Former Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders middle linebacker Matt Millen made an indelible mark on the franchise during his memorable nine-season tenure from 1980 to 1988.
Millen, who grew up idolizing Ray Nitschke, Dick Butkus, Alex Karras, and Willie Lanier, promptly followed in their footsteps when he entered the NFL at the turn of the 1980s.
Millen’s ferocious, take-no-prisoners approach fit the Raiders’ style of play perfectly.
With Millen, John Matuszak, Howie Long, Lyle Alzado, and Lester Hayes wreaking havoc on offenses, the Raiders won two Super Bowl titles during the Tom Flores era in the 1980s.
Millen later earned two more Super Bowl rings with the San Francisco 49ers and Washington Redskins before hanging up his cleats at the end of the 1991 NFL season.
Without a doubt, Matt Millen was one of the toughest linebackers during his heyday.
Matthew George “Matt” Millen was born to parents Harry and Elizabeth in Hokendauqua, PA on March 12, 1958.
Millen is of Irish descent. His paternal grandfather, Andrew, migrated to Pennsylvania from Ireland in 1865. Andrew Millen was just a one-year-old infant when he moved to America.
Matt was the sixth of eleven children. They shared a room with three or four of their siblings and quarreled over their cramped living space.
Matt’s large family didn’t come as a shock – both of his parents had nine siblings each.
His father Harry worked for AT&T Technologies to help support his large family. When the company laid him off one time, the family budget dwindled considerably.
The local church pitched in and sent food to the Millen residence. Matt helped carry most of them to his house.
Matt and his family compensated for the tight budget by picking cherries, peaches, and apples from the surrounding trees and eating them.
Millen fell in love with baseball before he embarked on a football career. Unfortunately, his pitching arm wasn’t up to snuff.
Millen once hit five batters when he took the mound as a thirteen-year-old in 1971. He busted up laughing, so his coaches had to yank him out of the game.
Matt settled for the gridiron. He played his first down when he was eight years old.
When Matt Millen was growing up, he idolized middle linebackers who had a nasty reputation. It wasn’t surprising when his style of play resembled theirs when he turned pro in 1980.
“The guys I loved when I was growing up were the punch-you-in-the-mouth players: (Ray) Nitschke, (Dick) Butkus, Alex Karras, Willie Lanier,” Millen told Sports Illustrated’s Paul Zimmerman in the spring of 1984.
Matt Millen attended Whitehall High School in Whitehall, PA. He played tight end, fullback, and defensive end for Whitehall Zephyrs head football coach Andy Melosky.
Melosky, a former boxer, organized a resistance training program for his players. Millen joined and soon added an impressive 55 pounds of muscle between his freshman and sophomore seasons.
Melosky told Sports Illustrated in 1984 that Millen was one of the most aggressive players he ever handled. He compared him to members of the Japanese Air Force in World War II.
Millen continued chiseling his physique as his high school career progressed. By the time he started his junior season, he was up to 220 pounds.
Millen’s football career almost came to a premature end that year. A Nazareth quarterback’s helmet collided with his elbow, which spurted blood and bent at a 90-degree angle.
Matt hid his disfigured arm inside his shirt when he was in school. Before long, he decided to salvage his gridiron career by straightening it out himself.
After several failed attempts, Millen went to the doctor for a check-up. The physician warned him not to lift weights with his injured elbow.
Millen ignored his advice and did 500-lb. deadlifts in the gym the following day. Alas, Matt’s arm snapped, and he lost a considerable amount of calcium. Fortunately, his arm healed sometime later.
Raider Legend Matt Millen is one of the Best LB's ever to wear Silver & Black one more Raider that should be in the NFL Hall of Fame🏴☠️🏴☠️ pic.twitter.com/ghRgzGoGpB
— 🏴☠️IERaiderFan🏴☠️ (@laflores15) June 27, 2022
When Millen was a senior, Dallas Cowboys defensive tackle and linebacker Randy White tried convincing him to play for the Maryland Terrapins in the college football ranks, per Zimmerman.
Millen and White squared off in a bench press duel at the Zephyrs’ weight room. Millen cranked out a few reps of 435 pounds while White, not to be outdone, lifted 425 pounds.
Millen then challenged White to an arm wrestling contest. White, fresh from his rookie season with the Dallas Cowboys, nonchalantly beat Millen, who thought his shoulder got torn out.
Millen has always had a quick trigger since his high school days in Pennsylvania. One of the coaches threw a tackling dummy at him during a scrimmage for the Pennsylvania-Ohio high school all-star game. Millen promptly threw the dummy back at the coach.
Millen was a two-way menace who got the attention of many college football programs toward the end of his high school football career.
The Michigan Wolverines, Michigan State Spartans, Ohio State Buckeyes, and Penn State Nittany Lions were among the big-name programs that had Millen on their radars.
Legendary Michigan head football coach Bo Schembechler showed up at the Millen residence garbed in a long black leather coat and boots, per Sports Illustrated.
Another coaching icon, Buckeyes head football coach Woody Hayes, interviewed Millen in his office in Columbus, OH.
While Hayes was discussing football and academics, Millen’s eyes darted around the room. He saw framed photos of Buckeyes legends Jack Tatum, John Brockington, and Archie Griffin. Hayes had to call Millen’s attention back to their discussion several times during the interview.
An unnamed college football coach tried recruiting Millen in his senior year. When he talked to Millen’s parents, he cut to the chase.
“I’ve got to have your son,” the coach told them (via Sports Illustrated). “He’s just a mean, nasty s.o.b.”
Millen’s dad Harry thanked the coach for his off-the-wall remark.
His son Matt did something grotesque when he signed his letter of intent with the Colorado Buffaloes. He cut his arm with a knife and used his own blood as ink.
Matt’s incredulous father Harry never signed the gory letter. The latter dropped subtle hints he wanted his son to commit to Joe Paterno’s Penn State Nittany Lions.
Matt Millen relented, remained in-state, and made a name for himself at Penn State in the next phase of his gridiron journey.
College Days with the Penn State Nittany Lions
Matt Millen attended Penn State University from 1976 to 1979.
Millen met his future wife Patricia, an All-American gymnast, during their college days at PSU. He suited up for legendary Penn State Nittany Lions head football coach Joe Paterno.
Millen and Bruce Clark, another highly-touted recruit from Pennsylvania, were on the same career path in college.
Both Millen and Clark started as true freshman linebackers in 1976. Paterno then asked them to anchor the Nittany Lions’ defensive line for the next three seasons.
With Millen and Clark powering the defensive line, Penn State had a combined 22-2 win-loss record from 1977 to 1978.
The Nittany Lions beat the Arizona State Sun Devils in the 1977 Fiesta Bowl, 42-30.
Unfortunately, Penn State lost to the Alabama Crimson Tide in a low-scoring national title game one year later. Alabama prevailed in the 1978 Sugar Bowl, 14-7.
Happy Birthday Matt Millen, Penn State Nittany Lions, #OaklandRaiders. #CollegeFootball @FilmHistoric @ClintKPoppe #PennState @PennStateFball #WeAre @PSU_FB_Thoughts @psufootball13 @PennStateRivals pic.twitter.com/vHXJeX3RW7
— History of College Football (@HistColFootball) March 12, 2022
Nonetheless, both Clark and Millen earned All-American honors following the 1978 NCAA season. It wasn’t surprising considering that the two men combined for 105 tackles and 16.0 sacks in their junior campaign.
A back injury limited Millen to just three games in his senior season with the Nittany Lions in 1979. As for Clark, a knee injury forced him to undergo surgery and sit out the last three games of the 1979 NCAA campaign.
Despite the injuries, Penn State won eight games and beat the Tulane Green Wave in the 1979 Liberty Bowl, 9-6. Matt Millen did not suit up for the Nittany Lions in that game.
Millen and Clark, both battling nagging injuries, drove around Memphis, before to the game against Tulane. The latter told Sports Illustrated five years later that it was a depressing experience.
Matt Millen told Zimmerman in 1984 that he and Paterno weren’t always on the same page.
Millen had been a Ray Nitschke and Dick Butkus disciple since he was a child. His no-nonsense style of play wasn’t compatible with the image Penn State wanted him to project. In fact, PSU academic athletic adviser Frank Downing asked Millen to bring a suitcase every time he attended class.
Although Millen didn’t always see eye-to-eye with Paterno, he had already developed a hard-hitting style that fit the Oakland Raiders’ style of play perfectly.
Matt Millen eventually became one of the stonewalls of a Raiders defense that won two Super Bowl titles in the early 1980s.
Pro Football Career
The Oakland Raiders made Matt Millen the 43rd overall selection of the 1980 NFL Draft.
According to Zimmerman, the Raiders whittled their rookie middle linebacker shortlist down to three: Millen, the North Carolina Tar Heels’ Buddy Curry, and the Oklahoma Sooners’ George Cumby.
The Raiders eventually decided to take Millen off the draft board in the second round. Millen recalled that he was eating a burger at a local Burger King restaurant when he got the call from Oakland.
Prior to the draft, Millen, who dealt with a nagging back injury as a senior at Penn State, had taken physical exams with several teams. Unfortunately, he flunked them all. The lone physical he passed was with Al Davis’ Raiders.
Millen picked up with the Raiders where he left off at Penn State – he continued fighting in the National Football League.
Millen fought San Diego Chargers tight end Kellen Winslow and Washington Redskins running back Otis Wonsley during his twelve-year NFL career.
Millen didn’t just fight opponents. He also fought his own Raiders teammates such as defensive end John Matuszak.
Not only that but Millen also had a reputation for talking smack during games. When Millen was a rookie, he tried throwing San Diego Chargers guard Ed White off his game by yakking it up at the line of scrimmage.
Although White never talked back, Millen’s antics riled him up.
Fast forward one season later, White approached Millen after a game and told him he should be a Pro Bowler.
There was only one catch: White felt Millen’s obnoxious on-field behavior wouldn’t convince voters to cast their ballot for him.
— Old Time Football 🏈 (@Ol_TimeFootball) March 12, 2022
Millen gave opponents who taunted and showboated a piece of his mind on the gridiron.
In Millen’s third season with the Raiders in 1982, Chargers tight end Kellen Winslow caught a pass while Raiders safety Kenny Hill covered him.
After Winslow caught the pass from quarterback Dan Fouts, the former spun the football on Hill’s chest. Winslow’s antic infuriated Millen, who swore he would make him pay.
On the Chargers’ next possession, Millen head-butted Winslow, who slowly crumpled to the field writhing in agony. Despite the vicious hit, Millen told Zimmerman he loved Winslow’s competitive nature.
Matt Millen got to know the opposition – particularly running backs – based on how they reacted after he flattened them.
For instance, the Washington Redskins’ John Riggins and Houston Oilers’ Earl Campbell never uttered a word after Millen laid them out.
For Millen, it spoke volumes about their character as football players – they just went to work and never complained.
On the other hand, the Seattle Seahawks’ Curt Warner always reacted as if he got the wind knocked out of him. For his part, Dallas Cowboys running back Tony Dorsett always patted Millen on his rear and paid him a compliment after a hard hit.
Matt Millen’s first year in the National Football League coincided with Tom Flores’ second as Oakland Raiders head coach in 1980.
The Raiders won eleven games and their second Vince Lombardi Trophy after beating the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl XV, 27-10.
Matt Millen earned the first of his four career Super Bowl rings: two with the Raiders, one with the San Francisco 49ers, and another one with the Washington Redskins.
“That ’83 team? Best team ever.”
— Las Vegas Raiders (@Raiders) November 10, 2019
The Raiders, who were re-christened the “Los Angeles Raiders,” returned to the Super Bowl after an impressive twelve-game season in 1983.
Millen and Co. annihilated Joe Theismann’s Washington Redskins, 38-9.
Although the Raiders had won another Super Bowl title in blowout fashion, it didn’t come easy for Millen.
He told Zimmerman that the hardest hit he endured in the first few years of his pro football career was in Super Bowl XVIII against the Redskins.
Washington running back Otis Wonsley plowed into Millen’s chest area with his helmet during the game. Millen compared the hit to getting hit with a cannonball. Wonsley’s hit was so powerful, Millen had trouble swallowing food for three days.
Nevertheless, Matt Millen was a Super Bowl champion for the second time in his twelve-year pro football career.
The hard-nosed Millen never forgot his roots when he reached the pinnacle of his career with the Raiders.
Millen donated $6,000 worth of weight training equipment to his alma mater, Whitehall High School, in 1984. He used his postseason and Super Bowl money to shoulder the expenses, per Zimmerman.
Millen considered NFL referee Jerry Markbreit the funniest official he worked with. Markbreit called a penalty in one game and then took thirty minutes to announce it to the crowd in the stadium.
Millen approached Markbreit and told him to speed things up. The latter grew incensed and told Millen not to interrupt him while he was talking on the microphone.
The Los Angeles Raiders averaged twelve wins per season from 1984 to 1985. Unfortunately, they never made it past the AFC Divisional Round during those two years.
Millen made headlines for punching New England Patriots general manager Patrick Sullivan on the field after the Raiders’ 27-20 loss in the 1985 AFC Divisional Round game.
🏴☠️✍️🏻👊🏻 (1 0F 2)#Raiders LB Matt Millen and Patriots GM Pat Sullivan postgame incident (January 5, 1986
1985 Divisional Playoff
"Right, wrong, indifferent you got to back your guy and he always did." – Howie Long on #55 pic.twitter.com/1pNF2Tj3g0
— AFL Godfather 🏴☠️👓🏈 (@NFLMAVERICK) January 5, 2021
Millen claimed he acted in defense of his teammate, Raiders defensive end Howie Long.
“I saw some guy swing at Howie,” Millen told Deadspin’s Sean Newell in the spring of 2012. “I didn’t know who the moron was, so I swung at him.”
It turned out it was Sullivan, who had to have his face stitched after Millen socked him.
The last two years of the memorable Tom Flores era were a tumultuous time for the Black Hole. The Raiders averaged barely seven wins per season from 1986 to 1987.
Consequently, they missed the postseason in consecutive years for the first time since 1978 to 1979.
Despite Los Angeles’ ineptitude, Matt Millen earned his first and only Pro Bowl berth in 1988.
Millen left the Raiders after the 1988 NFL season. He returned to the Bay Area and signed with the San Francisco 49ers.
Millen joined a 49ers juggernaut that included quarterback Steve Young, wide receiver Jerry Rice, running back Roger Craig, tackle Harris Barton, linebacker Charles Haley, and safety Ronnie Lott.
First-year San Francisco head coach George Seifert guided the 49ers to a gaudy 14-2 win-loss record and their fourth Super Bowl title of the 1980s.
The 49ers demolished John Elway’s Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXIV, 55-10. Matt Millen earned his third Super Bowl ring.
Although San Francisco duplicated its 14-2 win-loss record in 1990, they fell to the New York Giants in the NFC Championship Game, 15-13.
That was Matt Millen’s final game in 49ers’ red, gold, and white. He signed with the Washington Redskins prior to the 1991 NFL season.
Millen’s signing became another fortuitous turn of events in his twelve-year NFL career.
The Redskins won fourteen games in 1991 and secured their third Super Bowl title in the past decade. They beat the upstart Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXVI, 37-24.
Matt Millen was a Super Bowl champion for the fourth and final time in his pro football career. He retired after the 1991 NFL campaign.
Millen had nine interceptions, 17.0 sacks, and eight fumble recoveries in his twelve-year NFL career from 1980 to 1991.
Matt Millen and his wife Patricia currently reside in the Durham, PA area. The couple has two sons: Matt Jr. and Marcus, two daughters: Michalyn and Marianne, and ten grandchildren.
Millen became a renowned sports broadcaster after he retired from the National Football League in 1992. He became a CBS sports analyst that year and later worked with Tim Ryan, Doc Emrick, Paul Olden, and Sean McDonough.
Millen signed with FOX Sports in 1994 and worked with Dick Stockton in the broadcast booth for NFL games.
Millen later provided color commentary for Monday Night Football games aired on Westwood One radio.
The Detroit Lions hired Millen to become their CEO and general manager prior to the 2001 NFL season.
Millen told Sports Illustrated’s Michael Rosenberg that he first met Lions owner William Clay Ford in the spring of 2000 to discuss the offer.
Millen admitted to Ford he was not qualified since he had no prior NFL management experience. The latter was confident Millen could figure things out.
Millen politely declined Ford’s offer. The two sides met again one year later. This time around, Matt Millen signed a contract to become Detroit’s CEO and general manager.
Millen stirred controversy in his third year on the job.
After Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Johnny Morton told Millen to “kiss my a–“ in the locker room following the Chiefs’ 45-17 home win over the Lions in December 2003, some media members overheard Millen uttering a gay slur at Morton.
Millen admitted to the slur and apologized in a press conference the following day.
Matt Millen reflected on his time as the Lions GM.
He said he was on the phone with DeMarcus Ware when he ultimately drafted Mike Williams. pic.twitter.com/h8d1soeVmP
— Brad Galli (@BradGalli) May 15, 2018
Millen and the Lions were set on drafting Troy Trojans linebacker DeMarcus Ware in 2005.
However, Millen gave in to pleas from others in the Lions’ draft room to select USC Trojans wide receiver Mike Williams 10th overall.
Millen’s son Matthew Jr. was so incensed with the selection that he punched his father in the gut and walked out, per Rosenberg.
Williams, who Millen fined a total of approximately $400,000 in 2005, went on to spend just two seasons in Detroit.
“It was ridiculous,” Millen told Sports Illustrated some eight years later. “He just didn’t care.”
In sharp contrast, Ware became a nine-time Pro Bowl linebacker with the Dallas Cowboys and Denver Broncos.
The Lions amassed a cumulative 31-84 (.269) win-loss record during Millen’s controversial tenure from 2001 to 2008.
The Lions eventually dismissed him in the fall of 2008. Although Millen watched copious amounts of game film and sometimes even slept at Detroit’s practice facility, he attributed his shortcoming as Lions CEO and general manager to not stepping out of his comfort zone.
“What I should have done, if I was going to be a GM, was gone on the road, gotten into the personnel a lot better,” Millen told Rosenberg in the winter of 2013. “To do that job, you gotta do it all year. I just did it at draft time.”
Despite Detroit’s ineptitude, Millen earned an annual salary of $5 million with the Lions – the second-highest among NFL general managers at the time.
Matt Millen returned to the broadcast booth and joined ESPN in 2009. He was featured on the network’s ESPN College Football and Thursday Night Football telecasts.
Millen later joined the Big Ten Network (BTN) as a college football analyst.
Mayo Clinic internist Dr. Gary Lee diagnosed Matt Millen with amyloidosis – a condition where he had an abnormal buildup of protein in his heart – in January 2017.
The condition severely affected Millen’s performance as a BTN broadcaster. He took a medical leave from the network in October 2018.
Millen spent the next 100 days at the hospital undergoing chemotherapy and waiting for a heart transplant. Millen received his new heart on December 24, 2018.
Millen returned to the BTN broadcasting booth in the fall of 2019.