In February of 2015, I finally got to do the exclusive interview that former Wharton High football star Joel Miller had promised from Day One he would give me — where he finally got to tell me and our readers his side of the story of the locker room incident between him and former University of South Florida (USF) head football coach Jim Leavitt that ultimately cost Leavitt his job when Joel was a walk-on onto the USF team.
Unfortunately, that incident became the defining moment of his too-short life and that interview was the last real conversation I ever had with Joel, who passed away unexpectedly on September 10 at the too-young age of 29. Joel was a month or so older than my older son Jared, who first got to know his friend when both played youth football for the New Tampa Wildcats.
“Joel and I became a lot closer after high school,” Jared said. “I can’t believe he’s gone.”
Of course, Joel would become one of the top running backs in Hillsborough County when he played for Wharton, where he ran for more than 2,600 yards his final two high school seasons and won Hillsborough County’s 2006 Golden Helmet Award for Class 5A-6A players.
We published my interview with Joel in our February 28, 2015, issue, and it was easy to tell that he still hadn’t reconciled how or why the incident happened or how he ended up being blamed for what happened to Leavitt afterward.
“I wasn’t the whistleblower who called the media after the incident,” Joel told me. “I never wanted anyone to find out what happened. I just wanted to play football.”
I was sad that neither Jared nor I were able to attend Joel’s Celebration of Life at St Mark the Evangelist Catholic Church on Cross Creek Blvd. on Sept. 23, but I tried to picture myself in his parents’ shoes and my heart bleeds for Kathy, the long-time local school teacher who I know loved Joel the way I love both of my boys.
Like many other people, I found out about Joel’s passing on Facebook, where I saw this post from Kathy:
“My baby Joel passed away today. I am numb and heartbroken. As you all know, we were very close… I don’t even know what to say or what to do…I know he knows I love him and hope he is at peace… My Joely.”
And then, after his memorial service on the 23rd, Kathy posted:
“Our family would like to thank everyone for donating money towards Joel’s Memorial Service. It was beautiful. Thank you to all who attended the Celebration of Life. We truly appreciate it very much. It was great seeing everyone and hearing the stories that included Joel. We also appreciate all the cards, texts, phone calls, visits and food. This has been a very difficult time for all of us. It still doesn’t seem real. We want each and every one of you to know how much your support has meant to us. Love, the Miller Family.”
A few days later, on Jared’s own 29th birthday, he posted: “I dedicate this birthday to Joel Miller. I will forever miss you man! Wish that you were here. Love you, bud. My prayers are with your family!”
And, one of Joel’s former coaches at Wharton (and for the New Tampa Wildcats) Craig Rainey, who also was our neighbor when I first moved my family to Florida, posted this:
“Joel, I really don’t even know where to start and can’t believe it. I will never forget you coming in as a freshman introducing yourself, telling me you were our starting running back. From that day forward I knew you were going to be fun to coach and you were. So glad that we developed a friendship and always kept in touch. I have many memories that I will never forget. You were a great kid and touched so many around you. I love you and am going to miss you kid. RIP. Godspeed. Heaven has gained another angel. My thoughts and prayers are with the entire Miller Family.”
Rest in Peace, Joel. You are missed.