The LSU football team was sequestered at The Cook Hotel on campus Friday night as usual before a home game when Les Miles arrived to speak to his team.
Unfortunately, there was nothing usual about this night for LSU’s coach.
Earlier that evening, while Miles and his wife, Kathy, were watching their son Manny play football for University High, they got a call from offensive coordinator Cam Cameron at the Catholic-McKinley game. The Miles’ other son, Ben, suffered a broken ankle, so Les and Kathy left the U-High game to be with him.
While at the emergency room with Ben, Les Miles got another call from the coroner, telling him that his mother, Martha, had passed away. Martha Miles, who spent her later years in an assisted living facility in Baton Rouge while suffering from dementia and physical aliments, was 91.
After paying his respects, Martha Miles’ son went to address his team. Football is life for the Miles family, and football games, like the one LSU was to play less than 24 hours later against Ole Miss, don’t get postponed for personal tragedies. But they somehow often seem to circle back in startlingly familiar ways.
In 2000, Hope Miles, Les’ father, died. Les was an assistant coach with the Dallas Cowboys then, and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones had Miles flown on his private jet to Ohio and back for the funeral just days before Dallas played Washington on Monday Night Football (as they did this Monday night).
In 2006 the other most influential man in Miles’ life, Michigan coach Bo Schembechler, died the night before LSU played Ole Miss. The following week, Miles flew to Michigan and back the Monday of the Arkansas game to honor his beloved coach.
As Miles told his team of his mother’s passing, freshman tailback Leonard Fournette’s thoughts were of his own mother while he marveled at Miles’ ability to carry on for his team.
“That is a real man,” Fournette said. “That is a man.”
A real man doesn’t just stuff his emotions in a box and pretend they don’t exist. He acknowledges them, addresses them, makes them part of him and what he has to do.
So does his team, the players he loves, who love him right back. His young men went out and played for Martha Miles and themselves and their families, and Martha’s son against the Rebels. Just when the swirl of emotions couldn’t have been any thicker, the Tigers went out and won an emotional game, 10-7 over then-No. 3 Ole Miss, one of the biggest nonchampionship game wins ever for the Tigers.
Afterward, in the simmering postgame locker room, LSU’s players presented Martha’s son with the game ball.
“We played this one for coach tonight,” senior center Elliott Porter told his teammates. “It was meant to be.”
“We would not be denied,” Miles said as he accepted the ball. “This football team said tonight was going to be special, and it was.
“This is an example of what you guys set out to do.”
The overall attitude many LSU fans have had toward Miles during his decade on the job has been mixed. But the love of Miles’ players for their coach and his for them has never been worth questioning.
There has to be something in the way Miles was raised by his parents that has something to do with that bond. I got a glimpse into it in 2005.
My assignment on the eve of Miles’ first season at LSU was to trace his roots in and around his hometown of Elyria, Ohio, and at Michigan, where he played offensive guard for the Wolverines.
I spent the better part of a summer afternoon with Martha Miles at her home on the outskirts of Elyria. She was living on her own then, and quite capable of spryly leading an unfamiliar reporter up the steps to the loft in a backyard barn, which served as her art studio, and back down again.
There were photos throughout the house of her children, of course, including Les, the first child she and his father Hope had together (they both had a child from previous marriages).
She told stories of Les growing up, the boy his father called “Duke” because of his love of movie legend John Wayne. Clearly she was proud of her son, as mothers are, but not because of his wins. She was proud because of the kind of person he was, the kind of person he was after dealing with a loss in 2004 while the coach at Oklahoma State.
The Cowboys trailed archrival Oklahoma 38-35 when Oklahoma State kicker Jason Ricks missed a game-tying 49-yard field-goal try with 11 seconds left. After it was over, Miles found Ricks and wrapped him up in a hug.
“I was so proud when I saw that,” Martha Miles said. “I thought, ‘That’s how it should be.’”
As he spoke of the Ole Miss game and his mother late Saturday night, Les Miles softly muttered, “Miss you, mom.”
Maybe some would say that such sentiments have no place in football.
But that is how it should be.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.