The 1969 Hillsdale College Chargers were in the thick of their football season. It was October. Playoffs would soon be approaching and with Frank “Muddy” Waters as the head coach, expectations were high. But it was in October junior defensive Michael Mills thought he’d never again see his coach, his teammates, or anyone else for that matter.
On Oct. 7, 1969, Mills suffered a traumatic brain injury during a game and was pronounced dead on the field against Northern Michigan University. He was rushed to St. Luke’s Hospital in Marquette, Michigan, where doctors attempted to rescue him. While his body was present, Mills’ spirit was not. He spent 22 hours in Heaven, where Jesus told him his journey wasn’t finished.
“He told me it was not my time to stay and that I would be fully restored when I returned,” Mills wrote in his book, ‘Amazing Love, Extraordinary Gifts.’
From there, the miracles unfolded.
“I saw my body from above in an intensive care bed, with my parents and Coach Muddy Waters in the next room,” he wrote. “The most amazing and one of the clearest memories I have to this day is that there was an Angel sitting on the end of my bed, at my feet.”
As Mills returned to his physical body, he discovered he was paralyzed from the neck down, and he lacked all of his senses, except for hearing and speaking. He could neither see nor feel anything, but he could hear, and soon, he heard words of comfort and concern from his parents and coach.
“I boldly professed to them that I was going to walk out of the hospital in 38 days! That is what the Lord had told me!” Mills wrote.
It took four days for the proper staff and equipment to be assembled for the ensuing operations Mills would endure. On Oct. 11, brain surgery finally began. Despite some complications, the operation was successful and Mills recovered well.
“It is here in the late afternoon of the day after surgery, less than 24 hours from surgery, that I was able to sit up with complete restoration of my entire body, of my earthly senses, and my sight,” Mills wrote. “My smile of joy was permanently affixed and growing on my face by the Lord Jesus Christ forever!”
Mills was on track to walk out of the hospital in 38 days.
“Every morning when I wake up — and I mean every morning for the last 50 years — I have put my feet on the floor and thanked the Lord for the day in front of me and asked him what I’m doing for him today,” Mills said.
God has used Mills in different ways since his new life began. Whether he was working in athletics or politics, Mills keeps two things at the center of everything: his faith and the principles he learned during his time as a Charger.
He returned to Hillsdale in the fall of 1970, but this time not as a student-athlete. To replace the time he would have spent on the football field, Coach “Muddy” Waters appointed him to be the college’s first full-time sports information director. He also served as sports editor of The Collegian, majored in business and economics, and afterward worked in college athletics for 30 years.
After working at The Collegian, Mills worked for the Hillsdale Daily News as the sports editor, but not for long. By 1974, Waters was being recruited to found the athletic program at Saginaw Valley State University and he wanted Mills to help him. Of course, Mills said yes to the job.
“Muddy was the winningest football coach in the U.S. out of all divisions,” Mills said. “All of us that played for him became like his sons.”
From there Mills transferred to Colorado State University to be the assistant athletic director and teach a journalism class. Mills said one of his jobs was to figure out how to supplement funding for women’s sports after Title IX required colleges and universities to financially support men’s and women’s sports equally.
“I applied my Hillsdale entrepreneurial skills and earned revenue for the NCAA,” Mills said. “In 1976 – 77 we were giving scholarships to girls who couldn’t chew gum and dribble a basketball at the same time. I had to figure out how to generate revenue off of basketball, football, and sometimes hockey.”
Mills not only learned business and economics at Hillsdale, but his job as the sports information director taught him to communicate. Hillsdale’s current sports information director Brad Monastiere said the ability to communicate is the most important thing his job has taught him.
“[My job] has evolved so much, just in the time I’ve been here since 2005. The biggest key that this job teaches you is the ability to communicate,” he said. “ If you’re a good communicator, you’re successful in this job, and it can translate to many other lines of work as well.”
For Mills, his ability to communicate led to many more opportunities. He was a producer and director of radio broadcasts statewide and was able to increase revenue for the NCAA by $250,000.
It was also at Colorado State where Mills ran the NCAA Final Four tournament in 1979 when basketball legends Magic Johnson and Larry Bird faced each other in the finals.
“The NCAA recruits 30 [sports information directors] and media guys to run various aspects because there’s a ton of media to host,” Mills said. “I was in charge of the upper press box. There were about 800 people covering the event. That particular event was the largest audience in NCAA in sports in general for a television audience.”
After his time at Colorado State, Mills returned to Lansing to work as the Executive Vice President of the Michigan Chamber Foundation. Here he worked with Hillsdale’s chairman and professor of economics, Charles Van Eaton. Together they wrote a book about privatization in Michigan: “Revitalizing the American City: A Market Perspective for Detroit.”
“Dr. Van Eaton was also an ordained minister from whom I gained a great deal of wisdom,” Mills said. “This entire journey has been based on the Hillsdale principles of Christ-like values and self-governance.”
Like Muddy, Van Eaton encouraged Mills to be a man of good faith and character. After his deadly experience on the football field, Mills says Hillsdale is one of the only places he could imagine allowing him to share his story.
“I even had pastors tell me it was like a martian story and they told me not to tell many people,” Mills said. “But my boldness is God’s, not mine.”
He said God provided a way for Mills to use his experience in October 1969 for a greater purpose. Former MLB pitcher for the Dodgers Carl Erskine worked with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes organization and invited Mills to speak to a group of injured athletes and their parents.
“I prayed with them to have confidence and that God does what God does and without faith, they’re not going to get through it,” Mills said. “I gave 85 speeches a year all over the state.”
According to Mills, Hillsdale College and Charger football gave Mills his start, his story, and his smile. It is because of this special place and those special people Mills has enjoyed this life journey.
“We went to class together, we ate together, and everything else,” quarterback Mike Harding ‘70 said in a video interview. “To this day we all stay in touch with each other.”
Mills called his time as a Charger “the most rewarding experience.”
“They’re like brothers, and Muddy was like dad,” he said.
This special team was inducted into the Hillsdale College Sports Hall of Fame in 2018.
“Muddy would tell friends the 1969 team might have been the deepest of all his teams,” Monastiere said. “It would be the first Hillsdale team to qualify for the NAIA playoffs in nine years. It would allow just 9.5 points per game. It would outscore its opponents by an average of 25 points per game in its eight wins.”
Mills is now currently working as a chaplain at the Huron House in Port Huron, Michigan.
“We take in guys that are coming out of jail and work on transforming them to get them off their habits of drugs or alcohol,” he said. “I just sell them Jesus to fill the hole they used to fill with alcohol.”
Each day is a new chance for Michael Mills to live the life he thought he’d never have again, and he is living it with full faith and a great purpose.