Lake Sammamish is nestled among tall Douglas firs and alders 10 miles east of Seattle. Stream-fed from the Cascade Range, the boot-shaped lake is a refuge for Canada geese and mallard. Smallmouth bass congregate near jagged, partially submerged trunks at the south end.
At 5:30 on a cold, gray morning, Bryan Millard, an offensive guard for the Seattle Seahawks, is at the wheel of his beloved $23,000 bass boat, racing toward the trunks at 60 mph. The sleek, 18�-foot machine resembles a silver torpedo as it slices through the water. " Yahoo!" Millard yells.
His eyes are covered by a pair of yellow-tinted ski goggles, which provide protection from bugs and debris. Just in case he's thrown overboard, the top half of his 6'5", 284-pound body is wrapped in a red, size-XXL impact jacket. "That means my dead ass will float," he says, smiling slyly from beneath his thick reddish beard. "No need to drag the lake."
The wild ride to these bass-fishing waters gives Millard a rush, but when he cuts his 150-hp engine, flips on his computerized fish finder and starts his trolling motor, serious business begins. A member of the Pot Holes Bass Club, Millard has twice won the Seahawks Open bass-fishing tournament, an event sponsored by the Pot Holes. Next spring he will host the First Annual Bryan Millard Easter Seals Bass Tournament. He often takes Seattle-area kids fishing, demonstrating to them his love for angling and his gift for gab.
"The thing about fishermen is they love to share their secrets," Millard says. "They're selfless. They don't care if you're an NFL player or the CEO of some fancy corporation. If they don't like you, they won't ask you back. Fishermen are the most down-to-earth bunch of folks I know."
The 27-year-old Millard is a regular pickup-truck-and-jeans kind of guy. But when it comes to football, he's anything but ordinary. Several NFL scouts say he's the league's most underrated offensive lineman. "Bryan comes out at nose-guards and throws them all the way around the end," says Bill Maas, who plays noseguard for the Kansas City Chiefs. "He'll get on a linebacker and take him for a ride. A lot of times, bigger offensive linemen will take one or two steps with a block and fall, but Bryan stays with his blocks."
Says Chick Harris, coach of Seattle's running backs, "Bryan runs into people and knocks them down over and over again. Our running backs love to run behind him because they know there's going to be a big collision in front of them."
Seahawk running back Curt Warner has been the biggest beneficiary of these collisions. In his five-plus seasons with Seattle, Warner has rushed for 5,752 yards and 48 touchdowns. "If Bryan played in Chicago, New York or Los Angeles, he'd be a Pro Bowl player," says Warner. "None of the guys here have been given any recognition. No one seems to pay attention to what we're doing up here."
Recognized or not, Millard plays football with passion and conviction. After most plays he stalks to the huddle, curses himself, screams for quiet and demands that the Seahawks score a touchdown. When New Orleans's Dave Waymer returned a blocked field goal 58 yards for a touchdown against Seattle earlier this season, Millard stormed off the field and kicked the bench. Hard losses always make him cry.
"Bryan's thing is, when you work, work hard," says Steve Largent, the Sea-hawks' veteran wide receiver. "He's intense, and he takes a lot of pride in his performance. He's very protective of his teammates, more so than anyone else on the team. If there's any indication of a late hit or a cheap shot, Bryan will be the first one pulling a guy off you."