It’s not very often that someone gets to interact with an athlete that they admired for their on-field performance. It’s less often the athlete ends up being an even better person. This perfectly describes former Steelers wide receiver Ernie Mills, who is as gracious as anyone I have ever interacted with. The first thing that struck me about the man was how humble he was and how grateful he was to the Rooneys, the Steeler organization, the city of Pittsburgh and the fans. The funny thing about our first conversation was that we never got to the point of why I was calling in the first place. When he introduced himself as Ernie Mills, I told him that I was originally from Johnstown in Western Pennsylvania and that I was a lifelong Steelers fan, and they had a fearless wide receiver, Ernie Mills who was one of my all-time favorites. It was at this point that Mr. Mills kind of laughed and informed me that I was talking to the same guy.
From the moment Ernie Mills arrived in Pittsburgh in 1991, as a third round draft pick out of Florida, he immediately went to work with the same determination that made him a first team All-SEC receiver in 1990. The Steelers love smart, physical players, and Mills was a perfect fit for an offense within a very physical AFC Central division. Coming out of the toughest conference in college football, Ernie Mills was prepared to transition into the toughest division in the NFL. He pre-dated a similar receiver that the Steelers would draft out of the SEC, Hines Ward, from Georgia. Both were fearless going across the middle and always popped up from a big hit with smiles on their faces. I asked Mills about this, because with some of the hits he took, it seemed there was no way he would get up. He simply said “no matter how hard they hit me, no matter how much it hurt, I got up smiling because there ain’t no way I was gonna let ’em know I was hurting”. Ernie Mills always got back up and then inflicted his own damage on defenses.
Mills was a big part of the Steelers 5-wide receiver set that helped lead the Steelers to Super Bowl XXX in 1995. Early on though, there were struggles within their group of receivers. Everyone wanted the ball, more playing time and wanted to be THE guy. Ernie thought it was a good idea to get all the receivers together to hang out off the field, to get to know each other as people, not just teammates. “We needed to play for each other instead of for ourselves,” Mills said “We needed to make the most out of each opportunity…..and not worry about when the opportunity would come.” This all paid huge dividends for their group and the offense as a whole. During practices they started experimenting with the 5-wide set, but evidently Bill Cowher was originally against the concept. He was however talked into giving it a shot during a Monday night matchup in Miami.
The fifth wide receiver used in the formation was little-used receiver Johnnie Barnes. They were pretty much given just one chance to make it work and Barnes was told “if the ball comes your way, you better catch it”. When the moment came to go 5-Wide, Neil O’Donnell fired a pass to Barnes and it fell incomplete. It appeared that the experiment was over, until rookie quarterback Kordell Stewart was used as a scout team receiver in practice. The Steelers secondary couldn’t seem to cover him, and once again the Steelers went back to the 5-wide set and the rest is history. The Steelers now had an explosive offense to back up a rather nasty defense and rode it all the way to Super Bowl XXX. If it wasn’t for Ernie Mills, though, the Steelers never would have made it to Phoenix.
Late in the fourth quarter of the 1995 AFC Championship game, the Steelers were facing third and long. Neil O’Donnell threw a deep ball down the right sideline, which looked to be headed out of bounds. If it was caught, it wouldn’t be in bounds, but somehow Ernie Mills caught it and tiptoed the sideline inside the five and down to the one. Mills’s catch set up the game winning touchdown that sent the Pittsburgh Steelers to their first Super Bowl in 15 years. Big catches were nothing new to Mills, who five years earlier caught a 70-yard pass from Shane Matthews that set up the game winning field goal to help Florida beat Alabama. Now Ernie Mills would be playing in the biggest game of his career.
Mills ended up being the Steelers second leading receiver in Super Bowl XXX. He had already racked up 8 receptions for 78 yards when he tore his ACL. This injury effectively ended his career with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He spent most of the 1996 season recovering, but did manage to catch 7 passes for 92 yards. Following the 1996 season, Ernie Mills left as a free agent for the Carolina Panthers. According to Mills, though, money wasn’t the issue. When I told him I wished he could have been a Steeler for life, but I didn’t blame him for leaving, he explained his departure. “Well, coming off my ACL injury, the turf at Three Rivers Stadium was too hard on my knee…the practice field was so bad that it was almost impossible play on, to run routes or make cuts on by the end of September, so we just practiced at the stadium.”
Ernie Mills still loves Steeler Nation and participates in organized tailgates with Ray Seals for the fan interaction and reminiscing. Since his playing days ended he has focused on helping to develop young men through coaching, plus spending time with his family and friends. When asked what is important to him, what he would want people to know, Mills texted this to me, “ultimately, I love putting smiles on people’s faces, as I smile every day regardless of the pain I may endure. And of course I smile when things are going well. I love my family and all people, whether we communicate daily or there’s a several year gap.”
Whether it’s been on the field or off, Ernie Mills always tries to help make the lives of others better through either coaching or counseling. Today Ernie is helping others through a business he was encouraged to get involved with, Financial Education Services. Ernie helps those who are looking to improve their financial future through planning, improved credit scores, and other means, and he really seems to enjoy the process. Personally after talking to Mr. Mills, I get the feeling that he just loves helping people in general and the process of making their lives better, like all leaders do.