Matt Millen sat in the broadcast booth at Penn State’s Beaver Stadium on Saturday, surrounded by his grateful crew, a few special guests (including former teammate Bruce Clark) and a lot of football.
Three cakes — one shaped like a football, another like a heart — sat on a table behind the Big Ten Network banner. Co-workers wore a “Matt Millen” lapel pin with a red heart.
“It’s good to be back," Millen said. "It’s just good to be back around football again."
Millen returned to work at Penn State’s Blue-White spring scrimmage, his first game since undergoing a Christmas Eve heart transplant. Millen, who turned 61 in March, worked his first game for the Big Ten Network since last September, when he served as the analyst for Purdue-Nebraska.
Two days later, Millen was admitted to Newark Beth Israel Medical Center, where he continued treatment for complications of amyloidosis, a rare disease that robbed his heart of its normal function. Millen waited 98 days for a transplant heart to become available.
Ahead of schedule: Millen’s recovery and adjustment to his new heart continue ahead of schedule. Last week, Millen was cleared to visit public places without wearing a mask, which helped reduce his infection risk. He’s shaking hands again instead of bumping fists.
During the week, Millen visited Penn State coach James Franklin (“He looked good,” Franklin said) and signed dozens of autographs Saturday while walking through Beaver Stadium.
Further, Millen climbed a hill behind his Bucks County house last week, a first since the amyloidosis took hold of his stamina. Millen’s wife Patricia urged him to walk the incline again, which she did backward with him, and he was glad she did.
Lost 50 pounds: He has lost 50 pounds in the last year (“I was getting too fat anyway," he said) and plans to resume a full work schedule soon. Millen plans to call Oakland Raiders preseason games this summer before heading back to the Big Ten Network booth’s as its lead analyst this fall.
"When he walked into the booth, he said, ‘I didn’t know if I could get back, but I pointed at the spring game thinking that would be a cool time do to it,’” said Lisa Byington, a reporter who has been on Millen’s Big Ten Network crew for four years. “That kind of hit me. He’s this big, strong, tough, stubborn linebacker-type, and there may or may not have been some emotion in his eyes.”
Millen was an enormously popular figure at Beaver Stadium, drawing crowds from Penn State’s staff, officials and fans across the stadium. He received an ovation from the crowd and a thumb’s up from Franklin during a first-half introduction.
“The outpouring from people has been unbelievable,” Millen said. “It really surprised me. Charles Barkley texted me. And I’m like, what it this? I got a kick out of that.”
Impressed with PSU: Millen spent a few days last week in State College, attending practice and watching coverage of the team’s two previous scrimmages. He was impressed with Penn State’s speed and talent but noted how raw much of it is.
Millen particularly liked the speed and skill at receiver, raved about running back Journey Brown and called Pat Freiermuth “the best young tight end in the country."
Defensively, Millen saw more speed, a promising linebacker in sophomore Micah Parsons and another fully stocked defensive line. But like everyone else, Millen views quarterback as Penn State’s turning-point position.
Tommy Stevens, a fifth-year senior, did not play in Saturday’s scrimmage, ceding the reps to Sean Clifford, Will Levis and freshmen Ta’Quan Roberson and Michael Johnson Jr. Millen wondered how the missed time, for two consecutive springs, might affect Stevens.
“The biggest key will be the quarterback,” Millen said. "You’d like to have Stevens out there, because those are reps he isn’t going to get back. I like him a lot. The other thing you don’t want to have with him is a short leash. If he does [start] and has a rough couple games, you have to stay with him."
Sticking with people: Millen knows about people sticking with him, having been the Detroit Lions president for seven seasons. So does Byington, who grew up in Michigan as a Lions fan.
“After I got to know him better, I told him, ‘I gave you zero percent chance of me liking you initially,’” Byington said. "And he laughed and said, ‘Well at least you kept an open mind.'
"He’s everything that I didn’t think he was. He’s a great teammate, self-deprecating, admits his mistakes, fun, knowledgeable, and when you meet him for the first time, you feel like you’ve known him for 20 years. When you take somebody of that magnitude off a broadcast team, there’s a huge void, and we felt that void.
“It’s awesome to have him back.”