Lions tackle Bob Miller was a success as lineman, horseman

Big Bob Miller played seven seasons for the Detroit Lions in the 1950s.

Big Bob Miller played seven seasons for the Detroit Lions in the 1950s.

Bob Miller was a man who always knew his own mind, even as a rookie. Detroit Lions quarterback Bobby Layne “loved to give the younger players a hard time,” linebacker Joe Schmidt once remembered. “He would make the younger players sing their school fight song or something dumb like that.

“Well, that never went over real big with Bob Miller. Layne could never get him to do what Bob didn’t want to do anyway, and you could see it didn’t go over real well with Layne. But that’s just the way Bob is.”

On a team filled with such stars as Layne, Schmidt, Leon Hart, and Doak Walker, the literally “unsung” Miller crashed pads in steady if unspectacular style at his left defensive tackle position. In a sense, he was the John Doe of the Lions’ glory days. To this day, when his name is mentioned, it’s often confused with that of Detroit Tigers bonus baby Bob Miller, who pitched four seasons at Briggs Stadium in the middle ‘50s.

According to Schmidt, Miller “was a very good football player who could have been a great one except that he had a bad back.” Bad back or not, Miller was one of just eight players to suit up for each of the Lions’ six postseason games during the 1950s: four championship games against Cleveland (in 1952-54 and 1957) plus divisional playoff games against Los Angeles (1952) and San Francisco (1957). Not even Schmidt, Layne, Walker, and Yale Lary—all Hall of Famers—could claim that distinction. Overall, the 6-3, 245-pound standout from Virginia played seven seasons in Detroit, 1952 through 1958. He was good enough to be named a first-team starter by The Sporting News in 1956.

Characteristically, Miller retired from football on his own terms, though he had just turned 29, was making $11,500 a year (a good salary for the era), and still could have played a few more seasons.

“I got out of football when they started talking about trading me here, trading me there,” he said. “I wasn’t going to go where they wanted me to go.” Instead he became involved in a successful stamping business in Metro Detroit. He did well enough to spend the last quarter-century of his life with no financial worries. He carved out a third career—after his NFL and industrial careers—as a leading Michigan thoroughbred trainer and breeder.

Miller first got into horse racing in the late 1970s. “A friend took me over to Detroit Race Course, and I just kept coming back,” he explained. “I guess there was some of the same psychology involved in horse racing as there was in football. It meant working hard and it meant constantly learning the business. It also offered competition, and I could come and go as I pleased.”

Along with his wife, Delphine, Miller operated Del-Rob Stables on their Clarkston farm. They had 870 winners out of 4,790 starts, including 59 stakes winners. “Racing gives me that adrenaline rush the way football did,” Miller once told a Chicago reporter after his filly came from eight lengths back to win a blanket finish at Hawthorne Race Course in Illinois. “When my horse runs a big race, it’s the way it was when I’d make a big play.”

Miller was a familiar sight at race tracks, his suit pocket stuffed with cigars, until he died at age 76 in 2009. He presumably left with few regrets. As he once said, “I’ve never done anything I didn’t want to do or that didn’t make me happy.”