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Former Ute defensive lineman looks to teammates for one final assist

Published: Friday, Dec. 13 2013 8:05 p.m. MST

Bronzell Miller rests at the home of his ex-wife in West Jordan on Thursday, Dec. 12, 2013. Miller, a former Ute football player, is in the final stages of his battle with cancer.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

WEST JORDAN — Bronzell Miller cradles his aching ribs, speaks haltingly, but smiles often as he tries to articulate what made the 1994 Utah football team so unique.

It is that team that made the University of Utah’s program relevant — locally and nationally.

It’s that team that gave him countless opportunities, including a year in the NFL and seven years in the Canadian Football League.

And it’s also the team that is now rallying around the 42-year-old father of nine as he slowly succumbs to the cancer he’s battled with endless optimism for the last three and a half years.

While the team’s talent may have earned it a place of significance in Utah football history, it’s the bond between the players who earned that 10-2 record that has endured far from the football field.

“It was different,” Miller said of the 1994 season. “Our team didn’t fight each other. We had the same purpose; we had the same desire to do what the coaches told us. … We just had a team full of leaders.”

His ex-wife Marnie Oliver, who convinced Miller to return to Utah and her care for the final weeks of his life, believes the team was special because of how then-head coach Ron McBride approached the game.

“I think McBride made them unique,” said the mother of Miller’s three oldest children. “He’s a father figure. He brought them together and taught them to teach each other like brothers, not like teammates. He taught them to look out for each other, to lift each other up, to help each other learn, and they just stayed that way.” McBride’s philosophy may have helped them find success on the football field, but it also gave them relationships that have enhanced their lives. Their friendship has become a safety net as they continue to watch over each other — even from afar.

“Every year they have a reunion, and I always go,” Oliver said. “They’ve all just kept in contact, and I see a lot of them locally. … They have this weird kind of brotherhood; it’s almost like a fraternity without being in a fraternity. I’ve seen it with other things in the past. If someone is down on their luck, or they have a sick child, or something happens to one of them, everybody else just steps up to help.”

And Miller’s family is now wrapping themselves in the affection of that football family, which has grown to include fans, hoping to insulate themselves, even just a little, from the heartbreak of watching multiple myeloma steal the man they always saw as invincible.

Roneathe Lee cannot look at her big brother without tears.

“He is a caring brother,” she said, almost in a whisper, “a good brother.”

Then he makes her laugh.

“He was always the flamboyant one,” she said. “He’s our entrepreneur. He’ll say it, and then he’ll do it. He will get his big goals accomplished.”

None of those who love him are surprised at the outpouring of love — or that he didn’t ask for help until it was almost too late.

“He is very strong,” Oliver said. “He always overcomes things. He was making less of this situation for years, which is typical.”

Miller’s charm is evident, even as he struggles just to wet his lips or catch his breath. The man who once ran 40 yards in 4.5 seconds now musters Herculean effort just to eat a few bites of a small, crustless sandwich. But he is as captivating as he ever was — trading barbs and telling stories until the exhaustion overwhelms him.

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