Iowa State redshirt senior linebacker Bobby McMillen III in action in last week’s win over TCU. (Photo courtesy Cyclones.com)
AMES — He couldn’t play. He couldn’t run. His football career seemed to be in peril.
So after Iowa State linebacker Bobby McMillen III tore his ACL just two games into his redshirt junior season, the Chicagoland-area native pondered how best he could help the team he loved so much.
Sure, he could coach up young teammates such as Mike Rose and O’Rien Vance during film study, but McMillen found something else to hold on to while he couldn’t clutch a football: Water bottles.
Yes, the former three-star recruit from Naperville, Ill. spent part of last season as a scholarship water boy — and learned plenty about himself and what it means to be on Coach Matt Campbell’s roster in the humbling, yet enlightening process.
“I come every single day with the team’s success as my number one interest,” said McMillen, who rehabbed, healed and looks forward to playing in his sixth straight game when ISU (3-2, 1-1 Big 12) kicks off at 3 p.m. Saturday at West Virginia (3-2, 1-1). “Whatever they need me to do, whether it’s play two plays at SAM linebacker, whether it’s 100 plays at MIKE linebacker, whether it’s run down on kickoff, whether it’s play on punt, whether it’s fill up water bottles. It doesn’t really matter. My number one focus throughout the entire week and on Saturdays is the team success.”
And it takes water to grow, thrive, and recharge — personally, and as a team. So McMillen opened the spigot and shared any way he could.
“You see guys thirsty on the sideline coming off the field, you’ve got to hand the guy a water bottle or something,” said McMillen, who’s suffered two season-ending injuries in his Cyclones career.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. McMillen is the prototypical gym rat. His father, Bob, won three Arena Football League titles as a coach and is a member of the AFL Hall of Fame.
Football stood front and center in life — and as a three-star recruit coming out of Naperville Central, McMillen embodied all the attributes ascribed to a typical coach’s son:
Smart. Driven. Powerful.
McMillen was the first commitment of former Cyclones coach Paul Rhoads’ last recruiting class. Some of his fellow freshmen in 2015? Current offensive line stalwarts Julian Good-Jones and Bryce Meeker, fellow linebacker Marcel Spears, Jr., receiver Landen Akers — and some two-star dude named Hakeem Butler.
Lots has changed since then, but McMillen’s commitment to the ISU program has not. He played five games his redshirt freshman season under Campbell, but a knee injury knocked him out for the final seven. So there have been tenuous moments emotionally — particularly last season, but McMillen battled through by changing himself for the better.
“My whole thing to him is you can’t disappear last year,” Campbell told me this week. “Because if you do, mentally I don’t know if you’ll be able to recover from this. For him to really stay engaged — and youv’e seen him, from coaching the young guys, to his ability to humble himself enough to say, ‘Man, I’m going to take care of those guys with the water,’ I think that is huge. And, again, it’s great for our program to see guys do that. Now all of a sudden he’s out there having success, so it’s a great opportunity for us to talk about those guys.”
Campbell often says he needs his ‘A’ players to be the program’s top leaders.
But a powerful culture hinges on lessons taught by less prominent players, as well.
McMillen’s experience serves as a testament to the latter’s importance — and even though he sees the field mostly on special teams (he has nine tackles this season, doubling his career total), how he carries himself can have a profound impact.
“I’m just very proud of him,” Spears said. “Me and him came in together, so just seeing growth between me and him — he could have easily, easily called it quits, but he didn’t. He’s continued to grow as a football player and continued to grow as a man.”
Quitting was an option, but one McMillen never truly entertained.
“There were definitely some doubts in my mind,” McMillen said. “I think the biggest thing is I had a ton of support from my teammates and the coaching staff and my family back home that just kept telling me, ‘No matter what adversity (you face), you’re always going to come through it.’ The success of this team and the camaraderie and the brotherhood that we have is really what kind of pushed me through and got me to the point of there’s no way I’m going to quit. There’s no way I’m going to give up on these guys because the about of work that they put in, I want to be a part of this team in every way possible.”
Rose, Vance and others took note. McMillen’s implacable approach to being a part of this team — even as a part-time water carrier —serves as an obstacle-busting blueprint for what it takes to be an exemplary teammate.
“He’s a huge example if they listen and pay attention,” ISU defensive coordinator Jon Heacock said of what younger players can learn from McMillen’s perseverance. “It’s like the rest of us, if the young guys aren’t watching and they don’t hear his story and don’t understand his story, then it’s a wasted story. I would hope that our young guys have seen that and if they have, they’ll get a solid, good story and one that at some point of time in their career, they’ll need that story. If they use it, it will be to the good.”
McMillen’s used all his personal plot twists to construct a yarn well-worth sharing and appreciating. He said there was never really a flashpoint moment where doubt threatened to overtake desire, but there was a game last season that solidified his belief in himself — and more importantly, his team.
It was the stirring comeback win over Kansas State that capped the Cyclones’ first six-win Big 12 season.
McMillen might have handed out water, but his resolve began to fully re-flower. He would be back. And he would walk, run and finally play the game he loves again.
“The fight that we had as a team and the culture that you saw throughout the entirety of that game is something that you don’t want to quit on — you don’t want to not be a part of,” said McMillen, who will graduate with a degree in communication studies in December. “I think after that game, I was emotional just seeing how happy the guys were and the success and everything like that. It was a really big thing for me, like, ‘OK, this is what I want to be a part of and this is what success looks like. This is my brothers. This is the work that they put in finally paying off, so I’d be a fool to try and walk away from that.”