‘Gathering’ planned for Johnny Mills

Marvin Westwestwords

Vol for life Johnny Mills, one of Elizabethton’s favorite sons, has died as a follow-up to a massive heart attack a dozen or more years ago.

As Johnny would have it, that’s all the obituary stuff I’m going to offer. He didn’t like funerals so old friends and former Tennessee Volunteers will have a “gathering” in January.

Based on how little I know about it, sounds like it could be a verse from the song “Going Away Party.”

I will tell you Johnny lived life to the fullest, that he coached high school football for a few seasons in Kentucky, that he and Carla didn’t marry until he was 39, that they developed a greenhouse that flourished because he liked flowers and other plants, that she saved his life when the first heart attack hit and that he told her “Thank you” and “I love you” every day thereafter.

Bill Battle will be at the gathering. He was the young assistant coach “responsible” for Tennessee wide receivers in the middle-late 1960s.

Battle would never have admitted it then but Mills was one of his favorites, maybe even a low-level pride and joy. Johnny was famous for his many moves to avoid practice but was outstanding on game days.

The coach recognized the pattern. The player thought he had faked him out.

Mills’ greatest accomplishment was a personal treatment plan for his version of mononucleosis. He persuaded veteran trainer Mickey O’Brien to mandate total rest on Sundays, Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays with limited exercise on Saturdays.

Decades later, when quarterbacks and the passing game have evolved into something beautiful, Johnny is still in the record book for 225 yards against Kentucky on seven catches of Dewey Warren throws.

There were other days when Mills caught more – 11 against Auburn, 10 against UCLA. Johnny was the talk of several towns.

In 1966, he was Associated Press all-Southeastern Conference, first team. I stopped him on campus to say congratulations.

“I might have made all-American if you hadn’t spent so much newspaper space on Austin (Denny).”

Mills once used similar strategy on Battle.

As a new and very young head coach, Battle said split end Larry Seivers was a remarkable combination of many things good – valuable yards, crucial first downs, unbelievable catches made to appear routine, a near-enough-to-perfect example of unselfishness, a willing worker and a wonderful influence for teamwork and togetherness.

“Larry is so much more than you see on the field,” said the coach.

Seivers was good enough on the field for the coach to declare him “The best we’ve ever had.”

Mills, slow afoot but quick of mind, nimble, great hands, a thin but fearless country boy, sought clarification. He wrote the coach a letter.

“I know how quickly fans forget but I never thought you would forget the man that helped you get where you are today. I believe you know that if it wasn’t for me, you would still be an assistant coach driving a ’65 Chevy and taking food from the training table home to your family.

“If it wasn’t for me, there wouldn’t be any carpet in the dorm and only one side of the stadium would be two stories high.

“Larry Seivers better than Johnny Mills? I mean really, Coach, what are you saying? I hope you see the error of your ways.”

The writer promised to be a reader with hopes of seeing a retraction. He added a poorly veiled threat. Such talk from the head coach could cause fans, especially old friends in Elizabethton, to stop buying season tickets. The writer said since Elizabethton was so much larger than Clinton, Seivers’ hometown, it just made economic sense for the coach to clarify his position.

“It should be clear who you should be trying to please.”

Mills folded the letter to fit inside a “Get well soon” card.

Yesterday, Battle admitted he was laughing before he got to the signature. He still treats it as a treasure.

Mills had a little extra to say. He put it on the card.

“When I read that quote about Seivers being the best ever, I feared you were seriously ill or maybe losing your mind. I went right out and spent 25 cents on this get-well card.”

He sent it postage due.

Marvin West welcomes comments or questions from readers. His address is [email protected].

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