After surviving bus wreck, Todd Miller met his wife
Published 12:00 am Monday, December 19, 2011
By Mark Wineka
SALISBURY — It’s easy to say a horrific accident brought Todd and Leigh Miller together almost five years ago.
But their romance has more to do with the color purple.
The Millers have returned to their routines in Salisbury this week — back from a honeymoon cruise, which the couple delayed for a couple of months after their Oct. 1 wedding in Indiana.
Leigh teaches accounting and computer applications at Salisbury High School. She also is preparing to coach her second season of girls softball.
Todd handles some office duties for attorney Cecil Whitley, sandwiching those hours around daily trips to Catawba College’s Newman Park, where he works with players in his capacity as an assistant baseball coach.
Both are 27. Both know baseball is in their future.
The couple seem far removed from tiny Bluffton, Ohio, where they met, and completely shielded from Atlanta, Ga., a place that will stay with Todd the rest of his life.
On the early morning of March 2, 2007, the Bluffton University baseball team — 33 players and coaches — was more than halfway into its 900-mile, 18-hour bus trip to Sarasota, Fla., for a spring schedule of games.
Todd Miller, a 22-year-old graduate assistant in his first year as a coach, spent much of the journey changing out movies on the DVD player.
He kept telling himself he should get some sleep, and by 5 a.m., after a stop in Adairsville, Ga., to bring on a relief driver, he positioned his body across the empty seat next to him and leaned his head toward the outside window.
But it was difficult to doze off.
Head Coach James Grandey, a big man of almost 300 pounds, was lying in front of him, somehow straddling the aisle and taking up most of four seats.
Only driver Jerry Niemeyer and his wife, Jean, were ahead of Grandey.
Freshmen A.J. Ramthun and Cody Holp sat in the seats behind Miller, and Jason Moore, a second-year coach, was taking up the two seats directly across from him.
Most of the players toward the back had seats to themselves along the windows. Four of the players, wanting to stretch out, were actually sleeping on the middle-aisle floor.
At 5:38 a.m., as the bus was traveling in the HOV (high-occupancy vehicle) lane of Interstate 75 in metropolitan Atlanta, Niemeyer mistakenly steered the motorcoach left onto an HOV exit ramp, thinking it was a continuation of the regular HOV lane south.
Still going 65 mph, the bus was approaching a stop sign at the top of the ramp’s T-intersection.
Miller heard the driver shout, “Oh, s..t,” and others heard his wife yell, “This is not the highway!”
The motorcoach careened full speed through the stop sign. As the driver stood on his brakes, the bus’ back end swung to the right before crashing into a low wall with a chain-link fence on top.
The concrete barrier failed to stop the motorcoach from breaking through and tumbling 30 feet from the overpass to I-75 below, where it came to rest on its left side.
But Miller, Moore and two players were lying on the overpass above the wreckage, having been thrown through the windshield of the bus before it fell toward the freeway.
Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board never figured out how Miller was thrown from the motorcoach. The angles just didn’t match up for him to be hurled from the left side of the bus. The other three men came from the right side.
“They can’t explain how Todd’s alive,” Leigh Miller says.
On I-75, emergency responders couldn’t believe what they saw.
Four players, the bus driver and his wife were all dead. Four others were seriously injured. While some players exited the bus through a roof escape hatch, others were still pinned under the wreckage.
Inside the turned-over bus, players able to crawl out had to wade through diesel fuel. Ambulances sped off with the injured to Grady, Piedmont and Atlanta medical centers.
On the overpass, witnesses said Miller tried to walk like a wobbly, newborn colt, but he kept falling over. Somehow he and the other three men thrown out of the bus and onto the overpass had survived.
The team’s luggage and baseball equipment were scattered everywhere.
The last things Miller remembers were hearing the driver’s expletive and seeing the chain-link fence coming at him.
“My next memory was waking up in ICU,” he says.
He had a fractured skull, concussion, four cracked vertebrae, a broken jaw and a long gash on the left side of his head. Gravel and shards of glass were lodged in his hands, an arm and shoulder.
The top of his left ear was flapped over, and his left arm had swollen to the size of one of his legs. When he woke up in Atlanta Medical Center, his neck was in a brace, and his father, who had flown in from Indiana, already was by his side.
“When I was lying there, I did not know what had happened,” Todd says.
At first, a confused Miller was worried that Coach Grandey was going to kill him for holding up the team’s important spring trip. But televisions in the intensive care unit kept repeating the news of a bus wreck and later Miller’s family — his mother, sister and brother arrived that afternoon — confirmed for Miller that it was his Bluffton team.
He knew of the deaths, but initially, not the names.
Miller, who worked with infielders and outfielders, had been especially close to sophomore second baseman David Betts, one of the fatalities. But Miller knew them all, of course.
Others who died included third baseman Scott Harmon, outfielder Tyler Williams and Holp, the pitcher who had been sitting right over Miller’s shoulder.
A fifth player, freshman Zachary Arend, died from his injuries a week later, bringing the total fatality count to seven.
Before he left, Miller had been able to visit Arend and teammate Tim Berta, who also was seriously hurt. Coach Grandey was at Piedmont Medical Center. He needed extensive reconstructive surgery. His jaw was wired shut, and his ankle was shattered.
“I kind of wanted to get out of there,” Miller recalls, and he returned home with his family to Indiana for a few days before attending all the funerals and campus memorial services back in Ohio.
With Grandey facing a longer recovery, Miller, only 22, assumed the role of interim head coach.
Miller, the men’s basketball coach and the athletic director, polled the baseball players on what they wanted to do and explained how the community would understand should they vote to call off their season.
But the Bluffton Beavers, whose school colors are purple and white, decided playing baseball would honor the teammates who had died and help everyone with the healing process.
Bluffton played its first game that season on March 30, and a record crowd of 2,500 people showed up for the NCAA Division III baseball game.
The morning of the Atlanta bus accident, Leigh Zajac, a senior marketing management major at Tiffin University in Ohio, immediately felt a connection with the Bluffton players.
A softball player for Tiffin, she was familiar with the spring bus trips to the South, where Ohio teams could schedule games in the much warmer climes.
“It hit a little too close to home,” Leigh says. “We’ve made those trips. We’ve been down that road.”
Her own team was supposed to leave for Florida the next week.
Leigh called her coach, Brian Campbell, and asked whether the team could do anything for Bluffton, which was about 45 minutes away. He suggested contacting the head of student affairs, and she also consulted with her favorite sports management professor.
“They said, ‘Yeah, let’s do this,’ ” Leigh recalls.
She and others lined up scores of sponsors to produce a $5 “Purple Day” T-shirt, sold to benefit the Bluffton Memorial Fund.
Everyone in Tiffin seemed to be wearing Purple Day T-shirts, which also were sent to the Bluffton ball players.
During the Purple Day benefit baseball game, Tiffin players wore purple socks to go with their normal school colors of green and gold.
The softball players worked that game, and Leigh ran constantly between the gate and concessions, keeping track of all the donations and T-shirt sales.
Through Leigh’s leadership, the school held other fundraisers, even a “Purple Day Dance.” She didn’t go with her team on its spring trip south because she was so involved in lining up sponsors and activities.
In the end, the Tiffin community raised $13,000 for the Bluffton fund.
On April 23, 2007, Leigh accompanied her Tiffin friends to a reception in Bluffton where they presented an oversized check — purple proceeds, if you will.
It was the first time Leigh laid eyes on Todd, who gave her an appreciative hug, but they would not speak again for almost a year.
In its first game after the accident, Bluffton lost 6-5.
The five runs scored symbolized a number the Bluffton team could not escape.
Five teammates had died in the accident, and the team won only five games that season.
Because of the tragedy, various players required individual and group counseling.
Miller himself dealt with his injured back and short-term memory loss from the skull fracture. He was writing Post-it notes to himself to remind him of simple names for things.
He eventually consulted a neurologist at Ohio State University.
“He probably was released a little too early,” Leigh says now of her husband’s hospital stay in Atlanta. “He wanted to get the heck out of there.”
It was a tough time. Todd was only 22 and was only a few years older than most of the Bluffton players who now looked to him for leadership.
On top of that were his injuries and, of course, coping with the loss of friends and teammates.
As the one-year anniversary of the Bluffton bus accident approached, Leigh Zajac, by then a graduate student at Tiffin, sent a Facebook message to Todd Miller.
She basically told him the Tiffin community was thinking of the Bluffton boys and hoping all was going well.
The couple began talking back and forth on Facebook, which led to long telephone calls and a decision to have a first date in Findlay, Ohio — halfway between Tiffin and Bluffton.
They dined on sushi on March 13, 2008.
“We just clicked from the get-go,” Todd says.
As their relationship grew — and there would be a couple of years of traveling hours back and forth to see each other — Leigh and Todd seldom talked about the accident.
They didn’t want it to be the reason they were in love.
Leigh told her friends, “I’m not dating Todd Miller from the accident. I’m just dating Todd Miller.”
“Our relationship,” she emphasizes today, “wasn’t about the accident. It wasn’t what defined us. But it was what brought us together. We probably would not have met otherwise.”
Leigh earned a master’s degree at Tiffin.
After a second year of coaching at Bluffton and securing his own master’s in business administration, Todd returned to Hanover College in Indiana and became an assistant coach for the baseball team there.
Hanover is his alma mater, and it was a chance to coach his brother, Adam.
To be closer to Todd, Leigh eventually took a job with Wells Fargo in Louisville, Ky., which was only about an hour from Hanover.
They moved to Salisbury in the summer of 2010 when Leigh’s former roommate from Tiffin, Tracy Greene, told her she was leaving her teaching job at Salisbury High for a similar position at East Rowan High.
Salisbury hired Leigh for Greene’s position. Meanwhile, Catawba Baseball Coach Jim Gantt took Todd on as an assistant, starting with fall practices in 2010.
Todd tried to find other work wherever he could. He became a janitor at the high school, supervised in-school suspension and about two months ago began working for Whitley’s law firm.
Todd wants to be the head coach for a college baseball program some day, and Leigh will be his biggest supporter when that opportunity arrives.
Todd still has gravel embedded in his shoulder and hands from where he hit the overpass pavement in Atlanta.
When he has a closely cropped haircut, you can see the long scar on the left side of his head.
He still remembers the Bluffton ball players who died in Atlanta.
“I will never forget the team and those players,” Todd says. “I think about it every day.”
But the accident doesn’t define him any longer.
With Leigh, the girl behind Purple Day, it never has.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mwineka@ salisburypost.com.