In life full of health challenges, former Penn State fullback finds way to persevere

MIKE COOPER
Erie Times-News (TNS)
Penn State fullback Brian Milne, left, facing referee, falls into the end zone as he scores Penn State's final touchdown in Champaign, Ill., Saturday, Nov. 12, 1994.  Penn State came from behind to defeat Illinois 35-31.  Illinois defenders include Dana Howard (40) and John Holecek (52).  (AP Photo/David Boe)
The Cincinatti Bengals made another surprising move Wednesday, Sept. 29, 1999, by waiving  Brian Milne, shown in this 1998 photo, and leaving themselves with one healthy fullback heading into a game Sunday against St. Louis. (AP Photo)

Brian Milne's journey to the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame has been marked by many health challenges.

At age 48, Milne is still overcoming physical obstacles in the same way he did when he was a star athlete at Fort LeBoeuf High School and Penn State University.

"All I've tried to do throughout my life is be the best that I could be," Milne said Saturday night when he was one of nine inductees who spoke during a Hall ceremony at Pittsburgh's Sheraton Hotel at Station Square.

Those nine honorees, plus three posthumous inductees, were voted into the hall in 2020. However, the ceremony was postponed until this fall because of COVID-19 concerns. Milne attended the event with his wife, Tammy, and son, Connor.

Milne's battle with Hodgkin's lymphoma at Fort LeBoeuf has been well documented. In March 1990, during his junior year, he suffered a back injury and, after the medical examinations that followed, he learned that he had cancer.

On Saturday, he shared that his athletic career almost ended then as doctors advised him to undergo surgery that would require going through his chest. That might have prevented him from lifting weights, which could have ended his track and field career and football career. He was a champion shot put and discus thrower, and strength is key to those events, as well as football.

Milne credited his track and field coach, Dan Hoffman — the same man who encouraged him to take up the sport — for advocating for him during that crucial moment.

"That really didn't sit well with Dan Hoffman. He was like, 'Is there another way we could do this.'" Milne said of the chest operation. "He was thinking about my future and my career.

"In that moment, I believe he saved my career."

Doctors decided to perform the operation through Milne's side instead of his chest, which allowed him to lift weights again.

Chemotherapy followed as he lost his hair and dropped a lot of weight during the summer. After having a record-setting year as a running back in his junior year, he missed his entire senior season.

He eventually was ruled cancer free, and he came back to star in track and field in his senior season and made an unforgettable comeback in the 1991 Save-An- Eye Game.

Brian Milne of the U.S. throws the discus to grab a gold medal Sept.17,1992 in the mens' discus event at the World Junior Track and Field Championships at Seoul's Chamsil Olypmpic Stadium. He took the gold with a throw of 191 feet, 2 inches. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

Track and field letdown: Milne attended Penn State, where he would continue his football and track and field careers. He redshirted his freshman football season as he worked to regain his strength.

However, in the winter of 1992, he was ready to resume throwing. His first discus throw in a collegiate competition measured 63.22 meters — more than 207 feet. It was a Penn State record and the longest throw in the world to that point in the year.

Then another emergency health crisis arose.

"Three weeks later, I almost died from an appendectomy," he said. "I truly believe that surgery kept me out of the 1992 Olympics."

He went on to win an NCAA championship in the discus and was a fullback on Penn State's 1994 national championship football team, sharing time with Eastern York High School graduate Jon Witman.

Indianapolis selected Milne in the fourth round of the 1996 NFL Draft. While he never played for the Colts, he did suit up for the Cincinnati Bengals, Seattle Seahawks and New Orleans Saints over five seasons.

In 2004, he was inducted into the Metropolitan Erie Chapter of the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame.

New Orleans Saints' Brian Milne, left, pushes the ball over the goal line as he is pulled back by St. Louis Rams' Rich Coady, right, as he scores during the first quarter Sunday, Nov. 26, 2000, in St. Louis. The Saints, perpetual doormats of the NFL, hapless stumblebums, everyone's automatic ``W,'' are tied with defending-champion St. Louis for first place in the NFC West.(AP Photo/L.G. Patterson)

Moments of levity: Milne's speech Saturday was mostly in line with his personality. It was relatively brief, filled with sincerity and humility and there was a pause while he checked his emotions.

Milne, though, did add some humor while at the podium. It was reserved for his days as a running back for LeBoeuf and coach Joe Shesman, who was well known to ignore the forward pass when the Bison possessed the ball.

"We had a game against Fairview where we had 50 plays and I ran the ball 49 times," Milne said. "We threw once."

Milne also mentioned how before LeBoeuf's games that Shesman would ask assistant coaches and players to pray for the safety of the fans, referees and the opposing team.

"We even prayed for a win," Milne said, "because Coach Shesman figured if the other team was doing the same, it would put God in a tough spot."

Current health issues: Milne, who lives in Cincinnati, continues to face — and overcome — health challenges.

On June 2, he suffered a stroke as he awoke in the morning. "I couldn't walk," he said.

Shortly thereafter, while receiving treatment for the stroke, Milne said, doctors found that he had a hole in his heart that had gone undetected since birth. "I had no idea," he said.

He still found a way to return to Erie in late July for the Save-An- Eye Game and give a short speech at the game's annual banquet.

Three weeks before the Pennsylvania Hall of Fame induction ceremony, Milne underwent major neck surgery.

"I'm still relearning some of the things I have to do, including walking," he said.

It's the latest challenge the Waterford native told the crowd for Saturday's ceremony that he expects to overcome.

"For me, it was never about playing in the NFL, never about the money, never about how big a house you had," he said. "It's about challenging yourself and getting better every day."