They first flocked to Capital High's football games when he was just a sophomore.
Coaches and scouts from across the Northwest had come to see this lanky, athletic kid they had heard about - the one giving opposing coaches nightmares and causing fits for defenses and offenses alike. They'd come to see Matt Miller, now a senior for the Bruins, to find out if he could be the puzzle piece their programs had been missing.
As Miller begins the 2009 season, he has three state Class AA championship rings and five times that many schools trying to persuade him their team is the right fit. What the standout wide receiver and safety doesn't have, however, is an answer.
"Lately it's been pretty stressful because it's getting down to crunch time where some of the schools are pressuring me to commit," Miller said. "I'm going to hold off and hopefully more schools will come in once the season starts."
The top five schools that have shown the most interest in Miller are Oregon, Oregon State, Arizona State, Stanford and Boise State. Rivals.com lists those schools as the closest to signing him and Miller has visited all five campuses. But North Carolina, Notre Dame, Colorado State, Dartmouth, Harvard, Yale, Montana, Montana State, Washington State and Wyoming are also in the mix. He has spoken with all of them, although UM and MSU are primarily recruiting him for basketball.
"Once I feel the place is right and I feel comfortable there, I'll commit," he said. "I just don't really have a timetable."
Miller finds himself in a coveted position: the most recruited football player in Montana. Rivals.com lists him as the top prospect in the Rocky Mountain states. Nationally, Miller has a three-star ranking on the popular recruiting site, essentially meaning he's among the top 750 in the country at any position.
It's a rarity for a Treasure State athlete to garner so much attention, but Miller already has 10 scholarship offers on the table and eight additional teams talking to him. Such pressure to choose between so many schools could become a distraction to any athlete, but just as Miller never notices those scouts in the stands, he's not letting this decision and attention rob him of a senior year.
"I've got a good family and good friends and they support me really well," he said. "I always have people to talk to, as well as my coaches. They're always there for me. I don't think it will affect me at all."
Miller had a successful junior season for the Bruins, racking up 932 receiving yards, 663 rushing yards, 21 touchdowns, 39 unassisted tackles and two interceptions. He also threw for 24 yards and a touchdown when put in at quarterback. He was named the Class AA offensive player of the year.
This year, Miller will try to help a reloading Capital team win a fourth straight state title, something no AA team has done since the 1940s. Many AA coaches expect he'll be the one to carry the load, but Miller doesn't see this year as being different from any other. Aside from the fact there will be more coaches in the stands.
"I think there will be more football coaches at games this year, checking me out, probably bigger-name schools trying to get a final look at me," he said. "But other than that it'll probably be the same as other years. I just go out there and play my game."
The next step
Where the 6-foot-4, 215-pound Miller will end up is anyone's guess. Although playing for a Division I program appears the most enticing, Miller said he's still not ruling out staying in state.
"Right now, it's still a possibility that I'd play basketball and football in college (for the Bobcats or Griz)," he said. "From talking to the coaches from the big schools, they said I could probably succeed better in football."
What about his third sport, track?
"I would consider it but I don't know if it would be a possibility at the Pac 10 schools," said Miller, who competes in the hurdles, relays and 200 for the Bruins. "Their track programs are just ridiculous. I don't know if my speed would be that comparable to some of those guys."
As far as football, Miller's speed has only helped his stock. He ran the 40 in 4.5, and that, coupled with his size and agility, has kept him on coaches' radars. Miller has found pros and cons with every program eyeing him, but said every college has something great to offer. It might help if he knew what he wanted to major in, but all Miller knows for certain is that he'd like to coach after college.
A 3.7 GPA student, Miller said it's important to find the right balance between football and academics when selecting a school. He said he can't really base a decision strictly on the coach, since the turnover has increased so much in recent years. But there is one requirement he has for the college he chooses.
"I would like to go to a good football program just because I'm used to winning and I hate losing," said Miller, who can count his losses with Capital's football team on just one hand.
"I don't know if I could handle going to a losing program."
While Miller realizes he's got a tough decision on his hands in the coming months, he's relished the whole recruiting process.
"People talk to you and keep telling you 'you're going to get recruited by colleges once you get older,' " he said. "So once they started coming in it became kind of surreal to me. I can't believe all these big-time coaches are talking to me.
"Every kid when they're in fourth grade, playing in the backyard, they dream of playing big-time college football and obviously I did, too. So I guess (the attention) wasn't expected but it was a very cool surprise."
Respected by coaches
Capital football coach Pat Murphy said whatever school gets Miller is going to be lucky.
"He can run like a deer, he can jump, he can basically do anything," Murphy said. "He can play any position on the field and he makes me a smarter coach because we're able to do some amazing things with him.
"But what makes Matt so special is he's just a great kid. Sometimes you get those great athletes and they can kind of be jerks, but he's very humble and has great character."
Despite his success at the prep level, Miller knows there is much to be done in order to become a starter for a successful college team.
"I'll have to get bigger, stronger, faster," he said. "Always improve your game ... you can always tweak something to make yourself better."
Areas to work on partly depend on what position Miller ends up playing in college. In high school he's played in as many as four spots, mostly at receiver and defensive back but has also been used as a running back or quarterback at times. His versatility is what makes him such a prize to college coaches.
"Pretty much every college I've talked to says that's one of the top things they like about me is I can play three to four positions for them," Miller said, adding that most are recruiting him for safety, although some do want him as a wide receiver.
"There's also the possibility they'd move me to linebacker if I get bigger," Miller said. "It just depends on my body size."
While many successful prep athletes struggle to make it at the collegiate level, high school and college coaches alike say there's no doubt in their minds that Miller has what it takes to make a name for himself outside of Helena.
"I think he's going to be a standout just because he can play so many different positions," Murphy said. "His opportunities and abilities are limitless."
Helena High football coach Tony Arntson said Miller is almost impossible to game plan for.
"He's a tough matchup because of his size and speed," said Arntson, who enters his 16th year as Bengals head coach. "There's no doubt in my mind he's going to work hard to make himself a top-notch college player. He's definitely as good as any all-around athlete as long as I've been around, no doubt."
Great Falls High coach Gregg Dart said it would be fun to watch Miller play college ball on TV.
"It would be cool to say 'I coached against that kid,'" Dart said. "Matt seems to be an incredibly level-headed kid, not flashy in that look-at-me sort of way. He's a humble athlete that can flat-out go after it and if he plays within himself he'll have success."
While NCAA coaches would not comment for this story due to recruiting restrictions, NAIA coaches were quick to sing their praises of Miller.
"I think his chances of succeeding are very good," said Montana Tech coach Bob Green. "He's an exceptional football player and well-rounded athlete and person. We'd love to have him but we're obviously not going to waste his time."
Carroll College coach Mike Van Diest has known Miller since he was in the fifth grade. Van Diest said one thing NAIA and Division I coaches alike look at when recruiting is an athlete's love of the game. While Miller is the total package size and speed wise, Van Diest said the emotional aspect is what will matter most.
"You have talent, intelligence, character and then there's passion," Van Diest said. "That's what separates you from all the other athletes. I watch Matt compete and I see how much he enjoys football. That's how I know he'll make it at the next level. The kids who don't make it are the ones who don't have passion."
Treasure State's finest?
A number of people are already saying on blogs and in chat rooms that Miller could be one of the top recruits to come out of Helena, or even Montana, in the last 10 to 20 years. Miller doesn't agree with that, saying one only needs to look at the wall of photos in Capital High School to find athletes above him.
"Greg Carothers, for example," he says while rattling off a list of names he doesn't feel he deserves to be mentioned with in the same breath. "He's been my hero since I was a little boy. I was a ball boy for Capital and grew up watching him, so he's the greatest to me."
Carothers went on to play for the University of Washington and eventually for Amsterdam in NFL Europe. But Miller also mentioned Bobby Petrino, Joe Horn, and Helena High's Pat Donovan and Dan Carpenter, who's currently the starting kicker for the Miami Dolphins.
"Right now it would just be stupid for people to say I'm the best to come out of Montana when I haven't even come out of high school yet," he said.
Miller said he thinks Montana's athletes don't get the respect they deserve and said that's something he'd like to change.
"One of my goals if I go to one of these big colleges is to hopefully get some respect for Montana," he said. "Stay close to my roots and show some Montana pride."
A family affair
"I was definitely Bruin born, Bruin bred," Miller says.
Miller's dad, Scott Miller, was part of Capital's first state championship football team in 1978. Matt's older brother, Drew, also won a title with the Bruins.
"I think I was just born to be an athlete," Matt Miller said. "I don't even remember who taught me how to play sports, I just remember my mom and big brother letting me run around. I'd play basketball in the front yard and my dad would take me to all these high school football games, so that's how I got my love for that. I played baseball until I was about 13, then gave it up for track in high school."
Miller's family has been supportive throughout the entire selection process, and Scott Miller said it's important to make sure his son stays grounded and doesn't get swept up in all of the pressure and expectations. He wants to make sure he stays a kid and isn't forced to grow up too fast. He said he and his wife, Caroline, will be happy with wherever Matt decides to go, adding that air travel is too easy to keep them away from his games. They've also been by his side for all of the campus visits.
"I was hoping going to some of the schools would make the decision easier," Scott Miller said, adding that the Millers paid for many of the visits out of their own pockets. "But it actually just made it much harder because everyone was so great.
"He's going to tell one school 'yes' and it's going to be awesome," Miller said. "But at the same time, he's going to have to tell a lot of great people 'no' and that's going to be tough."
For the love of the game
Miller said if he had the opportunity to play professional football after college he would definitely pursue it, but said "there's also more to life than football and I've realized that, too. You've got to balance it out, you've just got to know when to quit."
Still, whenever Miller steps on the field he's flooded with feelings that remind him why he's not ready to forget about football just yet.
"Fall Friday nights," he said. "It's cold outside, you can see your breath in the air. There's nothing better, I can't even really explain the feeling. Once you experience it, you know what I'm talking about. You just can't replace the feeling you get on opening kickoff.
"Playing on Saturdays? Well, that sounds just about perfect to me."
Regardless of where Miller ends up playing next fall, he wants to be remembered as a Bruin first and foremost. While his legacy at Capital would only be helped by a fourth state championship, that's not the most important thing to Miller.
"I just want people to remember me as a winner," he said. "You know, at basketball games, football games and winning track meets. If I'm just remembered as a winner that would be great for me."
Amber Kuehn: 447-4079 or amber.kuehn