Ernie McMillan grew up in Chicago where he lettered in baseball, basketball and football at DuSable High School. He attended the University of Illinois, but didn’t play much his first three years.
“I had wanted to go to Arizona or some other college far away, but my mother didn’t want me to be too far from home,” Ernie said in a Post Dispatch story in 1969.
McMillan was used primarily as a blocking tight end at Illinois and caught only 7 passes in his college career, but the Cards drafted him in the 13th round of the 1961 NFL draft. The 6-foot-6 McMillan reported to camp at 283 pounds and requested to switch to tackle just a few days into practice. The Big Red agreed and it was a move neither would regret.
“When Billy Bidwill came to Illinois to sign me, I told him I didn’t think I could make the team,” McMillan told attendees at the annual kickoff luncheon in 1961. “I taught school for six months and I realized there had to be a better and easier way to make a living, so here I am.”
Big Ernie not only made the team, but lost 20 pounds in camp and took over the right tackle position after an injury to starter Ken Panfil.
“He came along very well,” assistant coach Chuck Drulis told the St. Louis Globe Democrat. “He’s quick to learn, executes his assignments well, has good speed for a man his size and likes to hit.”
Pass blocking did not come easy to Ernie early in his career.
“Up here, I think the hardest thing to get used to has been the pass protection blocking,” McMillan told the St. Louis Globe Democrat. “In it, you have to hit, and recover and hit again. It isn’t like other blocking, where you just make and hold contact.”
Ernie quickly mastered pass protection blocking and became one of the best in the NFL. One season he was graded out at 96% on pass blocking—415 successful blocks in 430 attempts. Ed O’Bradovich, the veteran defensive end of the Chicago Bears said of McMillan, “He’s one of the best. You can’t get rid of him. You go left, he goes with you. You go right, he’s clinging to you. It’s like he’s wallpapered to your uniform.”
Ernie McMillan played in four Pro Bowls, was twice named second team All-Pro, was named the team’s most valuable player by teammates and the Old Pros Club in 1972, and was the recipient of the Chuck Drulis award in 1973.
“As an offensive lineman,” McMillan said after accepting the Old Pro’s Club honor, “I’ve learned that awards aren’t important. Its whether you win that’s important.”
Unfortunately McMillan never participated in a playoff game, but he did play in a team record 162 straight games before suffering a knee injury against Washington in 1973. Ernie was a team leader and an inspiration to his teammates.
“The way he worked like a dog to come back (from injury) has been an inspiration to us all,” Dan Dierdorf told the St. Louis Post Dispatch in 1974. “We sort of said, ‘If the old man can do it, the rest of us can too!'”
“The offensive line has a lot of pride in Ernie, and they love and respect him,” then offensive line coach Jim Hanifan told the Post Dispatch. “He’s a super human being. The guy’s got so much character that it’s really hard to believe.”
“Ernie McMillan is a professional football player’s football player,” said Jackie Smith.
In 1974 Hanifan nervously asked McMillan to change positions to open up the right tackle position for a young Dierdorf.
“I asked him (Ernie) what he would think about moving to left tackle so Dan could switch to right tackle,” Hanifan wrote in his book Beyond Xs & Os: My Thirty Years in the NFL. “I asked him to think about it, and he said, ‘I don’t need to think about it. I can give you an answer right now. Sure, I’ll do it.'” It was a selfless gesture on Ernie’s part and it helped Dierdorf become a Hall of Famer.
McMillan battled a pinched nerve in his neck in 1974 and missed the last three games of the season, including the playoff game at Minnesota. He worked hard in the offseason and went to training camp in 1975 thinking he’d get his starting left tackle job back. “But I knew,” he said, “that my chances were small later on—when I wasn’t starting and other tackles were doing great. I knew it was going to be tough.”
The Cardinals released McMillan just a few days before the season opener.
“It was the toughest decision we have had to make since all of us came to St. Louis three years ago,” said director of operations Joe Sullivan in a St. Louis Post Dispatch interview. “It was based on who we felt could help us the most right now.”
McMillan left the Cardinals with one regret.
“We’ve had successes, but we never put together a championship team. I wanted that. I could use the money, too, but basically I wanted the championship.”
Ernie signed with Green Bay a couple of weeks after being released and started eleven games for the Packers before retiring at the end of the season.
After retiring, Ernie served as offensive line coach for Green Bay under head coach Bart Starr from 1977-83 and then as scout and offensive line coach for Hanifan and the Cardinals from 1983-86.
Throughout his playing career Ernie enjoyed working with youth programs, whether it was coaching his son’s teams or working with local high schools and Little Leagues. He was an assistant coach at Sumner High School when they won back to back state championships in 1990-91. He was honored many times for his work in the community and often spoke to local organizations, such as the YMCA. Ernie also published and was president of Proud, a magazine that was designed to give the black community in St. Louis a voice and a focus.
“What we are trying to do with Proud,” McMillan said in 1971 Pro! Magazine interview, “is let black people get a little self respect. In a society that is predominantly whit, it’s easy for it to seem that ‘white is right.’ So we try to disseminate material that will make life more meaningful for black people—to show them what their own history is., what their own culture is, what their own contributions have been.”
Athletes are no stranger to the McMillan family. Ernie’s older brother, Shellie McMillon, was a basketball star for the Bradley Braves and played in the NBA for five seasons, including two for the St. Louis Hawks. His younger brother, Floyd stood 6-foot-10, played college ball at Northeast Missouri State (now Truman State) and played minor league ball in the late 60s. Ernie’s son, Erik McMillan, starred at Mizzou and was a two time Pro Bowl free safety with the New York Jets. And Ernie’s nephew is former Mizzou star and Dallas Cowboys first round draft pick Howard Richards.
In the words of his son, Erik, “My father has always been there for me on every level as a mentor, teacher and friend. He taught me to always follow through, to never quit and always give my best effort. Then, at the end of the day, I could always feel good about myself.”
And that is the way Ernie has always lived his life.
Ernie and his wife Gail have been married 41 years and still reside in the St. Louis area.