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South Salt Lake Journal

An ode to former Cottonwood head football coach Casey Miller who put kids first

Jan 06, 2023 10:11AM ● By Brian Shaw

Casey Miller is blurred in the foreground in the photo with the kids in focus, just how he’d prefer it. (City Journals)

Down, but never out. 

Down 21-0 and facing a third down from their own 30 early in the second quarter Oct. 12 against a Logan team that had twice the number of players, Cottonwood’s punter caught the ball from his long snapper—and threw it to an open player on the fake punt try for 28 yards and a Colts first down. 

Two plays later, Cottonwood head football coach Casey Miller again had no choice but use his wits against Bart Bowen, his former boss at Cottonwood who was now head coach at Logan. Miller sent out two pairs of three receivers out wide on each side, completing a 2-yard pass. On third down and eight Miller again had his Colts trot out onto the field in another unorthodox formation. Wide receiver Roman Caywood took the handoff on an end-around and threw a dart to running back Jaxon Martinez in stride for a 32-yard touchdown pass, cutting the Logan lead to 21-6. 

After the missed PAT and trailing 28-6 on the very next series, senior Brock Simpson rolled right and hurtled a missile that the junior Caywood high-pointed while falling awkwardly on his hip at the Logan 1. Caywood collected himself, and hopped right back up for the next play, severely hobbled yet determined to continue when every 5A or 6A head coach would’ve sat him for the rest of the game. 

Two plays later, junior Kaelen Gray fell in the end zone, again high-pointing the football but catching it—out of bounds. He got up too, because football, in the words of one former player I talked to, “is fun with Coach.” Then senior Lincoln Martinez plunged into pay dirt while Logan defenders grabbed furiously at the Colts’ workhorse’s No. 24 jersey, narrowing the lead to 28-13 with a minute left before the half. Cottonwood only had 34 “healthy” players at that point in the game against their former head coach Bowen. Miller didn’t care that they were outmanned and neither did his players—most of whom were playing through some sort of an injury. They played as hard as they could through every whistle. Though it almost seems unfair to have to summarize Miller’s last two scoring drives as Cottonwood’s head coach, readers deserve to know about this guy. 

The fair catch free kick at Jordan High School that won Cottonwood the game in stunning fashion on Sept. 30 and went viral was all because of Miller’s willingness to dare to try something that had never before been done in high school football. The onside kick that led to the Colts’ second and only other win of the season against Murray on Homecoming Sept. 16 and gave the Colts the momentum they needed from the opening kickoff to stun their crosstown rival was all his doing, too. 

It was the sort of trickery that Miller had to use while faced with incomparable odds in every game the undermanned Colts played this season. “We ran double pass, skip-pass, reverses, ‘Daffy Duck’ formation, lineman throwback screens,” said Miller after the season ended, unaware this reporter was writing an article about him. “We punted on third down once, the fair-catch-kick, and practiced a lot more [that went unused].”

Miller coached as hard when they were losing as he did when they were winning. Miller did everything he could short of put up players at his house. Miller fed the kids by having his wife make team meals and put them in the school’s freezer weeks in advance; he taught the kids who didn’t have father figures in their lives how to tie their neckties around their dress shirts that were all donated through charity; he watched their grades like a hawk and yet, for some reason the football gods didn’t smile upon coach Miller eight times this year—though you wished they had. 

One parent of a Colts player said on Facebook, “This was the most exciting year I’ve ever had watching this team and even though they didn’t always win, they played their hardest every time they walked out there!” 

Instead of having to play on just one side of the ball, almost all of these Colts played both sides, every play, for the entire football season. 

If Miller knew he was being profiled for this story in advance, he’d say he’d rather it be a profile piece about one of his players—about the impact they were making in the community. But since this was his last season at Cottonwood as head coach and he resigned his position on Nov. 9 because “his players were all transferring,” this writer wanted him to know that he’s made his hometown of Magna proud; he made the kids who opted to play football for Cottonwood High School proud; and he also made a lot of people who never cared much about football care in this reporter’s 20-plus years of covering it. 

In 2022, Miller was the Jim Fassel of Utah high school football, the mad scientist who’s actually a chemistry teacher by trade, tinkering with different kinds of formulas to make things work when others couldn’t, fitting together trinkets where others wouldn’t and moving around the 30 players who were healthy that week. 

When the going got tough, and his starters weren’t ready to go mentally or physically, he’d call up reinforcements from the freshmen/sophomore team that was also depleted and had played a game the day before. The week after that stunning upset and viral free kick win at Jordan he only had about 25 kids for a long, four-hour bus ride to Hurricane yet still put up 37 points—30 in the first 20 minutes on Oct. 7. By halftime as his Colts had run out of gas, the senior QB he’d mentored since ninth grade [Brock Simpson] had already thrown for 355 yards and four TDs.

If it was a good week for Miller, he might be up to 34 players—while he competed on a weekly basis against other teams that had 90 players just on their varsity.  

Miller told the City Journals before the first game of the season that he was “determined to make it work with what we’ve got,” and he thought “this could be the year we break through.” Miller was bound and determined to win as many games in 2022 as were lost—despite an arcane, imbecilic rule that allows Cottonwood High students to actually “choose” what school they can play football for. He once estimated before the pandemic that one-third of Cottonwood’s students eligible to play for other high schools could have filled up his roster to about 60 players. That’s still short of the Class 5A standard by about 20-30 players depending on which school you’re talking about, but still enough for him and his coaching staff to put up a terrible fight against anyone.  

The former Cyprus QB who was named All-State back in the day led one of, if not the most, talented Pirates teams ever under the legendary Sonny Sudbury, a team on which a younger brother of an old girlfriend of this reporter played. She said they hoisted trophies from Little League all the way up to high school in their blue and gold. Loyal to the Cyprus High School, Miller was a leader of men now as he was back then, in a town of Magna that only speaks of its heroes in hushed tones. 

At Cottonwood, he turned young Colts struggling with bad grades and bad home lives into stallions of men emboldened to fight for the right to earn scholarships like none in their families had before them. He turned over every rock to find players who were willing to turn over their hearts and souls for the cause, to fight like hell on both sides of the football no matter the odds. He scoured the hallways turning overweight astrophysics nerds who had never played a down in their entire lives into rock-hard physical specimens who became leaders of men on the gridiron, and who willed their teammates to near .500-records for three seasons as an independent and still, were named All-Academic All-State. 

In his eyes, those would be the awards of which Miller was most proud. So when you say his 2022 record was 2-8, it was in one sense, but oh, did he ever give it his all. No matter what the record says, Miller is an All-State head coach in this reporter’s book. And though nobody ever gives out that sort of award, this reporter doesn’t know many, if any, head coaches who would have dared do what he tried to do, at a school fighting like hell to keep a football program, with how few kids he had to work with. 

“I honestly don’t know how he did it,” said one head coach whose team went far in the state playoffs and has 200 kids to choose from, every week. “But if anyone could do it, it would be Casey.”