The Quarterback Who Vanished
The curious tale of James Joy Miller
by James Thomas Mann
From the March, 2019 issue
James Joy Miller seemed, in the fall of 1909, to be on the golden path to athletic fame at the University of Michigan. Pity it all came to a sudden crashing end. For this, Miller had only himself to blame.
Born in 1886, Miller won varsity letters in football, baseball, and basketball at Detroit Central High School. He played football and basketball for the Detroit Athletic Club then in 1906 enrolled at the U-M.
Miller was not on the football team that year, but in the 1907 season, he started three games. However, then-captain Paul Magoffin decided not to award the varsity "M" to Miller, most likely due to some personal bad feeling. Perhaps for that reason, Miller was not on the 1908 team.
Invited to the team's 1909 preseason training at Whitmore Lake, Miller declined, saying he had injured his arm. Even after the team began practicing on Ferry Field, he missed the first two weeks. But "[w]hen the Detroiter did appear it was to jump into harness at once and cinch a position at right end," the Detroit News reported.
Miller played in the last five games of the season, including a star turn at quarterback. "With but little previous experience at running the Michigan team he went into the Minnesota game at quarter in place of Wasmund, who was ineligible under the Conference ruling," the Michigan Daily reported. "His work at that time was of such a high order that it created considerable comment." Miller was awarded the "M" and elected captain for the 1910 season.
At almost the same time, however, the university completed a check of students' registration and classification cards. Miller's classification card was missing. An assistant dean sent Miller a letter asking him to help clear up the matter.
Like all members of sports teams at U-M, Miller had signed a statement stating he was a full-time student and added he was in the "Engineering department." In his reply to the dean, however, Miller
admitted that he had taken no engineering courses that fall. He had, he wrote, changed to "a combined forestry course."
But then it emerged that he had never paid his tuition either--and payment was required to enroll in classes. It appeared that Miller had not attended the U-M that semester.
In December, the athletic board voted unanimously to rescind his letter sweater, strip him of his captaincy, and apologize to opponents against whom he played.
With the holiday season approaching, there were only a few students in Ann Arbor when the board's statement was released. They reacted with stunned silence. What, they wondered, did Miller have to say for himself?
When classes resumed in January, the engineering faculty held a meeting to consider Miller's case. But Miller was a no-show.
"Miller is known to have left Detroit Wednesday and it was supposed that he had come to Ann Arbor for yesterday's meeting, but no trace of him could be found," the Daily reported. "Miller's father came out from Detroit yesterday, supposing Joy was in town, and was as much surprised as anyone to find him missing."
The following week, the student council conducted its own investigation. After hearing eight witnesses, including 1909 football captain Dave Allerdice and Miller's father, Detroit businessman James G. Miller, the council recommended "that James Joy Miller be expelled from the University of Michigan." The engineering faculty then voted to do so.
But where was Miller? No one who had known him would admit to knowing where he was.
Over the next few months, reports were received that Miller was wandering about in Canada, with no memory of his past. Finally, in March 1910, he was found working on a fruit farm near Walla Walla, Washington.
In a letter to his father, Miller wrote that he had no memory of recent events or how he came to be in Walla Walla. His father announced his intention to bring his son home. Familiar surroundings, he reasoned, might cause his son to regain his sanity.
Others questioned whether he'd ever lost it. According to an AP dispatch, people in Washington reported that Miller "remembers his past record on the gridiron as well as all his other experiences." That, "and the fact that he has been receiving mail regularly from friends in Michigan, leads the investigation authorities to believe his apparent loss of memory is only feigned."
[Originally published in March, 2019.]
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