How former Bears tight end Zach Miller found his calling as a rising country music star
Zach Miller stood tall atop a stage in nearby McHenry, Ill., for the type of show he never would’ve imagined years ago, belting out the words he wrote, strumming at the guitar he picked up for fun as a kid, and living out another dream come true.
As Miller looked out to the crowd, he noticed a woman moved to tears and it hit him. This is why he fell in love with music — and what drives him to become a country music star like he once was a standout football player.
Music is the new passion for the 38-year-old Miller, who has overcome the odds in life to take this new stage.
“You can have an impact,” Miller said of music. “Whether it’s one person or a thousand people, it doesn’t really matter.”
Miller was always drawn to music during his upbringing in Wahoo, Neb., a small town of less than 5,000 people. He would pick up a guitar for fun and often listen deeply to each song he had loaded onto one of those hundreds of burnt CDs, searching for the meaning behind it. But Miller went on to pursue his goals in football instead.
Miller was a walk-on quarterback at Nebraska who transferred to Division II Nebraska-Omaha and earned his way to the NFL as an undrafted free agent in 2009. He converted to tight end in the league and became a productive player, especially during parts of three seasons with the Bears from 2015-17 as he caught 101 passes and 11 touchdowns for Chicago.
But Miller’s playing career came to a sudden end. During a game on Oct. 29, 2017, he suffered a catastrophic knee injury with the Bears while attempting to haul in a touchdown catch in New Orleans. Miller underwent emergency surgery to repair a damaged artery, which if not repaired risked the amputation of his left leg.
The procedure was a success, marking the first of 13 surgeries for Miller. He now deals with permanent nerve damage from the left knee on down and is affected by numbness in his lower leg. But Miller was afforded a quality of life that was at risk that Sunday in New Orleans.
“Every time this time of year, the memories pop up,” Miller said. “It happened five years ago. It’s crazy how fast that goes, because when I was in that moment, I felt like it was forever and I was never going to climb out of it. But you stack the days.
“It’s a completely new normal for me.”
As he spent 31 days in a hospital following the injury, music found him once again. He started picking up a pen and writing his own lyrics, reflecting on his life to that point and the memories that stuck with him.
Miller wasn’t considering a career in music at the time as he recovered from that injury. He simply was leaning on it to get him through this.
“I think that’s why music is so special,” Miller said. “It lives, really, forever. It can take you to a different moment or memory. It can make a different moment or memory.
“I didn’t want to be where I was at currently. I didn’t want to be in that hospital bed with bars drilled into my leg and all that going on.”
Miller officially announced his retirement from football in April of 2019, reaching a point in his recovery where he realized it would not be physically possible to play again. He envisioned being part of the game in coaching or scouting but that calling for music stayed with him.
In May of 2021, Miller announced his arrival into country music with his first single, “How Ya Like Us Now,” a song inspired by his upbringing in small-town Nebraska.
Miller has put out five singles since and has his latest, “For You,” arriving Friday, Nov. 18.
“When I got done playing ball, I felt like something was missing,” Miller said. “I needed a passion. Writing songs quickly became that. The creative process of writing songs, finding melodies, I fell in love so quickly.”
Back in January, Miller took the stage at Joe’s On Weed Street in Chicago for the first time in a show with award-winning country act Eli Young Band. He has performed at major venues like Joe’s On Weed Street but also enjoys the smaller stages, too. On the first weekend of December, Miller will play two nights at Old Crow in Wrigleyville.
Just as Miller was once a walk-on and undrafted free agent who had to earn his place in football, he hopes to rise in music the same way. There are more dreams in mind for Miller as he looks out from the stage.
“I’m going to work at this as hard as I can and as best as I can and I’m going to keep improving,” Miller said. “I feel like every time I get on stage, I get a little bit better. I want to earn it and I want to earn it every step of the way. That’s my process.
“I want to play bigger shows. I want to be on bigger stages and have numbers. But at the same time, I’m fine playing a guitar having one person moved to tears.”