Zach McMillian is remembered as a young star with an XL heart

Zach McMillian is remembered as a young star with an XL heart

As far back as Steward could remember, Zach McMillian, a close friend and former University of Houston teammate, would mention anyone close to his path to college football.

“He’ll tell you in a heartbeat that he played Division I football at 165 pounds,” Steward began. “They can’t measure his heart.

McMillian would tell the story every chance he got.

To his players at St. Cecilia Catholic School.

When he was hanging out with friends and former teammates.

Until it’s been a decade since he last played at UH.

“It’s always been the same story,” Steward, a former UH player, said this week.

What would Steward and the others do to hear the story again?

McMillian, a lightly recruited player who became an all-conference starter for the Cougars from 2010-13, was killed early Saturday when a car ran a red light and struck the SUV in which he was a passenger. He was 32 years old.

Six people were killed in the incident in downtown Houston, including former UH teammates DJ Hayden and Ralph Oragwu. Former UH fourth baseman, Jeffrey Lewis, was injured.

Not only does McMillian, who weighs just 165 pounds, play Division I football, but he excelled as a two-time All-Conference USA cornerback. He was a three-year starter and a key contributor during the Cougars’ 12-win season in 2011.

See also: Former UH player Ralph Orajo remembered as ‘protector’

Playing for the Cougars seemed almost like a birthright for McMillian, whose father, Audray, played for the Cougars in the early 1980s and for nine seasons in the NFL with the Houston Oilers and Minnesota Vikings.

“I can imagine it like it was yesterday,” said Tony Levine, the University of Houston assistant coach who recruited McMillian from Dallas High School. “He came to our camp that summer in his senior year and wasn’t a highly recruited guy. We loved him.”

Not long afterward, the Cougars offered McMillian a scholarship.

“I remember sitting at his house and telling him we were offering him a scholarship, and it had nothing to do with his father’s past, but everything to do with him as a student, as a person, and as a football player,” he said. Levine, who was promoted to head coach for McMillian’s final two seasons. “We thought he could play with us and play at a high level. He proved us right.”

For the past eight years, McMillian has been the head football coach at St. Cecilia Catholic School. Red ribbons were tied to trees outside the West Houston campus on Wednesday. A “Letters to Zack” box has been placed in the front office and will be delivered to the McMillian family.

“He was a wonderful person and a great role model for our students,” St. Cecilia School Principal Jeff Matthews said. “He was tough on them as a football coach, but they knew he loved them.”

McMillian will have early morning practices in August, so the team — made up of sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders — won’t have to deal with the summer heat, Matthews said. He regularly communicated with teachers to ensure that his players were “behaving well and working hard academically.”

“He was just the kind of coach you want for your son,” Matthews said.

McMillian will share lessons when players ask about his college playing days. And stories.

How he played Division I football at 165 pounds.

“I think he had a soft spot for the younger kids on the team,” Matthews said. “A lot of times, it was the youngest kids on the team who played with the most grit and determination and played like they were 100 pounds heavier.”

McMillian has never been far from UH. Along with Oragwu, he was about to take on a leadership role with UH’s Cougar Athletic Alliance, which works directly with the school’s alumni association. The UHCAA’s mission is to “foster the relationship between alumni, students and former athletes,” according to the organization’s website.

“They proved themselves,” said James Holmes, a former Ohio University football player in the early 1980s who was college roommates with Audrey McMillian. “It was the right time for us to pass the torch. We thought it was the right time – and two months later, this happened. You can see why this is so painful for us.

Despite his young age, McMillian acted like a “father figure” to his friends and former teammates, Steward said. Tell them about the consequences of not going to class. About being careful when they go out. About planning for the future.

“He spoke to us as if he were our father,” Steward recalls fondly. “He always kept things in perspective. Any decisions we were going to make, he always told us the consequences. If I did this, if I did that…”

See also: DJ Hayden’s death leads to outpouring from UH family and others

A few years ago, Steward received a phone call from McMillian.

“Do you want to come help me?” McMillian made an offer to Steward, then an NFL free agent, to become the defensive coordinator at St. Cecilia.

“That’s how it started,” Steward said of his first coaching job.

What was McMillian like as a coach?

“He was very cocky, just like he was when he was a player,” Steward, now a college coach in Tucson, Ariz., said with a laugh. “He always made sure the kids knew they were the underdog because they were smaller than everyone else and everyone was going to try to beat them. We had to be tough. We had to fight through it.”

Steward often stood aside while McMillian told the story.

How he played Division I football at 165 pounds.

“So what if you’re young?” Steward said McMillian told his team. “So what if you’re not as big as them? It doesn’t mean anything. You can always beat them if you just work.”

Even with the distance over the years, Steward said he often spoke on the phone with McMillian and Hayden, who had just started coaching high school at Second Baptist.

“Most of the time, we didn’t even talk about football,” Steward said.

When they did, Steward said, McMillian would remind him that coaching wasn’t just about wins and losses.

“What do you tell them? Are you giving kids valuable life lessons, or are you just trying to win football games? Steward said McMillian asked.

Adrian McDonald, who played high school with McMillian for two seasons at UH, credited McMillian and Hayden with helping him transition from quarterback in high school to defensive back in college.

“Zach always had a good energy about him,” said McDonald, the current defensive backs coach at Texas-Rio Grande Valley. “He was obviously a great talent that helped me realize what a defensive back was supposed to look like, especially since I didn’t play DB until I got to UH. Both DJ and Zach were guys that I looked up to and showed me the way.

After a game against UCF in 2013, McDonald heard McMillian’s story.

How he played Division I football at 165 pounds.

“He got sent off for a high hit,” MacDonald recalls. “They had to remove the wide receiver’s face mask and take him off the field.”

At the UHCAA meeting in July, McMillian was already making plans for the group’s golf tournament next summer. He planned to bring in former NFL players. He set a goal to raise enough money to award 10 scholarships. Suddenly, former athletes, not just football players, who had been gone for years, started showing up for meetings, according to Selena Flores, a close friend who worked in the University of Houston’s athletic development office.

“He was ready to continue his father’s legacy,” Flores added. He was bringing back (former players). He had a plan. He and Ralph were going to make it happen.

Flores said she will remember McMillian for his willingness to help in any way he could. Like the time she invited him to be a judge at her middle school’s spelling bee.

“He would drop the phone and come help,” Flores said. “He never thought twice about it. That’s how he lived his life.”

Steward, whose Marana High School team won back-to-back Southern Arizona regional titles, knows the story he will continue to share with his players.

“I know a guy who played Division I football at 165 pounds,” Steward said.

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