by BEN MCLEOD
It may disappoint some parents to learn that no child is born a natural athlete. Ask any accomplished player — or musician, artist, or writer — and they’ll tell you how much practice, conditioning, and focused effort goes into being great at anything. And it’s likely that they’ll be happy to name the people and organizations who supported them and helped them succeed. Young Winonans and other regional athletes are born with an advantage, however: the Morrie Miller Foundation. For nearly 15 years, the Morrie Miller Athletic Foundation (MMAF) has donated over $2.5 million to local sports programs, both in area schools and to unaffiliated youth athletics programs.
Morrie Miller was a Winonan through and through. A long-time record-holder for longest touchdown run from the line of scrimmage, a basketball and track athlete, from way back in the days when the Winona Senior High School (WSHS) mascot Herky the Winhawk was still Winnie. Morrie’s brother Jerry Miller, former Winona mayor and proprietor of Miller Scrap, recalls the record-breaking game: “I was up at the [University of Minnesota] and we hitchhiked back, and we were just walking into Giel, and he had that long gait, racing down there to score that touchdown — it was like 90 yards.” Morrie Miller earned a Master’s degree in history from U of M and taught at Winona Senior High, until Miller Scrap, the family business, required his service. He left academia for scrap in the mid-1980s, but never stopped being a Winhawk booster. Upon his death from cancer in 1989, he was mourned but not forgotten, and in 2004 when the School Board was considering a $176,000 cut to the winter and spring sports programs, a group of friends and family decided to raise money in his memory. With a target of $25,000, the group managed to raise $75,000 and decided that Morrie Miller would have been proud to continue contributing to the school, the teams, and the town that he loved. Jerry Miller recalled, “We were sitting down at the scrap yard one morning, talking about The Touchdown Club [a local nonprofit focused on youth sports,] and they were asking for money ... and we were kicking it around — we could ask for this or that, or we could do one thing, get it over with. And then the subject [of Morrie] came up, and we thought ‘Why don’t we start a foundation in his name?’” The idea was that rather than raise funds for one school or group at a time, a single overarching organization could potentially serve the entire region.
Since 2004, the not-for-profit foundation has raised over $2 million for programs around the area, from Rollingstone and Ridgeway, St. Charles and Houston, Minnesota City and Goodview, and crossing the river to Fountain City and the Galesville-Trempealeau-Ettrick school district. The Morrie Miller Athletic Foundation helped to raise money to refurbish Paul Giel Field and the Community Athletic Complex in 2010, which serves over 500 middle school, high school and college athletes daily. State senator Jeremy Miller, vice president of the foundation, says that the MMAF is making a “very significant contribution” to the renovation of the Bud King Ice Arena. It has partnered with the Winona YMCA to match donations up to $100,000 for the construction of the new Y. The MMAF has recently begun working with the national Heads Up Player Safety Program to educate coaches and players about the dangers of concussions during tackle football. The 2017 Winona Winhawks football team thanked the Morrie Miller Strength and Conditioning Program by name during a recent ceremony at the Winona City Council; the entire team had participated in the program. Morrie Miller would likely have been tickled to be a contributor to the stellar team’s success.
The Strength and Conditioning Program is one of the MMAF’s keystone projects. “I get comments all the time; some girls volleyball players will say ‘Man, that program really helped me and what I was able to do.’ Some kids who aren’t even in sports will participate,” Jerry Miller explained. “We collaborate with Winona State, they supply the people who are running it. WSHS, Cotter, and Winona Middle School each have their own program. There are special trainers for the middle school, and that makes a big difference. “We felt that in order to have a good football [or other] team, you need strength and conditioning to go with it, or you’re just spinning your wheels,” he said.
The Morrie Miller Athletic Foundation is highly praised by smaller athletics programs around the region. John Alexander of Winona Youth Wrestling calls the foundation “our biggest sponsor.” Providing supplies, mats, and money, the MMAF was also instrumental in finding the club a space for its practices. Alexander has been working with Winona Youth Wrestling since 2001 or 2002, and says that the large club of about 70 kids has thrived with the foundation’s support. John Reszka, who runs the VFW’s Buddies youth sports programs, says the foundation has been “very, very generous,” and attributes much of the Buddies’ success to the foundation’s support.
Winona area public and private schools are also indebted to the foundation. Casey Indra, the Winona Senior High School activities director, is also enthusiastic about the MMAF. Indra said that about 70 percent of the WSHS student population is involved in athletics, and they all pass through the Morrie Miller Strength and Conditioning Program. “Any kid who’s been through our athletics programs has been through that weight room. Their only request is that [the money be used] to put equipment directly into the kids’ hands; it’s not for coaches or uniforms or travel. The kids always have the equipment they need, and all of that is due to the MMAF, and that’s why it’s important to give back, and that’s why we allow the [use of Paul Giel] for track and field.” One of the foundation’s biggest projects was raising an estimated two-thirds of the cost of the renovation of Paul Giel Field at Jefferson School. Cindy Donahue, secretary of the MMAF, described the old track as being “in deplorable condition.” Dedicated in 2009, the renovation included new turf for the football/soccer field and resurfacing of the entire track. While Paul Giel Field is property of the Winona Area Public Schools, it has been made available to Cotter, Winona State University, and a variety of other local programs. “All the schools in the area have benefitted,” said Indra. Part of the funding provided allows for the hiring of a Winona State student to be present at the field over the summer to supervise public recreational use of the track. Seth Haun, Cotter School’s activities director, said, “The Morrie Miller Athletic Foundation does such a wonderful job of supporting athletics within the community. Our strength program here at Cotter would not be possible without their support. We are so fortunate to have a foundation that is willing to give so much and continue to strive to help all programs improve.”
Donahue said the foundation accepts grant proposals throughout the year. “When we first started, we were approached often for busing, uniforms and tournament expenses; we had to say ‘no, it doesn’t benefit the entire program, we’d rather do it across-the-board.’” Donahue mentioned that the Morrie Miller Youth Tackle Football League, MMAF’s earliest focus, was started by Pat Bowlin and other Cotter fathers as a community program. She mentioned the Heftman family as an example of the foundation’s impact; both Bryce and Bennett Heftman who played on the 2017 Winhawk football team and Brady Heftman, another Winhawk who graduated in 2015, had played in the Miller Foundation Youth Football League, as well as the Minnesota City Youth Baseball program. Recently the YMCA has taken over administration of Morrie Miller Youth Football. Nate Jahn, operations director for the Y, explained, “A big focus is on a lot of volunteer coaches, seeing as the trend across the board for all youth sports is that it’s hard to get parents to step up and participate. [The foundation] provides training to support them more, and make them more comfortable. It impacts more than football.” Jahn is another MMF booster: “I moved here a year ago, and I didn’t truly understand the foundation until this fall. It’s a unique for a community to have a foundation like this, to provide support to youth athletics. It’s mind-blowing to me, frankly. Tremendous. And the people leading them are tremendous as well.”
The Morrie Miller Foundation holds a banquet and a golf tournament, both in September. A long list of local sponsors reads like a who’s-who of Winona businesses. “I try to always make the banquets; they do a great job,” said Indra. “Ultimately it’s a great night. They had Mike Ditka this year — someone like me would never get a chance to hear him talk. And their causes are right up my alley; I help out as much as I can. The only thing they’ve ever asked of anybody is for the banquet in the spring and the golf tournament. They just ask for volunteers, to have enough people there to support what’s going on.”
All of the MMAF’s donations go directly to the children. The board members and organizers are all very busy people, but Jerry Miller said, “Every dollar goes directly to the programs; there’s no salaries. Nobody is getting paid anything. It all goes right through.”
Jerry Miller has been contemplating the future of the foundation. “One of my ideas that I’ve been kicking around a bit is bringing role models in ... and having them go right to the schools, talk about how to accomplish things, stay off drugs, etc. Down the line we should look at things like maybe debate, math teams, competitive things, to involve more kids. We could take another look at [robotics programs]. A lot of kids do a lot of things, and whatever we can do to make it easier for them, I think it’s a good thing. That’s the main thing, that kids are involved and doing something.”
Miller was a river valley partisan, married to his wife Cindy Ferguson on a riverboat in the presence of friends and family. And nearly 30 years after his passing, he still remains a central figure in Winona youth athletics.
To learn more or to donate, visit morriemiller.org.