Al Miller

The guys from our 1973 NASL championship team with the Philadelphia Atoms get together for a reunion every five years, and this is one of those years. When I was contacted to be interviewed for this story on the NASL’s 50th anniversary website, I sent out an email to all my guys suggesting we do our reunion this year in Frisco, Tex., in October. I don’t know if it’s going to work. I hope so. We had such a wonderful experience and wonderful ride together.

Al Miller led a serendipitous life in soccer, and was even luckier in real life.

Retired (“I’ve put soccer in the rearview mirror,” he said) and now living in Lake Wales, Fla., about 30 minutes from Orlando, Miller and a group of pals were playing in their club tournament at the Lake Ashton Golf Club in 2012, when he was 75.

“We were on the 15th hole in match-play tournament, all tied up,” Miller said. “I hit my second shot into the green and it rolled back toward a pond in front of the green. My partner was on the green, so it’s fine, best ball. So I walk back down toward the pond to see if I can find my ball. Then it felt like I got hit by a bolt. I thought I had stepped on a hot wire. The impact was violent. The next thing I know I’m being picked up off the ground and body-slammed. A gator is grabbing me by the knee, opens his eyes and crunches by leg. There’s blood all over the place. The next thing I know I’m being dragged toward the pond.”

As his life flashed before him, Miller was screaming, thinking he was done. But, for some reason, the alligator opened its mouth and Miller’s friends were able to drag Miller to safety. He was rushed to a nearby hospital, was treated, but then developed a bacterial infection that nearly killed him.

“There was all kinds of national media there,” Miller said. “I started getting calls from players all around the world. It took me five months to fully recover. The wound was open and had to heal from the inside out. The good news is that I’m walking, talking and playing golf. It was a harrowing experience. Something made that gator let go momentarily and the guys were there to bail me out.”

A terrifying encounter, no doubt, that drew attention for its graphic nature. The aside to the entire tale was that Miller once held — and still does — a soaring place in the American soccer lexicon. It was kind of an afterthought to thrill-seeking media.

A native of the Philadelphia area, Miller played soccer and basketball, then found himself being a jack-of-all-trades, first at Albright College (golf coach), then at what was then called New Paltz State (where he was a teacher; coach of tennis, baseball and soccer). A move to Hartwick College followed, putting both the institution and Miller on the soccer map, as he took his team to the NCAA Division I Final Four in 1970.

“I wanted to be immersed in the game [soccer],” Miller said. “I was in love with the game. Growing up, I saw soccer played by ethnic teams, including the two big German-American clubs, one in New York and one in Philly. I never had anything against the foreign players, but they all wanted to do it their way. But we were in America and I wanted to do it our way.”

That opportunity came in 1973 when the wealthy Philadelphia businessman Tom McCloskey met Lamar Hunt at the Super Bowl. McCloskey was awarded a NASL franchise — the Atoms — and signed Miller as the club’s first coach. There wasn’t much time to put together a team.

“I felt there was no champion, no one working for Americans,” Miller said. “I felt damn it, we’re smart guys, we’re not dummies I think can compete,” Miller said. “It was macho thinking on my part. I was disappointed every time I went for interview for pro job, and foreigner a took my place. It really pissed me off.”

Miller immediately implemented his plan to build the Atoms around some American players, selecting goalkeeper Bob Rigby with the team’s first draft pick, then adding the tenacious defender Bobby Smith with the second pick.

“It was a calculated risk, but the foreigners I brought in [Andy Provan, Jim Fryatt and Chris Dunleavy] were quality people. Not just soccer players. If I could have them be the mentors for young Americans it would be a win-win for me as a coach. I was pretty cocky at the time, and thought I can compete in this league. So I went with it — it was a good decision, a great decision.”

The Atoms were a hit in Philadelphia, along with Miller and his first professional squad. The Atoms captured the 1973 NASL title by defeating Hunt’s team, the Dallas Tornado, 2-0.

“By my team winning in the first year I got accepted by the other coaches in the league,” Miller said. “We became great friends. We were coaching to beat out each other’s brains but we were also working to help a league survive.”