Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Remembering Charles "Ookie" Miller

By Chris Willis, NFL Films
Charles "Ookie" Miller, Purdue, 1931

On this day, November 11, former NFL center, Charles “Ookie” Miller was born in 1909 in Marion, Indiana. After playing his college football at Purdue, Miller went on to play 5 years with the Chicago Bears (1932-1936), then one year each with the Cleveland Rams (1937) and Green Bay Packers (1938).

During his seven-year career Miller won 2 NFL championships, 1932-1933 Bears, and played in some of the most famous games in NFL history. Miller started at center for the Bears in the 1932 NFL Playoff Game played in indoors at Chicago Stadium between the Bears and the Portsmouth Spartans, winning 9-0. The followed year he started at center again as his Bears played in the first NFL Championship Game (1933) as his Bears defeated the New York Giants, 23-21.

Miller followed that up in 1934 when he played in 12 games for the undefeated Bears (13-0), but did not play in the famous “Sneakers Game,” watching Chicago lose 30-13.

"Ookie" Miller, Bears center (Color: PFJ)

Last summer, when PFJ listed the best Pre-World War II players (two-way era), Miller was listed as the number 13 center.

13) Charles “Ookie” Miller (1932-1938)- Miller played 7 years (82 games) with 3 teams the Chicago Bears, Cleveland Rams, and Green Bay Packers…Bears starting center in 1932-1933…the 6-0, 209-pound pivot man was a member of 2 NFL Championship teams with Bears (1932-1933)…had best year in 1933 earning First-team All-Pro honors from Chicago Daily News, Collyers, UP and Green Bay Press-Gazette. In 1935 and 1937 Miller was named Honorable Mention All-NFL. Helped anchored a Bears line that led the NFL in rushing in 1932 and in 1934-1935…in 1934 was back-up center on team that helped block for Beattie Feathers, who became the NFL’s first 1,000-yard rusher (1,004).

“Ookie was a good center. He could block and he could tackle. And he could move.”—George Musso, former Bears teammate and Hall of Famer, said in a 1999 NFL Films interview.

“Ookie Miller is the center and his exhibition in the playoff game against (Mel) Hein, New York, left no room for doubt. Miller is a superb passer, follows the ball closely and slashes through consistently when on the defense.” —wrote G. W. Calhoun of the Green Bay Press-Gazette, in naming Miller First-team All-Pro in 1933, selecting him over Hein.

"Ookie" Miller, Packers, 1938 (Color: PFJ)

Over twenty years ago I was fortunate to interview Miller for one of our NFL Films shows. On March 30, 1999, I traveled to Bayonet Point, Florida (about forty miles northwest of Tampa) to sit down with Miller to talk about his NFL career. At that time Miller was 89-years old. When he greeted us, Miller was still in tremendous physical shape, had a nice Florida tan, and was in great spirit to talk about his pro career.

Top: Charles "Ookie" Miller, author, March 1999. Bottom: Miller sitting for interview. 

I was astounded by Miller’s recall of events some six decades earlier. I interviewed him for two hours and he was more than willing to answer all of my questions. He didn’t need a break and could’ve gone longer. Some of his answers included the following topics:

 He told me about his unique nickname from an early age:

“When I was quite small I couldn’t say ‘cookie’. My three-year old brother made fun of me and he said ‘ookie’. Everywhere I’d go he’d call me ‘ookie.’ It hung on even into high school. That’s the way I got the name.”

On George Halas:

“I liked George. He was one of the boys. He’d been an athlete. He was athletic. He treated you like an athlete. He had rules, I have the payments to show for them. He’d fine you for being about it. I enjoyed playing for Halas.”

On playing on an 80-yard dirt field in Chicago Stadium for 1932 NFL Playoff Game (Bears vs Spartans)

“It was stinking and dirty…One of our players got sick in the stomach and threw up. Oh, it was bad…There’s a lot of disadvantage to a small field like that, because you couldn’t your repertoire is limited. One of our best passers couldn’t be used at all because he threw the ball as long as the field was, he doesn’t have the accuracy.”

Opening kickoff, 1932 NFL Playoff Game, Bears vs Spartans. In middle, "Ookie" Miller, wearing number #76. 

On Playing both-ways:

“I liked it. I didn’t like to be out of the game. I didn’t like to be taken out. When they’d take me out I was like that guy I saw the out there to play…”

On game-winning touchdown in 1933 NFL Championship Game (Bears vs Giants):

“That’s spontaneity. It wasn’t planned. (Bill) Hewitt is a really imaginative individual. He and (Bill) Karr may’ve worked that out together, but I’d never seen it in practice.”

On being remembered:

“I felt that I did the best I could when I was on the field, and contributed as much as I could. That’s about all. I was a good teammate, nobody hated me. I don’t think anybody would ever think that I didn’t give all when I was in a ball game. I played 60 minutes. I feel I contributed to every game that I played in. That’s about it.”

I’ve always cherished my time interviewing Miller back in 1999. Even after our interview, we corresponded, by letters, a few times as the interview was used for a piece on the first NFL Championship Game. Over the years Miller has appeared in several of our shows and his 2-hour interview will exist forever in our vault, which makes me feel very gratifying.

"Ookie" Miller letters to author, 1999 

On August 7, 2002, Miller passed away in Florida at the age of 92.

Even after twenty years I always look back with fondness of my time interviewing the man they called "Ookie."

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