Peter Miller spent years kicking soccer balls for Peoria Christian School, but never so much as set his foot against a football. That changed Saturday, when the freshman at Northwestern College got the chance to partake in a pass, punt and kick promotion before the first football game at the private Minnesota school. The first place kick of his life netted him a year's free tuition, valued at a whopping $22,250.
Peter Miller spent years kicking soccer balls for Peoria Christian School, but never so much as set his foot against a football.
That changed Saturday, when the freshman at Northwestern College got the chance to partake in a pass, punt and kick promotion before the first football game at the private Minnesota school. The first place kick of his life netted him a year's free tuition, valued at a whopping $22,250.
"It's quite a blessing," says Miller, 18. "I had never done it before. I guess I did all right."
Miller grew up in Mackinaw with five siblings. He spent the last three years of high school playing for the Chargers' soccer team. During his last year at Peoria Christian, he looked around for the right college. PCS alumni pointed him toward Northwestern College, a 3,000-student school in Roseville, Minn.
"It's a good Christian school," Miller says. "I checked it out. I visited, and I loved the campus. So I figured it was the place to go."
His twin sister, Melinda, decided to go there, as well. That would mean a financial burden to their parents, Dale and Sally Miller, especially considering another sister also is attending college.
"That's three tuitions," says Peter Miller, a business major. "I'm paying a little bit. But my parents are paying a lot."
With his folks' investment in mind, Miller decided to put soccer aside and concentrate on academics, at least this year.
"I wanted to take it slow," he says. "Maybe if I'm still in shape next year, I'll go out for the team."
Still, he had soccer on his mind for at least a little bit Saturday morn: He put on an old "Peoria Christian Soccer" T-shirt before heading to watch Northwestern's first home football game of the season. He and his friends joined about 500 other fans to watch the Eagles take on the University of Wisconsin-River Falls at Reynolds Field.
There, the first home game always involves the Football Frenzy event. Four fans are chosen by random ticket numbers and lined up at a 10-yard line. Each then passes a pigskin downfield, then punts the ball toward the opposite goal post. If the ball does not go out of bounds or into the end zone, the participant gets a chance to place kick the ball through the uprights. A good kick wins free tuition for a year.
Sound reasonably easy? Since the contest's inception in 2002, no one had won.
Then came Miller's turn. Over the years, he had played pickup football games occasionally with friends and family. But he rarely had thrown a football and never had punted or kicked one.
As he stepped to the 10-yard line, he had a simple strategy: "My goal was just to throw it as far as I could," he says.
The southpaw launched a beauty that flew just more than 40 yards in the air. As a bonus, as the crowd cheered, the ball bounced another 25 yards, putting him at the 24-yard line. Time to punt. He knew knocking the ball into the end zone would end his try. So, he decided to pop a little pooch punt.
For that attempt, the left-hander became a right-footer. That's how he whacks soccer balls, as well.
"Isn't that weird?" he says with a chuckle. "I've been left-handed all my life, but I kick righty."
It worked. The ball bounced toward the goal line, but stopped just inches short - and right in the middle of the field. To win the prize, he would need to kick a field goal of just 10 yards. Still, he'd never tried a field goal of any distance, a thought that pounded through his head as he stared at the ball held on the ground by a volunteer.
"I was extremely nervous," he says. "I was afraid I was going to kick the side of the ball or something."
Nope. The lanky teen slammed a long leg into the base of the ball, smacking it end over end toward the right upright. It fluttered just inside the post.
"I stared at it for a second, but I wasn't sure if it went through," he says, laughing. "Lucky kick, I guess."
As the crowd exploded, a pack of friends rushed onto the field. They hoisted up Miller, suddenly the Big Man on Campus. As he posed for pictures, organizers presented him a certificate for free tuition.
Then he rushed to call his mother. Three times he told her about his windfall.
"She didn't believe me," he says with a chuckle.
Eventually, he convinced his parents of his sincerity - and newfound football skill.
Says his father, "We're all surprised. ... For someone who hasn't played a lot of football, it's pretty good."
Peoria Journal Star columnist Phil Luciano can be reached at email@example.com or (309) 686-3155.