The 2005 men’s lacrosse media guide will tell you that Mike French ’76 has the most career goals in program history with 191, that Tim Goldstein ’88 is first in assists in a season with 73, that former head coach Richie Moran had 257 wins.
However, if there was a statistic which measured heart, Cornell senior goaltender Kyle Miller would probably be No. 1 hands down.
Kyle might be a little bit peeved with that last comment. He is so modest and selfless that he would tell you that any one of his teammates would have succeeded if faced with similar dire consequences that he experienced. He would also probably tell you that he just wants to be treated like one of the other guys — no unneeded attention, no free rides, no pity.
But you know what? When you battle back from rounds of chemotherapy and a knee surgery after being diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer, succeed while using the words “You’ll never play lacrosse again” as fuel for your body and triumph with seemingly endless optimism and sacrifice even in the darkest of times, well, as head coach Jeff Tambroni puts it, “[Kyle] stays away from limelight, but is most deserving [of it].”
Kyle Donovan Miller was born in Orangeville, Ontario — a town of approximately 25,000 denizens. Orangeville is known for several things, it is in the middle of Headwaters Country — one of the most scenic areas in Ontario. It is also a place where people are crazy about their lacrosse. So it is no surprise that the sport has always run through Kyle’s veins.
After becoming a two-time All-New England selection at the Salisbury School, Kyle came to Cornell mainly because of Tambroni and the coaching staff. Tambroni knew that Kyle was extremely talented, had lightning quick hands and reflexes, and could eventually be a major contributor to the team.
What Tambroni didn’t foresee was the type of long-lasting impact Kyle would have on Cornell lacrosse as a whole. And for Kyle, it was obviously impossible to foresee, in early 2003, his fight not only for his lacrosse career, but also his life.
Tambroni remembered the day he found out Kyle had been diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer in his right knee. He was in shock. So were Kyle’s teammates, who were understandably asking, “Why does this happen to such a good kid?” Lesser men in similar situations would wonder “Why me?” — especially considering the fact that Kyle was projected to be the starting goaltender that season. The fight to be in the starting lineup turned into a fight against cancer.
But, if you ever have the pleasure of meeting Kyle Miller, there is an undeniable energy exuding from him. There is something in his eyes — a knowledge that is way beyond his years which is bounded with optimism. Kyle said he never thought about the possibility of succumbing to the disease. And you know what? You believe him.
“With Kyle, when he came up [to Cornell during his treatment], he definitely looked sick at times, but the young man never stopped smiling,” Tambroni recalls. “When you look at Kyle and you look in his eyes, you see the heart the size of the entire body.”
During these rough times, he drew inspiration from his brother Brandon, who successfully fought off cancer when he was two years old. And rather than being negative, Kyle planned his return day by day, treatment to treatment, even when doctors said that he wouldn’t be able to play lacrosse ever again. His optimism rubbed off on his teammates, who often spoke to him on the phone while he was away.
“Just knowing him as a person and his whole attitude going into the situation, I was very confident that one day, he was going to be back with us,” said senior Kevin Nee.
True to his nature, Kyle did not want his own battle to affect his teammates’ battle on the lacrosse field. Tambroni remembers March 1, 2003, when Kyle came down prior to the Red’s season opener against Georgetown, and, with tears in his eyes — and everyone else’s too — spoke to his guys, his family away from home, about life and lacrosse.
“It wasn’t just [about how] you had to focus on the game, but [he was talking about] the opportunity we had and how special it was to never take it for granted,” said senior Dan Leary. “He spoke straight from the heart.”
Spurred on by family and friends, Kyle’s recovery was nothing short of amazing. He went through two rounds of chemotherapy and had a prosthetic knee put in place, but he was back the next semester at Cornell. Kyle first returned to the Red not as a goaltender, but as the team manager. In a sense, he was still very much a part of the Red, attending practices, games and meetings. He was even in last season’s media guide with a bio right next to the rest of his playing teammates.
But, something still ate at him. In a sense, it was a different, more potent type of cancer which rapidly spread through his whole body from his hands to his heart. It happens when you bleed Carnelian or yearn for the love of your life. And for Kyle Miller, that cancer was the longing of being on the lacrosse field again.
“Even before the diagnosis, he was a lacrosse player and he wanted to get back to where he was,” said senior Kyle Georgalas. “You could see it everyday, and at times it was tough, because you could see in his eyes how much he really cared about the team and everything that was going on.”
Leary remembers last season, before home games, when Kyle would put on his gear and get his stick and tell other guys to shoot at him — even though doctors told him he was not supposed to. Kyle said watching his teammates play while knowing that he could not be on the field was the most difficult part of the season.
While he knew he couldn’t make his return just yet, Kyle contributed in other ways on the sideline. Tambroni developed a routine where he would talk to Kyle at games because he had a “calming influence” on the intense coach.
“He’s always asked what he can do for us versus what he can do for me,” Tambroni said.
It was a chilly day on March 17 when the Red was leading 11-5 over regional rivals Binghamton with 6:23 left in the game at Schoellkopf Field. Leary remembered when Tambroni suddenly gave Kyle the nod, as the pumped-up goaltender sprinted to the box to get ready for the call he’d been waiting for over two years.
“[Watching him come in] was complete enjoyment,” Nee said. “I couldn’t have been happier for him.”
Kyle downplays this moment as much as possible because he expected it all along. So did Brandon, who was a constant pillar of support for Kyle and teased his brother over the phone after the Binghamton game for not making a save. Kyle, who worked hard in rehab and practice in the off-season, just wanted to be one of the guys, and Tambroni treated him as such in preparation for the season. But you couldn’t help but smile for the guy who had been through so much.
Kyle has some limitations from the cancer. Although his reflexes and athletic ability in protecting the cage are still phenomenal, Kyle can’t run as well as he used to and he needs to ice his knee constantly because it gets worn down from the rigors of lacrosse. He doesn’t know whether he is going to play next year even though the urban and regional studies major has another year of eligibility.
However, as Tambroni points out, everyone has limitations. Some might not have extremely quick hands. Others might not be able to see the field as well or hit as hard as the guy next to them. Some might have the ability to hit incredible shots, have the knack for the big pass, make a key defensive play in the clutch.
So yes, in this sense Kyle, you are just one of the guys — making the most of what you have within your limitations. But, with one caveat.
“I think that he has brought more sunshine into this lacrosse office and this lacrosse team in the last three-and-a-half years than most people do in a lifetime,” Tambroni said.
“He’s all heart. Kyle Miller is all heart.”
And just for that, Kyle might be the most extraordinary ordinary lacrosse player you will ever meet.
Brian Tsao i
s a Sun Assistant Sports Editor. Life of Brain will appear alternate Wednesdays this semester.
Archived article by Brian Tsao