By Philip Sikes
Brunson Miller hadn’t set foot on a track when his high school football coach tried to convince him to train for the 800 meters as a senior in Murrells Inlet, S.C.
“In my first meet, I started in the 400,” he said. “I thought I was going to die after the race. I told the coach I wasn’t running two laps, so I’ve been running the 400 ever since.”
Four years later, the Clemson track and field program is reaping the spoils of his decision to stay with just one lap. Last weekend, Miller became the first Clemson athlete to win an ACC Championship in the men’s 400 dash since 2003 — a stretch of 10 indoor seasons.
On top of that, he anchored the 4×400 relay to a gold medal in the final event of the championship, propelling Clemson to a third-place finish as a team, its best since 2008. In the relay, he took the baton in third place but rocketed past the two leading teams within the final 150 meters to grab the title.
His showing at the ACC Indoor Championships in Blacksburg, Va., opened a lot of eyes around the conference, but not those of his teammates who had seen his capabilities since he transferred in from The Citadel last August.
“It’s definitely something to see,” said Marcus Maxey, Clemson senior hurdler, of Miller’s closing ability. “He’s that X-factor we’ve been looking for.”
Miller was the one initially looking for his true calling. He attended The Citadel for football, but ultimately played just one season before focusing on track following three Southern Conference championships his first year.
While Miller was experiencing unparalleled success on the track, adapting to the military lifestyle employed at The Citadel was a life-changing adjustment.
“That first semester of freshman year was the toughest,” he said. “We wake up at 5:30 every day, and all the freshmen clean the entire battalion. You go back to your room, shine your shoes, shave, and then eat breakfast with the entire corps at 7 a.m.
“I was taking 17 hours, so from there I had class from 8 until about 2 in the afternoon. I’d catch a nap from 2 to 3 and then at 3:30 we’d start football practice all the way up until study hall. Then I’d go home and get ready to do it again the next day.”
Miller said the No. 1 principle he took from his experience at The Citadel was learning to manage his time wisely. When he got to Clemson last fall, it was a relatively easy transition for him.
“I’m usually in the bed by 10 now,” he joked.
Clemson was one of three schools Miller looked at when examining his transfer choices, along with East Carolina and South Carolina. He had a prior connection to Tigertown, as his father, David Miller, had earned his undergraduate degree from Clemson.
The fact that his father had attended Clemson played a big role in his decision to join the Tigers, but it wasn’t the primary factor he considered.
“I looked at how each school ranked in track,” Miller said. “I saw last year Clemson finished fifth at ACCs. I calculated my times and factored that in, and thought if I wound up at Clemson I could really help out.”
So far that’s been a giant understatement.
Miller established a personal best after capturing the ACC crown with a time of 46.49, which he dropped to 46.23 on Saturday at Notre Dame. His time, No. 3 in Clemson history, was so good that he put himself in position to earn a spot in this week’s NCAA Championships field — the first for a Clemson men’s 400-meter sprinter since Ato Modibo in 2002. He’s also helped the Tigers to a No. 17 national ranking as a team.
With the help of his father, Miller set a goal before the 2013 indoor season to make the national final, but says he “never wants to put a ceiling” on how far he can go.
David Miller, an attorney, has recently undergone chemotherapy to cope with bone cancer in his mouth. Brunson first heard the news during the fall semester, and carries his father’s condition with him each and every competition.
“One thing that will make him happy will be watching me light it up on the track,” Miller said.
Suffice it to say, David Miller is also happy his son stopped and focused on a one-lap race his senior year of high school.