Keith Millard is not a name you might remember unless you ever faced him or you were watching when he dominated interior line play in the NFL for most of the second half of the 1980s. For six years he was one of the most dominating defensive tackles in pro football, a guy who played in a frenzy and created enough havoc to be named the 1989 NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
Then he blew out his knee and a guy who seemed to be on a Hall of Fame track went off the rails. Millard was like a shooting star streaking through the NFL, seemingly unstoppable before he flamed out and disappeared like so many others, his body suddenly altered in a way that could not be repaired.
Still, Millard was so good between 1986 and 1990 that he was twice first team All-Pro and twice second team as well as going to two Pro Bowls after coming to the Vikings after finishing second in sacks in the USFL in 1984, his rookie season in pro football.
Keith Millard may or may not be worthy of enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame but he certainly is worthy of discussion. The proof of that was on the field and in his numbers.
Millard had double digits sacks at defensive tackle four times (12 in the USFL his rookie season, 11 the next year with the Vikings, 10 ½ more in 1986 and a then-record 18 in 1989). Those 18 sacks were a record for a defensive tackle that stood for nearly 30 years, not being broken until last season when the Rams’ Aaron Donald put up 20 ½. Records that stand for 29 years say something about the kind of dominance you once had. Millard in 1989 is no exception.
At that juncture of his career, Keith Millard had played six years of professional football, five in the NFL. He had 63 sacks, an average of better than 10 per season. He seemed a surefire future resident in Canton.
Then came September 30, 1990. It was the fourth game of the season. Millard already had two sacks and was continuing to terrorize opposing offensive linemen and quarterbacks when he bore in on Tampa Bay quarterback Vinny Testaverde. Nothing would be the same for him after that.
As Millard pursued Testaverde with his usual maniacal focus, Bucs’ center Randy Grimes tried to cut block him. Millard leapt over him but when he came down his right knee exploded, tearing his ACL and damaging him so severely he could not play for nearly two years.
Millard would argue he never played again. At least not like Keith Millard.
Forced to undergo reconstructive knee surgery at a time when such an operation was far more difficult to come back from than it is today, Millard missed the remainder of the 1990 season and all of 1991. He did not start another game until 1992, in what would be his final season.
“It was never right,’’ Millard once said of his shattered knee. “I could not do what I did before. Not even close. I knew I was done.’’
He was talked into trying one last time by the Eagles in 1992 but by then he was a shadow of what he’d once been. Yet no one should forget that what he’d once been was something that deserves a second look. Or at least a first look from Hall of Fame voters.
Known for a raging personality that was a product of a dysfunctional family, Millard used to work himself into a violent rage before kickoff without, as he once said, using anabolic steroids or amphetamines. He would manufacture a hatred for his opponent that built up all week, finally spilling over in a way that seemed to overtake him, body and soul.
"I look like a monster," Millard once told Sports Illustrated about his game face. “And I feel like a dog with rabies."
He played with a fury but also with an emphasis on technique and unusual speed and agility for a big man. The latter was a product of having been a converted tight end in a game he didn’t begin playing until his junior year of high school.
Millard was thrown off his high school team his senior year after three games but those games were so remarkable he landed a scholarship to Washington State, where he became one of the greatest players in the program’s history.
From there Millard took the money to sign with the USFL but when it folded after his first season he finally arrived in Minnesota, which had drafted him with the 13th pick of the first round in 1984. He didn’t disappoint.
Millard had 11 sacks in his first season with the Vikings and continued to be an explosive force on the inside of their 4-3 front. He studied the rush techniques of Howie Long, Dan Hampton and Rulon Jones and adapted what they did to his own quickness off the line to become nearly unblockable for five seasons.
"There's nobody else in football who plays the position the way he does," Bay Packer guard Rich Moran told Sports Illustrated in 1991. "He can rip inside or outside. He's responsible for an area, but you don't know where he is going."
All you knew was most often it was in the general direction of your quarterback. In the end, Millard finished with 58 NFL sacks and another 12 in the USFL. Those 58 sacks tie him with Cortez Kennedy, the Seahawks’ Hall of Fame defensive tackle. It took Kennedy 167 games to get them. It took Millard just 93.
Does Keith Millard belong in the Hall of Fame? That’s open to debate and that’s the point. His candidacy, like too many other All-Decade choices, has never been debated among the Hall’s 48 voters. His play, and his numbers, earned him that. Maybe one day he’ll finally get it?