Eric Miller: Keeping faith
"Glorify God in your body." 1 Corinthians 6:20. After an hour with Eric Miller, one word still reverberates. "Faith".
Published 21/05/2009 | 00:00
It had seemed to encroach in such a carefree manner, a casual hiatus in a lengthy conversation embracing everything from Shane Lowry to Damien Duff, the Dubs to the Grand Slam, Ulster and Leinster, Lions and Tigers.
You remember it had been a difficult decision for him to retire, announced midway through Michael Cheika's first season in charge of Leinster, culminating in 'Black Sunday', the Heineken Cup semi-final implosion against Munster at Lansdowne Road.
Despite all his achievements, it had seemed as if fate had perennially mocked him with injuries and illness. One of the game's aesthetic pleasures, the back-rower had once played over 40 games a season and, now just 30, his body was almost irrevocably bruised and battered.
So, it seems clearer now, was his mind.
"I needed to get away from the game," relays the dictaphone a few hours later. "I have a strong faith and that carried me through it." There it is again. "Faith".
Then a text message. "Hi Dave. Enjoyed interview. I know we didn't get to talk about my retirement but I would really appreciate if you mentioned that my faith has played a big part in helping me move on from rugby and has given me a great sense of purpose and direction in my life."
Clearly, Miller's post-retirement journey had assumed a significance of as much import as that which had thrilled so many supporters ever since his swashbuckling Schools' Cup days.
We need to talk again.
Later, Miller expands upon the profound Christian beliefs which allowed him to escape an ultimately destructive relationship with the game he loved -- a relationship which had become so fraught it threatened to sunder everyone who knew him.
By making that connection with a higher self, his real self, Miller was able to confront the end of his career much more phlegmatically than he ever imagined, perhaps now more secure in the knowledge that his new life would provide an everlasting feeling.
"I had all the injuries and frustrations like everyone else," he begins. "But when those feelings started detracting from my relationships with my girlfriend, now my wife, and people around me, I looked within myself and realised how selfish the sport was. You're treated like commodities really. You're relying on being selected regardless of whether you think you should be in or not, it's out of your hands.
"I suppose part of myself I didn't like was the way I handled certain situations when I was playing, especially being left out. It got to the stage where I was turning into a person I didn't want to be. My job was having a detrimental effect on myself, as a person, and that really grated with me."
He'd had dark periods after the 2003 World Cup. Not depressive in nature, but dark, angry times as he railed against the slow, tortuous erasure of all the certainties of his 21-year-old breakthrough at Leicester, when he was feted as one of the world's rising stars.
Selected for a Lions tour at merely 21, after a handful of Irish caps, nobody thought to tell him that gravy wouldn't keep overflowing like this forever.
When he reached 30, he felt older than his years and his spirit was enervated with every increasing niggling injury.
His life had changed but he hadn't changed with it.
He had always harboured some element of belief system. His parents were mixed marriage, Dad a Protestant and Mum a Catholic, but they invested in him a religious appreciation from a young age.
"I always went to church when I grew up, went to different types of churches wherever I was living, even over at Leicester. I was always kind of spiritually minded. But I always fell back into the bad habits and I knew I needed something more than just going to church."
He found something more in 2005. He needed to. His relationship with Jenny, now his wife, was literally disconnected. He could handle difficulties with friends or team-mates but Jenny too? The demons were out of control.
"In 2005, I turned to Christianity and it had a profound effect on me," he says simply.
"It gave me a purpose and direction to make a decision with clarity and no ill-feeling, it gave me the chance to move on."
He acknowledges a sense of awkwardness in broaching the subject but, in reality, it is merely the perception of other people which seems awkward. Those who don't know him -- heck, even those who do know him -- picture a flock of bearded, Kumbaya-humming sandal-wearers calling to his home and force-feeding him bible lessons. The reality is so different. So mundane and yet so profound at the same time.
"Initially, it might have been difficult to talk about it because Christianity is a very broad thing," he admits. "There's an extreme version of what a Christian is. They're labelled as these happy-go-lucky kind of people.
"But I just think ultimately it's for and about people who want to confront their own failings. My experience is that they are very honest people who want to confront their feelings, confront their demons, and are willing to do that in front of God and the people around them. I suppose it gets rid of any guilt or self pity in your life and that's a huge thing that people bear."
Reacquainting himself with purpose and direction also allowed him to take stock of his career, a career many felt was cursed by bad luck and ill fortune; Miller now only saw blessing. "I fulfilled my dreams," he says.
And that sense of purpose and direction belatedly allowed him to re-connect with himself, his friends, Jenny and look towards a future not dependent on rugby and the destructive damage inflicted upon his soul by the vicissitudes of non-selection or injury.
"To be honest, I've been blissfully content ever since, well as close as you can get to that stage," confesses Miller, whose segue into golf conditioning with his own company, 'The Golf Solution (ericmillergolfsolution.com) ', was one of the crucial reasons behind Lowry's remarkable Irish Open triumph.
"I've been able to move on and do the things that I love doing. And I've discovered I really want to get into rugby coaching. I love that now. Christianity has given me a clear perspective on the world."
In these harsh times, Miller's journey has been shared by many. The Catholic Church report that 40pc more candles are being lit in churches throughout the country; many of us, it seems, are searching for a connection similar to that achieved by Miller.
"Christianity answered some of the hard questions for me. Most people are searching for something outside themselves now, especially with the way the economy is going at the moment," he says.
"I can say that my belief has answered some of the difficult questions people have in their life. It's been very positive for me. All that I've learned in the last few years has allowed me to live the life that I have now, making the right decisions and so far it's working well. It's had a great effect, I've made great friends and they've been a great support along with my family."
Where once Miller's athletic frame encapsulated his soul, life has turned full circle. Now his soul is the key driving force in his life. Helping him to rediscover the truth. His family. And, most of all, himself.