Scott Brown, Author and Staff Writer, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
First, can you let readers know about your new book, “Heaven Sent: The Heather Miller Story,”. What prompted you to write the story and how difficult of a story was it to tell?
The book evolved from a newspaper story I wrote in late June of 2010 about the unique relationship that Heather Miller formed with a handful of people in the Steelers’ organization during her 16-month battle with cancer. There was so much I wasn’t able to get in the story because of space limitations and I later approached Wendy Miller, Heather’s mother, about turning the story into a book.
We met close to ten times in 2011 but the book never really got traction for several reasons, and then I got busy covering the Steelers again and we pretty much lost contact. We set up a meeting in late January of 2012 to see if we could revive the project, and I don’t think either one of us had much optimism in anything happening. But something clicked that day and from there we met regularly and everything started falling into place, and it came out in early December.
It was a difficult book to write and I’d be lying if it wasn’t emotionally draining at times. But, as I’ve told Wendy and others countless times, I had the easy part. She is the one who had to re-live something no parent should ever have to go through. Without her collaboration there is no book. That and the fact that we incorporated some of her writing from when Heather was sick and after she passed is the reason why I insisted that her name also go on the cover of the book.
The thing that surprised me most is how open Wendy was throughout the interview process. She said from the start that she wanted to give an honest, unflinching look at dealing with cancer as well as the grief after Heather passed away. She held herself to that standard no matter how tough it was at times. I’ve had many people ask me how did I not cry the whole time while writing the book? Part of the reason for that is, again, I had the easy part.
The Steelers were, simply put, awesome in supporting Heather and the Millers. Probably what Heather cherished most was spending time with the players and not talking about football but simply hanging out and doing things that 10-year-olds love to do, and I think they really appreciated how she treated them as regular people and not just football players.
One story I do write about in the book is what Troy did before Heather’s first major surgery. He left the jersey he wore in the 2008 AFC Championship Game as a surprise for Heather at Children’s Hospital on a Friday, and she was scheduled to have surgery on Monday. Heather was so excited — and kept guessing what the surprise might be — that it took her mind off the surgery that weekend. Then, after receiving the jersey, it allowed her to take an air of confidence into the surgery, and that is one example of what the Steelers did to pick her up when she needed it.
The book benefits a handful of causes from Western Pennsylvania Make-A-Wish Foundation and the Brian Morden Foundation, an Altoona-based charity that supported Heather and the Millers, to Penn State’s Dance Marathon. Also, proceeds are going to the oncology department at Children’s Hospital in Troy’s name. Since he was so gracious in doing interviews and allowing us to use a picture of him and Heather for the book cover we wanted to make sure some of the proceeds went to a cause of his choosing.
The book is available at a variety of stores in the Bedford/Altoona area and some in Pittsburgh. It is probably best for people to buy from the website www.milsonpublishing.com. Orders are shipped the day after they are received and there is a lot of other cool stuff on the site, including videos featuring Heather and the Steelers.
It wasn’t difficult doing the book and covering the team because before I even doubled back and talked to players like Troy Polamalu, Heath Miller and Casey Hampton, I had accepted a move to cover the newly created Penn State/golf beat. The good thing is I still had access to players and coaches since I covered the Steelers through the end of OTAs in June, but I have not covered them at all since then.
Wow, there have been so many great stories and people I’ve met since I got into the business. And a lot of the best stories are ones that never saw print because they came in off the record sessions with players or coaches/managers in a small group of reporters they trusted and allowed them to put their guard down.
I covered spring training when I worked for Florida Today, and covered Frank Robinson, who managed the Expos/Nationals for a couple of years and was as old school as they come. He would often chat off the record after his morning meeting with the reporters who covered the team every day and keep in mind spring training is relaxed by nature because of the gorgeous March weather and the fact that every team is still undefeated. Those sessions were so memorable because it was a living legend Frank Robinson telling stories and giving his opinions (and he often had strong ones) about the game.
The one I can relay with some editing is this. Someone asked Frank one day about a player who had been a borderline candidate for the Hall of Fame gain entrance one year. Sparing that player’s name Frank said, “(So and so) is in the Hall of Fame, but I am a Hall of Famer.” It was classic Frank, who I think is one of the most underrated all-time greats in any sport. Another side that people didn’t always see to regarding the person who had a reputation for being gruff and at times surly: Robinson sitting on a golf cart after a spring training practice or game and signing for everything that had waited for him. The only thing he wouldn’t sign were bats because he knew people would try to sell them. Good for him.
You’ve written five books – what do you enjoy about that process versus the daily reporting you do?
The thing that I enjoy about books is the process is so different from the daily grind of newspapers. There is time to actually report and write, and you sure as heck better do your reporting if you are writing a non-fiction book or you are not going to have a very long or substantive book. Plus, there aren’t the space limitations that are reality when working for newspapers, especially now when editors are as convinced as ever that shorter is the way to go given everything else that is competing for readers’ attention.
I’m not sure I have a favorite book but “Heaven Sent: The Heather Miller Story” is the most meaningful thing I have ever done professionally and maybe in my life. It has had such a profound effect on my on several levels, and I have become so close with Wendy and her family that they really have become a second family to me. The most gratifying thing is some of the reviews we have gotten from readers who said reading the book helped put something they were dealing with into perspective and how they drew inspiration from the story even though Heather passed away from cancer. That tells you what kind of impact she had on people.