Sapakoff: Hank Miller, Charleston Mayor Joe Riley's high school football coach, still inspires
MOUNT PLEASANT - Hank Miller never stops moving. He runs defenders all over the basketball court at Mount Pleasant's Town Hall gym before launching long shots with textbook form. The young guys - those sweaty, panting whippersnappers in their early 70s - can't keep up.
"Hank doesn't go underneath and mix it up, but he can sure shoot the lights out," said 70-year-old Larry Blake, another one of the regulars in the Mount Pleasant Recreation Department's 65-and-over basketball program. "He's one of the few in this bunch that can still shoot 3-pointers."
Miller, 77, is 6-1 and weighs 185 pounds, same as he did more than a half-century ago when he was the head football coach at Bishop England High School.
Miller's energy is just as admirable off the court; the retired teacher stays busy volunteering with East Cooper Meals on Wheels and at the Neighborhood House soup kitchen in Charleston.
"When I started at Meals on Wheels, we were delivering to 80 people," Miller said. "Now it's almost 400."
Miller continues to make a positive impression on one of his former Bishop England football players, 10-term Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley, Jr.
"Hank is so humble, and almost embarrassed, when you ask him about his volunteer work," said Riley, 70. "I saw him one day in Starbucks picking up day-old muffins to take to the soup kitchen, and he was just such a joyful, inspiring model of the goodness in people."
Miller got the Bishop England job straight out of college through a connection with his football coach at The Citadel, the late Eddie Teague.
At Bishop England, Miller told his players, "It's not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog."
Riley, a 140-pound guard in Bishop England's Class of 1960, was all ears.
"He was a great role model, less in the techniques he was teaching and more in the lessons of life," Riley said. "I still have clear memories of this fine, committed man who demanded that we work hard and not give up."
Something rubbed off. Riley has been Charleston's mayor since 1975.
'He never backed down'
"I never dreamt that Joe Riley would become a mayor," Miller said. "He was the quietest kid on the team."
Quiet, but spirited.
"He had a lot of guts," Miller said. "He never backed down from anything, I tell you that. He's still that way, and I give him a lot of credit. I tell him every time I see him that he's the best mayor Charleston could ever have."
Miller came from Allentown, Pa., to The Citadel and wound up playing football for three head coaches - Johnnie McMillian, John Sauer and Teague. He coached at Bishop England for three years, served briefly as a freshman coach at The Citadel and then North Carolina, spent one year in Mount Airy, N.C., and settled in for a 27-year career as a teacher and coach in Westchester County, N.Y.
Upon retirement in 1991, Miller moved back to the Lowcountry, fulfilling a promise to Charleston native Patricia Molony, his wife of 53 years.
He has been doing volunteer work ever since.
"It's just the privilege of helping people that need a meal or have other problems," Miller said. "It's really sad at the soup kitchen; the numbers keep growing down there. There are a lot of homeless people, including veterans."
Chocolate, and 'happiness'
Miller walks "at least one mile a day." Mount Pleasant's oldest basketball players know he's an intense 3-on-3 competitor.
"I get in arguments with him about what the score is," Blake said. "I accuse him of being too old to know the numbers, but still not old enough to miss the basket."
Miller has three grown children, including two Citadel graduates. He attends all Citadel football, baseball and basketball home games "unless it's an emergency."
You might not want to get in a fight with this man.
"It's always been my philosophy to stay in shape," Miller said. "I just like playing ball. I'm careful with what I eat; I try not to eat too much meat."
"I try to eat a piece of chocolate every day," Miller said. "I don't know if that's good or bad."
Mayor Riley thinks there's another secret to longevity.
"Happiness is healthful," Riley said, "and Hank's a reminder that people who are giving and serving and happy often are healthier as well."
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff