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One Step At a Time

After his drug arrest and rehab, Keith Mills climbs back to top sportscaster status—while trying to make amends with his kids.

In the darkest hours before dawn, Keith Mills—Baltimore’s personable, ebullient sportscaster—is juggling his usual three morning gigs at WBAL on Television Hill.

He dashes into the AM-radio room on the third floor and tells early risers about the Orioles’ latest loss. Then, he tosses his headset and sprints down the steps to the second-floor TV studio, where meteorologist Tony Pann greets him as “The Man” before he mic’s up for home viewers, again reeling off the latest sports happenings.

After that segment, he’s on the move again, this time to his computer in a communal office to check on breaking news, delighted to find that Michael Phelps has won a gold medal at the World Swimming Championships in Shanghai. He’s back on AM with that tidbit, heads to the TV camera again, and adds a session on 98Rock to his crazy weekday schedule.

When he goes back to his desk to prep for another round of updates, the night scene outside his window has given way to glorious daylight. It’s an apropos analogy of his recent life.

Five years ago, Mills, now 54, was in a bleak tailspin. He was arrested for stealing prescription drugs from a neighbor, entered a celebrity-named rehab for his hydrocodone addiction, was fired by then-employer WMAR-TV, and put under house arrest.

Today, he’s back on track, working full time at WBAL. He also has been honored with the prestigious 2010 Maryland Sportscaster of the Year award and inducted into the Anne Arundel County Sports Hall of Fame. Recently, his court record was expunged. He makes it look easy. It hasn’t been.

His climb back to respectability has taken quiet determination, emotional pain, and the support of dedicated friends and family. But perhaps the biggest motivator has been his dogged efforts to regain the trust of his children, Alexandria (Ally) and Nicholas (Nick).

“I looked into my kids’ eyes. I had lost their respect,” says Mills, recalling the aftermath of his arrest. “It was bad when my kids had to deal with it. It broke my heart.”

His children are now students at Towson University, their dad’s alma mater (class of ’79). Ally, 20, is a senior, majoring in criminal justice and religious studies with a minor in Arabic. Nick, 19, is a sophomore, studying business and economics. They’re happy, polite, and busy young adults. In addition to their academics, Ally works as a part-time nanny; Nick is involved in club soccer and track.

During summer break, soon after their dad’s five-year probation ended in May, they talked about his very public arrest. Ally was 15; Nick, 13, at the time. They still remember the vivid details.

It was January 25, 2006. They were picked up at their separate schools just as classes were ending, taken to an aunt’s house where the family gathered, and told what had happened to their dad. “I was embarrassed, really angry,” Ally recalls. Her brother felt the same. “I was very angry,” he says. “He abused our trust for the second time. I couldn’t look at him.”

This wasn’t their dad’s first struggle with addiction.

In 2004, Mills—who was taking pain medications for back and ankle injuries he suffered while playing sports as a teen—was losing control. He knew it, he says, but didn’t fully realize the cruel power of dependency. “I didn’t understand the disease of addiction,” he says. “I thought you could will yourself out of anything.”

Mills eventually ended up detoxing at GBMC in Towson. At that time, WMAR-TV was more understanding, giving their longtime sportscaster time off to go to Father Martin’s Ashley rehab center in Havre de Grace. His friend and WMAR colleague Scott Garceau stood by him, asking what he could do to help. “He’s my shining knight,” says Mills, who is still close to Garceau. “He’s the big brother I never had.”

Garceau worked on air with Mills for almost 19 years and now hosts an afternoon sports talk show on 105.7 The Fan. He downplays his involvement. “I didn’t do anything extraordinary,” he says. “When he had issues, I’d just try to be there like any friend.”

There were no obvious signs of addiction, Garceau says, though Mills told him about taking painkillers. “He never missed work,” he says. “There wasn’t an impact on his job performance.”

Mills’s children weren’t as hurt by their dad’s behavior then. “I was a lot more sad,” shares Nick. “I was more worried about him.” Ally agrees: “That time, it wasn’t as big a deal.”

After a month, Mills left the upscale treatment facility in Harford County that overlooks the picturesque Chesapeake Bay with new resolve. “I thought I had a handle on it,” he says. And he did. For a while.

Mills is a people magnet—a trait that would later help him when he struggled during his second rehab stint. Just ask his kids about his popularity. When Mills took them on an Alaskan cruise a few years ago so they could bond and heal from his troubles, he ran into a guy he knew on a bus in the middle of nowhere. When the family goes to the mall, “he gets stopped 12 or 13 times,” says Ally. She and her brother are used to their father’s draw. “Nick and I just keep on walking,” she says. She knows her dad will catch up.

Even WBAL radio’s Scott Wycoff has a tale: “We’re in Cooperstown [N.Y.] and walking down Main Street, and people are shouting, ‘Keith, Keith,'” he says with a laugh. Wycoff, Mills, and other WBAL staff were in town for Cal Ripken Jr.’s induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2007. Baltimore fans just wanted to hobnob with the likeable sports guy from their hometown.

Mills, an Anne Arundel County native, started in the business as a production assistant/gopher at the defunct Baltimore News American in the late ’70s. He absorbed lessons from esteemed sports writers like John Steadman and Frank Lynch as he checked the teletype for race results and eventually covered high-school sports.

He’s interviewed his share of big names in the field. He is perhaps most impressed by former basketball player Wes Unseld, who founded the Unselds’ School with his wife, Connie, in Baltimore. The private school reaches out to inner-city youth. “He’s making a difference,” Mills says. “He built a school for kids who need it.”

Not surprisingly, Mills is a walking encyclopedia (or Google) of sports. He rattles off names and dates with impressive recollection. He admits that he’s stumbled over some pronunciations. “I’m king of the butchered name,” he says sheepishly. But one of his biggest on-air gaffes was with his own name. He chuckles at the memory, relating how he was reading the teleprompter one day before realizing he’d called himself what was mistakenly written on the screen, “Keith Miles.” Even the on-floor director cracked up.

That was almost as bad as the time he showed up to anchor an Orioles opening day wearing two different colored shoes—one brown, the other black. To his embarrassment, the cameraman panned down on his shoes at the end of his spiel. Mills admits he’s colorblind, a fact his TV cohorts are aware of.

Today, Stan Stovall and Mindy Basara, co-anchors of WBAL’s morning show, can’t help ribbing Mills as he waits for his on-air cue. “What are you wearing today?” they tease.

He actually looks natty in his charcoal-gray suit, super-starched white shirt, and regimental gray-and-pale green tie. Because he is color-challenged, daughter Ally helps her father coordinate his wardrobe. “She’s moving back in at the end of summer,” Mills says excitedly before he goes on camera.

He still lives next door to the neighbor he burglarized, in a ranch-style, white-siding house in the established, 1950s Crestwood section of Linthicum. Mills, long divorced from the mother of his children, has been there since 1999.

It was in this peaceful, suburban setting while walking his lively golden retriever Enoch that he got into trouble. He knocked on his neighbor’s door, asking if she wanted him to cut the branches from an overhead power line. That’s when he saw the bottle of pills on a nearby table.

With an addict’s obsessive nature, Mills couldn’t get the painkillers out of his mind after he left. He later returned to the next-door brick rancher to pocket the drugs, unaware there were security cameras in the house.

The police showed up at his door to arrest him. “I knew the cops,” Mills says. “They were friends of my father’s.”

His dad, George Mills, is an icon in the community. As a local athletic youth coach, he knows everyone, his son says. Mills felt as if he betrayed him, too. “It was difficult for my father,” he says. “He was so devastated. It crushed him.”

As a kid, Mills would tag along with his dad when he went to work. His father, who is 80 and lives in Brooklyn Park with his wife, Mary, would take him to WJZ-TV, where he was one of the studio’s first cameramen. Later, Keith would work there, too, starting as a sports producer in 1980.

Mills credits his dad with instilling in him a passion and drive to succeed. “I was raised on hard work and discipline,” he says. “He told me, ‘The next game has to be the best you do. The next show has to be the best you do.'”

After his arrest, Mills knew the next thing he had to do best was kick his addiction.

Scott Garceau tried to bolster his friend. “I told him, ‘You’re a good guy with a bad problem,'” he says. “I knew professionally things wouldn’t be the same. His job was on the line.”

Mills, who also covers the Ravens for WBAL, often remembers events by what’s happening on the football field. He recalls the year of his first rehab because Kyle Boller was the Ravens quarterback then, he says. He knows when he left Baltimore for his next rehab because it was Super Bowl Sunday and the Steelers and Seahawks were playing that day.

Pittsburgh would later overcome Seattle, 21-10. By that time, Mills was in Antigua at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Centre for residential drug treatment. He would soon be trying to leave.

Mills was just checking into the nurses’ station when he got the phone call telling him he was being fired from his job at WMAR. It was a corporate decision, made far from Baltimore. “I hung up. I thought, ‘I’m out of here,'” he says. “My whole life was crumbling around me.”

He took a walk outdoors while plotting how to get back home. “The campus was beautiful,” Mills says. “It was 85 degrees in early February.”

That’s when life intervened. Mills looked up and saw a guy smiling at him. In his six-degrees-of-separation universe, he realized it was someone he knew from Baltimore.

Mills had once done a story on this former lacrosse player from Towson University. The man urged Mills to give Crossroads a chance. “You gotta stay,” he told him. “Give it one night.”

That chance encounter—as well as the support of his only sibling, Diane Bennett—kept Mills there.

Bennett, a retired elementary- and middle-school principal who lives in Severna Park, told him on the phone, “You are not to leave.” She and her husband, Steve, were soon on their way to the Caribbean island for a family session. “My sister really stepped it up,” Mills says.

As an older sister and a former educator, Bennett wanted to fix the problem. Her visit to Crossroads helped her to understand her brother’s addiction. “We learned a lot about recovery and relapse, and what he was dealing with on a daily basis,” she says. “It’s not that easy.”

A doctor explained to her that addiction is like having a sleeping tiger on your shoulder 24/7. “The challenge is to make sure that tiger stays asleep,” Bennett says. “That was so powerful to me.”

She and her husband picked up Mills at the airport when he returned from the month-long treatment. “He looked wonderful,” she says.

But Mills was still without a job and had a looming trial date for his drug charges. Scott Garceau testified in his favor as a character witness. “I told the judge, ‘I’m betting on Keith Mills to beat this thing,'” Garceau recalls.

Mills was sentenced to five years’ probation and placed on house arrest for nine months. (It was eventually cut to 4 ∏ months.) He was allowed to leave for AA meetings, gym sessions, and to go to work if anyone would hire him.

“I stayed under the radar socially,” Mills says. “I watched sporting events.”

Not for long. WBAL radio came calling when it was beefing up its staff for Preakness coverage that year. Mills went to the job interview wearing his ankle monitor. “We knew how sincere he was to make his recovery work,” says Mark Miller, then director of news and programming. “Everybody admired him. It was a pretty easy thing to do.”

The part-time position eventually led to full-time employment. “Keith positioned himself to do it,” says Miller, who recently left WBAL radio after 31 years to pursue other opportunities. “It was terrific for Keith. It was terrific for the station.”

On a recent workday morning, Mills is anticipating an even busier schedule as the NFL gears up for its season. He will pretty much live and breathe Ravens coverage for the next several months in addition to his regular duties at WBAL.

For a man who gets up at 2 a.m. to get to work by 3, hard work is an elixir—that and his Turbo-sized iced tea, never coffee. “I love it,” Mill says. “I got a second chance. I’m going to savor the opportunity to do it.”

But he hasn’t forgotten about that sleeping tiger on his shoulder. “I’m much more aware of the signs. I don’t take it for granted,” Mills says. “I don’t drink. I don’t do anything.”

His family still worries about him, though the concern has lessened over the years. “We don’t think about it as much. We breathe a little easier now,” his sister says. “My dad had his faith restored by what he is doing now.”

His children are still a main incentive. “He wanted to prove to his kids that you can pick yourself up,” Bennett says.

Ally and Nick are coping. They’re still wary and have felt the after-effects of their dad’s addiction. “I can’t swallow pills,” says Nick, who had anxiety attacks and couldn’t sleep in the beginning. “How can we ever fully trust him?” Ally asks. “It can always happen again.”

Mills does everything he can to stay connected to his children, calling each day, hanging out with them, going to events, and taking family trips to Ocean City. They know he cares. “It’s gotten a lot better in the last two years,” Ally admits. Nick also appreciates what his dad is doing. “He’s taking a big interest in remaining in our lives,” he says. “It helps me build up trust.”

A new day is dawning for Keith Mills.

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