By Scott Sudikoff
Although Harvard senior defensive back Zach Miller had only appeared in 12 games in the first three years of his Crimson career, he was elected as the 145th captain in team history. Proof that the game of football is much more than what happens between the lines on gameday.
Miller, a 6-foot-1, 185-pound economics major from Houston, Texas, got his start in football at the very early age of seven while he was in second grade.
"I was a year younger than everyone," explained Miller. "We did board drills where we went head-to-head with someone trying to drive them off the board. That's the first thing I remember."
When Miller first moved to his neighborhood in Houston, he'd visit a local middle school just to watch the older kids play.
"We'd always pretend we were outside playing like them," said Miller. "I had never seen football players in person."
Growing up, Zach would attend games with his father at the University of Texas and watch players like Ricky Williams and Vince Young perform for the Longhorns.
"My dad was the biggest inspiration for me playing football," said Miller. "He wasn't an athlete back in school because he grew up with a single mom that didn't want him to get hurt, but he definitely had the biggest impact on my football life."
On the field for Miller, it wasn't love at first sight, as it took some time to get used to the physical aspect of it.
"Honestly when I first started playing, I was kind of scared," remembers Miller. "I was always scared to get hit, so I just ran away from everyone. It became a game of keep-away, I didn't want to get hurt and I wanted to score!"
Eventually Miller got over that hurdle and while still playing football, he picked up other sports to keep himself busy throughout the year, including baseball, basketball and running track. Being involved with other sports helped Miller on the football field.
"Basketball and baseball are a lot more technical and you had to work by yourself more," said Miller. "It taught me discipline, taught me to go out there and work when you're by yourself."
In high school, Miller ended up playing at Stratford High, one of a handful of high schools in the Houston area. It was there that he experienced how high school football is a way of life in Texas.
"The community rallies around football," said Miller. "Everyone loves it, everyone supports the team. It's not as dramatic as the movies make it, but the community support and attention are definitely there."
Miller's first boost of confidence at the high school level came during the spring after his freshman season when the coaching staff moved him into the upper-class practice sessions.
"Me and five other kids got moved into that," added Miller. "The coaches think I'm doing something right, so I've got to step up and be a leader."
While playing as a cornerback and safety at Stratford, Miller was a three-year letterwinner, and was team captain as a senior. He also became a two-time All-District selection while being an honorable mention All-State performer as a senior.
When Miller first heard that Harvard football was interested in him, he was a bit surprised.
"They have football? I had no idea, I'm from the south," joked Miller. "I had never thought about going to an Ivy League school or playing football for an Ivy League school."
During Miller's senior year in high school after a Thursday game, he and his dad decided to make a quick trip up to Harvard to check out an early-season practice and scrimmage held by the Crimson. The rest was history.
"The energy that I saw from the defensive side of the room, maybe the most intense feeling I've ever gotten as a part of Harvard football," explained Miller. "I want to be here, I want to be around these guys."
Miller committed to the Crimson just a few days later and canceled the rest of his college visits.
While at Harvard, Miller hasn't seen the field as much as he would have hoped due to injuries, but he has remained a big contributor to the team in other ways. He himself took lessons from the tough times.
"It taught me how to overcome adversity that much more," described Miller. "Sometimes you have to take a backseat role and understand that everyone on this team has a role no matter where you fall on the depth chart."
Because of Miller's influence on and off the field, he was elected to be the captain of the 2018 team by his teammates.
"He's a great speaker," said senior defensive tackle Richie Ryan. "He's just a natural leader as so many guys are at Harvard."
"He's incredible," added senior running back Charlie Booker. "He's so easily relatable, a guy you can talk to and laugh with, but he's also that guy that will hold you accountable."
As is the case with many things, the success of a program filters from the top, and Miller thinks the same is the case with Tim Murphy, the Thomas Stephenson Family Head Coach for Harvard Football.
"Coach Murphy has established and created a culture that is unlike any other," said Miller. "You're not going to be around a greater guy to motivate you and get you where you want to be on the field and academically."
Murphy shares similar sentiments about Miller.
"Zach is a tremendous leader who is admired and respected by everyone connected with Harvard football," said Murphy. "He has overcome a great deal of adversity to become an outstanding football player and leader in our secondary."
After playing in just 12 games over the course of his first three years on campus, as of press time, Miller has appeared in eight games in 2018. He earned his first career interception in the season opener versus San Diego, and has added 32 tackles, one sack and one forced fumble.