fell on my face,” he admits.

Last summer, at his golfing buddies’ urging, he joined them for a final round. He couldn’t swing a club, so he just kept score. He watched. He drank a beer. At the end of the day, he sighed and said, “You know what, guys? I love your company. But it’s just too difficult being with you and not playing.”

And that was it. The clubs went from the garage to the basement. And as any recreational athlete will tell you, the basement is the end of the game.

Tonight is New Year’s Eve, and tomorrow is 2004. But when you play sports, you don’t really need a calendar. Your body lets you know. When you can’t do what you used to do, you’re getting older. And when you can’t do anything, you are facing your mortality.

Miller’s spirits are remarkable. “I don’t have to look very far to see someone who has it worse than me,” he says. “Sure, there are times when you get down
— a nice warm summer day when you and the guys used to tee off — those days are difficult. But I can’t feel sorry for myself.

“I got a tractor mower that I still can ride. So I grab myself by the boot straps and get out and mow the grass.”

Gary Miller is not a famous athlete. His daughter wrote me a letter and asked if I would cheer him up with a phone call. It turned out to be the other way around.

The truth is, we’ll all face a moment when we’ve played our last game, when we put the clubs away, when old age or diseases find us, and the only scorecard we keep will be the needles we inject.

And when that time comes, we should all be as dignified as Miller, the former catcher, former skater, former bowler and former golfer who lives in the same house and is married to the same woman and is planning, next year, to “sell the golf clubs to someone who can use them.” He is proving, every day, that it really isn’t whether you win or lose, it’s that you played the games.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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