International Men

 
July 3, 2014

Go West, Young Man

Zach Miller's college choice makes him a unique member of the up-and-coming Iroquois generation

by Will Cleveland | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter | World Lacrosse 2014

The unexpected partnership between University of Denver men's lacrosse coach Bill Tierney and his star freshman Zach Miller might not have worked. It involved a legendary coach with six national championships on his resume, building a power in the West, and the quietly determined left-handed Native American phenom from an upstate New York reservation. Native American players have traditionally stayed close to home, but Miller has never been one to follow the preordained path.

Tierney knew that Miller, who already started to follow his own path when he went to The Hill Academy in Ontario for four years of high school, was a special individual the first time they sat together in Tierney's office in the shadow of the Colorado mountains. During a recruit visit, Miller liked everything he heard and saw about what being a Pioneer could be, but there was one question he couldn't shake form his mind, and still hadn't yet asked toward the end.

Tierney could sense that something was troubling Miller.

"He said, 'No.' And I said, 'Yes, there is. I've never had a Native American young man, but I've had a lot of young men that I've interviewed and recruited," Tierney recollected. "'What's wrong?'"

Miller turned to his mom.

"Tell him," she said.

While most Iroquois players who played college ball stayed close to home, Miller is making his mark out in Denver with coach Bill Tierney. (Tero Webster)
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"Well, coach, I understand that you make your players cut their hair," Miller said. "In my culture..."

Tierney stopped him after three words.

"I would never, ever cross the line of your culture," he said. "If this is that meaningful to you, maybe you can teach all the others about it, and we'll have them all grow out their hair.' He looked up at me, and it was the first sign of him having a great sense of humor, and he said, 'Coach, I don't think I can braid all their hair.'"

Miller faced a similar situation before he decided to enroll at The Hill Academy in Vaughn, Ontario, and play under coach Brodie Merrill.

"Before they accepted him, he was looking through the code of conduct before the interview," said Miller's mother, Dawn Colburn. "It said short, clean haircuts. He panicked and said, 'I don't know if I want to go here if I have to cut my hair.' When they came and got him for the interview, it was the first question he asked. They saw his ponytail, and they said not to worry. Then he started to breathe again."

According to Colburn, Miller's hair is "a connection with his identity as a Native American. He's very proud of that."

Iroquois feel a deep connection and bond with the sport played by their ancestors. There is an older generation that played in college, including Gewas Schindler at Loyola, Brett Bucktooth and Marshall Abrams at Syracuse, and Neal Powless at Nazareth, but a newer generation, including Ty, Lyle, and Miles Thompson at Albany, Randy Staats at Syracuse, and Miller at Denver are taking their love of the sport and unique outlook to different Division I schools. Miller, from Seneca Nation, is part of a younger generation of native players that will form part of the roster for the Iroquois Nationals for July's FIL World Lacrosse Championships in Denver. He's also among a new generation that is gaining more experience in the field game.

"For me, there were always a few players that I looked up to," said Jeremy Thompson, an important ambassador for that new generation and a former standout at Syracuse who now suits up for the NLL's Edmonton Rush and MLL's Florida Launch. "I think that number has just grown, and those guys are walking by example, proving it by example, and showing the younger and younger ones that there are a lot of possibilities taking that route, instead of just kind of hanging back and staying on the reserves."

Miller, 19, had 38 goals and 19 assists this season, adding a new dimension to a talented and deep core of Pioneers. The Pioneers reached their third final four in the last four seasons — falling to Duke in the semifinal — and Miller gave them a valuable left-handed option on the attack that they haven't had since the graduation of Mark Matthews in 2012.

"I just have a deep love for the game," Miller said. "Every time I go out, I just have fun with it and I give it my all. I play as hard as I can and just always try to get better. It's just the attitude I have. The whole team carries that around with them. Every time I step on the field, I try to represent who I am, where I came from. Everyone knows that you go out and play for the right reasons. You play to honor the Creator and because you love the game."

Miller is currently one of 27 players currently in consideration for the Iroquois' final World Championship team. But he has a big advantage due to his experience with the Iroquois Nationals at the 2012 under-19 world games in Finland, where in round-robin play, an Iroquois team beat the United States for the first time ever in international field competition.

"We'll probably be a little younger as a team than some of the other top teams, but I think we will make up for lack of experience and age with ability, skill, and flat-out dedication and commitment to each other," said Iroquois Nationals coach Steve Beville, who said Miller's extensive field lacrosse experience works in his favor. Miller also has the ability to face off, run with the midfield, or play on the attack, said Beville.

For Miller, representing the Iroquois Confederacy on the international stage would be the culmination of a lifelong dream.

"That's just an honor to be playing for the Iroquois Nation. It's pretty much playing for your own country," Miller said. "You are representing not only your family and community, but also all Native Americans across the country and around the world."

He also recognizes that he is an example to younger kids, including his two-month old daughter Anamaii.

"He's starting to realize that it's not just about him anymore. It's helping him to really grow into a man and to take on more responsibility," Colburn said. "He's doing it for her, too. He has a lot of people in his life that inspire him and let him know that she'll be proud of him and that he needs to keep moving forward for her.

"I am so proud of him. I can't even put it into words," she said. "He's an inspiration to me every day. I've told him this over and over, that the way he follows his dream with his whole heart, it is so amazing. There are barriers and bumps in the road, but he's always going to keep moving forward."

Denver senior midfielder Jeremy Noble, who also played with Miller at The Hill and will suit up for Team Canada at the World Games in July, said he could see Miller's example as being transformative for Native Americans.

"I really think he's going to pave the way for Native Americans. I look at it from my perspective and I look at Brodie Merrill, I look at Chris Sanderson and how they paved the way for a lot of Ontario kids to go the States," Noble said. "In the future, people are going to say that Zach Miller is the one who paved the way for other Native Americans. He went to Denver. I think you are going to see Native Americans following his example and not just going to New York schools."


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