I met Kevin Miller my freshman year at East Hartford High School on the first day of wrestling practice in 1984. Kevin was a year older than me. He was also the returning varsity starter in my 126- pound weight class that year. In case you’ve just done the math, yes Kevin was good enough and tough enough to wrestle varsity as only a freshman in 1983.
I would have to wrestle Kevin every day in practice and every week in wrestle-offs for the varsity position because that was Coach Steve Konopka’s rule. Nobody’s spot was guaranteed. Every single week one had to fight for their place in a wrestle-off. Weekly wrestle-offs meant no rest or coasting for the varsity wrestlers. None of them could rest on their laurels or past victories over their teammates. It also meant a lot of weekly beatings for the jayvee and freshmen wrestlers who had to wrestle-off against the varsity guy every single week, regardless of how many times or how bad the varsity wrestler had beaten them before.
I must admit that for my first wrestle-off against Kevin I was very nervous. He was very good, and everyone knew that he was going to beat me. I felt like I was being sent to the lions when I had to wrestle him. Well, Kevin did what he was supposed to do, and he beat me 8-4. And he even broke the middle finger of my hand in that wrestle-off. It was a real battle in which I got battered, bruised, and broken. However, Kevin was nothing but a gracious winner. He even came over after to check on my injured hand and console my damaged ego. Kevin was a first class act. One of a kind.
The following week we wrestled off again, and to no one’s surprise, Kevin beat me again. This time the score was 9-8. And once again, Kevin was nothing but a gracious winner and a role-model to me, the beaten kid, and the rest of his teammates.
What happened the following week would have broken lesser men, especially ones that had been good enough to wrestle varsity as just a freshman. For the next two years, Kevin graciously watched me wrestle in his varsity spot without ever even mumbling a single complaint. During that entire time, Kevin never missed a practice, never let up, and was nothing but kind to me. He was also one of my biggest cheerleaders right there alongside Tim Victor, when I was in an especially tough match. Not many people could have done what Kevin did. Not many people could have shown this kind of character and class.
During my freshman year, we both wrestled in the 126- pound weight class. We both grew the following year at the same rate, and we both ended up in the 132- pound weight class together. We both grew again over the next year, and we both skipped over the 138- pound weight class and landed in the 145- pound weight class together. Kevin couldn’t seem to get away from me. We continued to wrestle-off every week, and Kevin always came back, no matter what. He never quit. He never let up. And he never had a bad thing to say even though it was his last chance as a senior to get back on the varsity team that he had done well on as just a freshman.
A few weeks into the season, Kevin did something none of us saw coming. He jumped up a weight class to the 155- pound division and wrestled-off our three-year varsity starter. Kevin won. And our three-year varsity starter in that weight class quit the very next day rather than wrestle jayvee behind Kevin. Our three-year varsity starter quitting only reaffirms how difficult it had been for Kevin all those years backing me up. He was as tough physically and mentally as they come.
Well, Kevin’s patience, persistence, and work ethic paid off pretty quick for him once he regained a varsity spot on the East Hartford High School wrestling team in 1986. In the very tough East Hartford Christmas wrestling tournament Kevin surprised everyone by making it all the way to the finals in the 155- pound weight class. However, he would wrestle a kid from NFA who became the 155-pound state champ, and many thought Kevin’s opponent was unbeatable.
In a real gutsy performance, Kevin kept the match a lot closer than most people thought it would be. And then with only a few seconds left in the match, Kevin scored an escape point to come from behind to win the match. Everyone went nuts for Kevin! He was the champion of one of the toughest tournaments that the state of Connecticut had back in those days. Whoever won that tournament usually went on to become a state champion a few months later. And again, Kevin was nothing but a gracious winner. He even consoled his 2nd place opponent on the winners’ block while getting his 1st place award.
A couple of months later, Kevin and the NFA boy would be competing again in a big wrestling tournament; this one was for the state championship title. However, that weekend, unfortunately, was not Kevin’s weekend. He came into the multi-day tournament with a terrible cold and could barely breathe. Kevin never complained of how unfair it was to be sick on that weekend of all weekends. Nor did he complain about taking 4th place in the tournament. Like always, Kevin congratulated the victor, the kid from NFA, who had taken what should have been his place on the highest step of the winners’ block. Once again, Kevin Miller showed his true colors.
Now, I must admit that the role Kevin played in my life changed after he graduated high school. I still had one more year of high school left, and Kevin was off to Paris Island and the marines. I knew he would do well there because he certainly was tough enough. I also knew that I was going to miss his infectious laugh. We were all going to miss his infectious laugh. Kevin was always smiling, joking, and laughing. We all assumed that the marines would harden him and those days we had spent laughing deeper and fuller just because Kevin was laughing would be over. And that would be sad because Kevin’s laugh always had a way of making people feel better.
Sadly, since Kevin’s graduation from high school, I have only seen him a handful of times. One of those times was many years ago when he came back from the marines. I had been in the army, so we had some excellent stories to trade. And thankfully Kevin still had his infectious laugh with him even after what he had gone through as a marine.
At some point that night, he told me that he was going to try to become a police officer. I prayed for his success. And I also prayed for him to somehow keep his laugh and his sense of humor through the very tough and difficult day in and day out police work that was ahead of him.
Years went by, and I hadn’t seen Kevin. Every once in a while when I noticed my old beat up, bent finger Kevin broke many years earlier, I would wonder what happened to Kevin and what he was doing now. You know, come to think of it, only Kevin would have permanently bent and misaligned the middle finger on one of his opponent’s hands rather than one of the other more acceptable fingers. I guess that was just Kevin’s sense of humor… Even when Kevin isn’t trying to be funny, he still succeeds.
One day, about a decade ago, I was out jogging down route 87 in Columbia, Connecticut of all places. A police cruiser approached me from the rear that I did not see. I was made aware of the police presence when I heard through the cruiser’s loudspeaker system someone yelling at me that I wasn’t jogging close enough to the curb and that I needed to pull over. “How bizarre!” I thought. So, I stepped over the curb onto the grass and stopped to see what the heck was going on.
I couldn’t see the police officer at first because of the glare of the windshield. But, I did immediately hear that unmistakable infectious laugh that I hadn’t heard in so many years. I must admit thinking that it was music to my ears. I approached the police cruiser and saw Kevin Miller in there laughing so hard he almost bust a gut. He kept saying in between gasp for air, “You should have seen your face when you thought you were being pulled over for improper jogging!” Kevin made my day. I was so glad to see him again and so happy to hear that laugh again after all those years.
Sometime after this chance-meeting between Kevin and me during the jogging incident, Kevin unexpectedly came back into my life when he covered several times for the police officer that usually worked at the special education behavior challenge school where I was teaching. Typically, police officers don’t like to work these type of assignments because the kids are extremely difficult and the standard policing rules and policies go right out the window in that kind of non-traditional setting. Most law enforcement wants to avoid that kind of an assignment, but not Kevin. Every time he came into my school I saw him playing basketball with the kids and joking and laughing all day long with them. Not even these extremely difficult, troubled kids could get Kevin down, or steal his laugh. There was just no stopping Kevin Miller.
I eventually left that school and took another job about an hour away. I also moved again too, so I haven’t seen Kevin for quite some time now. As you could imagine, I was floored on this particular day when I saw my old buddy Kevin Miller on the news as the state trooper who had been in a terrible accident. It hit me even harder that night while I was at a school hosting my daughter’s regional soccer team. I was busy multi-tasking, writing a blog about my old buddy Kevin Miller, and watching my daughter play soccer when I overheard a coach say that one of their students is the son of state trooper Kevin Miller. I also heard him say that the boy’s father succumbed to his injuries. I had no idea I was sitting in the school my old buddy’s son attends. I guess our paths have crossed one more time, at least indirectly.
I write this article with a heavy hand and heart thinking about my old wrestling and combat buddy Kevin Miller. I hope somehow this article will float out in the digital universe forever and will somehow keep me and my old buddy connected forever. I will forever miss your infectious laugh, Kevin. We all will forever miss your contagious laugh, buddy. And like so many of us experience in our lives, I regret that I didn’t see more of you after high school. It would have only enriched my life and the lives of my own children. Maybe someday I’ll get to meet your son and tell him how tough you were on that mat and in life.
Good luck until I see you again buddy up there wherever you are now. Until then, I guess I will continue to look at and think about that gift you left me so many years ago when we were just young high school wrestlers—my bent, crooked middle finger on my left hand. I must admit, it looks kind of funny. I imagine your loud, infectious laugh when I hold it up for you to look at. Thanks for the time you spent here with us making this world a better place. You may rest now. You’ll always be remembered as one of Connecticut’s finest…
Dan Blanchard- Award Winning Author, Speaker, Educator, and Wrestler