Fred McMillan never quit; and he never will

Allegany Radio Corporation Sports

The beautiful thing about Fred McMillan was, is and always will be his insistence upon seeing the beautiful thing in you.

For those of you who didn’t know Fred McMillan – though I can’t imagine anybody around here not knowing Fred McMillan – his start into moving onward and upward came from his being a big strong, tough, larger than life football player and track star, first for Fort Hill High School, and then for West Virginia University.

Fred died so unexpectedly in early 2011 at the age of 61. Yet, if you know Fred, to this day it’s as though he never left.

Fred was just a big, tough, ornery kid from South End and was the toughest son of a gun who ever lived. He could run like the wind, and he was so graceful and naturally athletic, it made your heart sing.

The third Fred McMillan Golf Classic is Sunday, Sept. 19 at the Cumberland Country Club. There will be at least 26 teams participating – four players on each team – and so many of Fred’s family members and friends will be in attendance for this community event because …

… Because, while Fred was the proverbial bull in the china shop on the field (and sometimes off of it), his demeanor, his manners, his generosity and his way, out here in real life where it really counts, made him as gentle as a warm summer breeze, and truly defined him — more so than did his being a big, tough, ornery kid from South End who starred at football and track at Fort Hill and then at WVU.

They are the qualities of Fred’s that still make your heart sing even more, and they are the qualities that always gravitated so many of us toward Fred.

On the field, Fred was a two-time All-City football selection for Fort Hill in 1966 and ’67, then went on to letter three years at West Virginia University, playing in the 1969 and ’72 Peach Bowls for head coaches Jim Carlen and the great Bobby Bowden.

On the surface, everything about Fred McMillan exuded football and toughness, but Fred wasn’t that simple. He was far from being one dimensional. There was a conflict, a good conflict, with Fred — when he took the field, as well as when he was off the field, where it got down to who Fred McMillan really was.

Fred was larger than life, on the field, but particularly off of it. He reminded you of somebody you’d see in the movies. His features were large, his mannerisms were large, his voice was large, his reactions were large, and his heart was even larger.

True, he could be combustible to the point of his not thinking twice in telling you he thought you were full of it, but most times he was very gentle, well-mannered, and generous to the point of having the ability to tug at your heartstrings and, again, make your heart sing all at once.

Just as his high school football coach, Charles E. Lattimer, did, Fred had a particular soft spot in his heart for elderly people, for whom taking care of themselves grew more difficult each day.

In this regard, when I was around Fred, I often thought of the title of Alex Karras’ book: “Even Big Guys Cry.”

I never saw Fred McMillan cry.

But I know he did.

Fred was stubborn; he was peaceful. He sometimes made you aware of his temper; he made you comfortable with his genuine interest and concern for others.

Yes, he was as tough as any football player we’ve ever known. Yet he was as graceful and athletic as any track and field performer we’ve ever seen.

He threw the shot put and the discus, but he could outrun just about any sprinter on the track at any given time. He played center and linebacker on the football field, but he just as easily could have been the star in the backfield.

“I always thought I could have been the fullback at Fort Hill,” Fred once told me. “But Coach Lattimer wanted me to play center and linebacker — they were his positions, the positions he played. And that was all right by me.

“But I think I would have been a pretty good fullback.”

When Fred died suddenly over 10 years ago, moments after providing a perfect stranger with directions, we all were shocked; not because we thought Fred was really Superman, but because it never ever entered our minds that anything could ever happen to Fred.

Because, well … he was Fred.

I found Fred to be quite reflective at times, never more so than when Coach Charlie Lattimer died in 2004. Fred, you see, shared a relationship with Coach Lattimer that not many people did or could have. Their backgrounds were very similar. Neither one of them had an easy road to things, and they seemed to appreciate that nobody other than each other could understand what the other one was all about.

“To me, Coach Lattimer had a huge impact on my life,” Fred told me at the time of Lattimer’s death. “I don’t know if I would have gone to college if not for him. I lived with my grandmother, and I remember when I had problems or got into trouble, he would take me out for what I called our father-and-son talks. We’d walk around the track or around the baseball field, and he would help me out …

“I thought the world of him.”

Whatever advice was handed down during those walks around the Fort Hill campus was certainly heeded.

“The most important thing Coach Lattimer taught me,” Fred said, “was no matter how tough things are, no matter how tough the situation is, don’t quit … To me, Coach Lattimer made me want to work hard for him. He made me want to do well. I think he had more impact on my adult life than anyone else, except my wife (Diane).”

To have known Fred is to have known he believed in hard work and in never quitting. And while many of us have been blessed with the finest teachers and the finest mentors, not enough of us are smart enough, or tough enough, to take what we have been taught and use it to do our best day-in and day-out. To never give up. Or to ever quit.

Fred was, though. He never did less than his best to ensure the people he loved had nothing but the best. He considered himself a fortunate man; and he was, mostly through his own doing.
Fred McMillan was a kind man; he was a gentleman, generous to a fault. And, yes, he was tough. Tough in a way that gets you along to a far better place in life than it ever can on a football field.

And isn’t that something to consider, something to ponder and something to celebrate?

Celebrate it on Sunday at the Cumberland Country Club, with Fred and so many of his friends.

He would be humbled by that. But Fred would like that, because he would hope it would allow us to see those same qualities in ourselves and in each other.

Mike Burke writes about sports and a lot of other stuff for Allegany Radio and Pikewood Digital. He began covering sports for the Prince George’s Sentinel in 1981 and joined the Cumberland Times-News sports staff in 1984, serving as sports editor for over 30 years. Contact him at mike.burke@wvradio.com and follow him on Twitter @MikeBurkeMDT