A Football Player’s Perseverance: How Andy Mills went from Walk-On to Division I Scholarship winner
By Charles Campbell
It’s been a long journey for Andy Mills.
A three-sport athlete in high school, Mills played prominent roles on every team he was a part of – on the field, on the court, around the track. Blessed with talent and athleticism, Mills could have, and often did, excel at whatever sport was in season. But his heart was always in on one thing: football.
Even as a freshman at Jacksonville High School, Mills found a role as the team’s varsity long snapper. This willingness to do whatever it took, fill whatever role needed to be filled, stayed with Mills throughout his high school career and even into college. Most people refer to it as being a “hybrid,” someone who doesn’t have a true, natural position, but rather multiple positions. With Mills however, everything comes natural.
From sixth grade until his junior year of high school, Mills played quarterback on offense and safety on defense. His senior year, seeing that the team would be better fit with him at wide receiver or running back, he made the switch without hesitating. And as it turned out, the change allowed him to shine in ways he never before could. Whether it was running a fly route down the sideline or picking up a third and short with a hardnosed run, Mills was the linchpin of that team. He may be blessed with an array of athletic skills, but his most important traits are readiness and versatility.
“This goes back to throwing the ball around with my brother and father in the backyard. My Dad always said ‘be a football player. You’re a good athlete, but instead of focusing on a set position, be a good football player and that’s what’s going to get you on the field,’” says Mills. “Really in high school, I just never wanted to come off the field, so being able to play long snapper, safety, quarterback, receiver and running back, it really allowed me to understand the game of football more. And that’s something that’s really going to help me in the long run. I’d like to become a college football coach, and I think that has helped me really understand the game from multiple positions.”
Fast forward to Mills’ freshman year of college at Lindenwood University at Belleville. Engulfed in an entirely new system, with a new coaching staff and pages full of new terminology, Mills found a new role on the defensive side of the ball at safety.
After an appetizer of college football at Lindewood, Mills decided to return home to sport the royal blue of Illinois College. And with the transition to IC, so to came another position change, this time to cornerback. It was at Illinois College that Mills first started to show his full potential as a college player, making an immediate impact on an already-talented team. At IC, Mills went from a good college football player to a standout, excelling as an aggressive, violent cornerback on one of the best defenses in Division III football. It was clear he could not just compete at this level, but at times dominate.
Mills thoroughly enjoyed his time at his hometown college. He speaks of his time at IC as some of the most fun times he’s had playing football. But while the Blueboy gear fit him well, Mills always knew there was something more he wanted – another challenge he needed to tackle. He had more to prove…not to anyone in particular, not to his teammates or coaches, not to his opponents. Andy Mills had something to prove to himself.
“It was hard (leaving Illinois College). The coaching staff, my teachers, teammates, everyone in that program was phenomenal to me. Staying there and playing out my college career, I would’ve gotten to start three more years as opposed to starting all over and trying to make a name for myself,” Mills explains. “But I think I just kind of had that chip on my shoulder where, coming out of high school, there were no Division I offers outside of preferred walk-ons. I played at that level at Illinois College and I just felt like I wasn’t maximizing my potential on the football field. I needed to know for myself whether I was good enough to play Division I football.”
With a few years of eligibility left, Mills parted ways with his Blueboy teammates and transferred to Illinois State University with the goal of walking on to the Redbirds football team.
This was a big and – even if Mills might not admit it – scary step. The level of competition at Illinois State, one of the top Division I-AA programs in the country, would be no walk in the park. The Redbirds were coming off of a trip to the FCS National Championship game just one year ago, and had recently sent more than a handful of players to the NFL. This was the big time, and Mills was about to dive in head-first.
At 5’10, 190 lbs, Mills would be outsized at nearly every position he tried out for. And while those 190 pounds include little-to-no body fat rested upon a chiseled, tattooed frame, he would find himself going up against players who were much bigger, much stronger and often times faster.
On his first go-around, Mills tried to make the ISU squad as a defensive back, the position he’d gotten used to during his first two stops of college ball. Unfortunately ISU already had a full roster and only one walk-on position to fill. Mills’ name wasn’t called, but he was told by a member of ISU’s coaching staff that he should try out again the coming fall.
Mills’ chances of making a roster spot as a DB were slim. But he’d come this far, and knowing Andrew Payne Mills, you were going to have to practically expel him from the University before he gave up on his dream. So what did he do next? You guessed it. He moved to wide receiver, where he was forced not only to adjust to the offensive side of the ball again, but also to sharpen his receiving and route-running skills, all while learning an offensive playbook five times the size of his high school one.
So while Mills got acquainted with a brand new school, one with 20,000 undergraduates compared to less than 1,000 at IC, he was also trying to fight his way first onto the team, and then onto the field itself. At schools like ISU, the vast majority of players are recruited, essentially handpicked by the coaching staff – players that were sought out by the coaches, rather than the other way around. ISU coaches never sought out Andy Mills, but to him, that made no difference.
Never boastful, typically one who keeps to himself … that’s who Andy Mills is. Beneath that façade however is a young man who’s as confident and determined as he is self-critical and humble. Mills knew he was good enough to play at the Division I level, and he was going to, even if it meant proving himself to his biggest critic: himself.
After one failed tryout, Mills went to the office of ISU head coach Brock Spack. Cutting a player like Andy Mills isn’t as easy it might seem. In Mills’ eyes, he was going to make the team if it took 200 tryouts. This was his goal, his future…football was and is his life.
A second tryout saw Mills finally break through and become a member of the Redbird squad. He was chosen to join the team as a walk-on – a title that in itself implies grit and perseverance. And now that he’d made the team, he did the only thing he knew how to: work harder. Six a.m. conditioning tests followed by film study followed by practice followed by class followed by yet another practice. This is the life of a Division I football player, and Mills does it day in and day out simply for the love of the game.
Now in his final year of eligibility at ISU, Mills got a bit of a surprise after one of the Redbirds’ practices last week. Taking a knee near midfield, ISU Police Chief Aaron Woodruff addressed the entire team with a message. He called three players to come forward: Cole Bumpus, Wes Brown, and finally, Andrew Mills. Chief Woodruff’s message to the players was simple: congratulations, they were no longer walk-ons, they were now scholarship players.
“I thought they had already given out the scholarship that they wanted to give out earlier in camp. I didn’t expect it. I thought that I had worked hard enough, done the right things, but no I had no inclination that I was going to receive a scholarship,” says Mills. “It was a very humbling experience. All I could think about was everyone who’s gotten me to this point, my mom, my brother … I wish I could’ve called my dad and talked to him. But I talked to a lot of people over the next days, and just getting all of the texts and stuff like that, it was very humbling. I’m not a big spotlight kind of guy, but it was nice to be recognized. So I accepted it, but I don’t want that to be the definition of Andy Mills at Illinois State, there’s tons more work to do, and I strive every day to make a bigger impact on this team.”
Three different college teams, three different levels of competition and Mills finally made it to the pinnacle. When listing all of his supporters, Mills’ father Chip comes up rather frequently. Chip Mills passed away on December 31, 2013, just weeks after Andy celebrated his 20th birthday. Never one to show much emotion, Andy Mills credits his father Chip for passing down the type of gritty, never say die attitude that remains in him and ultimately helped him achieve his goal.
Mills’ road to becoming a scholarship football player for a Division I program has been a long one, and in fact is one that he still continues to travel. After hearing the news of Mills’ scholarship, I sent him a congratulatory text message, and while his long journey continues, his reply said it all: “we made it.”