"From a football player's perspective, the pain made a coward out of me," he says. "I had always taken pride in being able to play with pain. This was different. I gave in to it. I felt inadequate. Physically, I was beat. Mentally, it got to me."
A heated discussion with Viking coach Jerry Burns at a team Halloween party led to Millard's finally coming to grips with his injury and helped him focus on the grueling comeback that lay ahead. Burns told Millard that he didn't think Keith would dedicate himself to rehabilitation and that he wouldn't be ready for the 1991 training camp, which officially began on Monday in Mankato, Minn. "You're full of——, Burnsie," Millard shouted.
"I know your work habits," Burns replied sternly. "Sometimes you practice, sometimes you don't. I don't think you'll pay the price."
"This is life or death to me!" Millard yelled. "You're going to eat those words. This is going to be a Cinderella story. I guarantee you, I'll be ready."
Early the next morning Millard went to his basement and stared at the plaques and pictures that covered the walls of his den, and he studied the trophies that sat on the mantel. Then he looked at his swollen, discolored right knee with its big purple scar.
"I was angry and hurt," he says. "I figured Burnsie's comment was the consensus of everybody connected with the Vikings, including the people who buy tickets. Everyone had said, 'You'll be back. You'll be back.' All of that was superficial and meaningless. It was a bunch of b.s. It burned in me. I'm Keith Millard. What makes them think I won't be back?"
Millard then ripped down all the plaques, gathered up the trophies and threw everything into a closet. It was time to start over.
Until he injured his knee, Millard was one of the best defensive tackles in the NFL. In 1989, his fifth NFL season, he was third in the league in sacks, with 18, was voted to start for the NFC in the Pro Bowl and was named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year by the Associated Press.
Using a 4-3 scheme that is predicated on a hard-charging front line, the Viking defense is tailor-made for Millard, who is among the quickest inside pass rushers in the NFL. While most tackles in the more popular 3-4 defense are lined up to simply take on a guard, Millard is on his own to shoot the gaps between the center and guard or guard and tackle.
"There's nobody else in football who plays the position the way he does," says Green Bay Packer guard Rich Moran. "He can rip inside or outside. He's responsible for an area, but you don't know where he is going."