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Sawyer Brown's lead singer, Mark Miller, slips into the shimmering blue water wearing some baggy black shorts, a life vest, a pair of skis - and a white ball cap. In the boat, the side bets are already starting - "How long do you think that hat will last?" chuckles one of his buddies.
The engine roars to life, the rope tightens and Mark pops upright effortlessly, skimming along with ease. Before long, the hat is a distant memory thanks to Mark's cutting and jumping and skiing - forward and backward - all over the Tennessee lake, where his family has a weekend getaway. It looks like he was born on skis, but that's not the case!
Relaxing back at the dock, Florida native Mark can't hide the grin on his face as he talks about his introduction to skiing. "I was working as a costume character in the Disney entertainment department in Orlando," he recalls. "And somebody got hurt in the ski show and they needed a sub for a couple of weeks - not to ski, just spot. You know, tell 'em when a skier falls, and drive the boat.
"So I said, 'Great!' - because I thought I could do that and get a suntan! Then the guy who was hurt couldn't come back and the supervisor said, 'Do you ski?'
"I said, 'Oh, yeah.' And he said, 'Well, we need somebody to trick ski.' And I said, 'Well, that's my specialty - that's what I do best.' "
So they agreed Mark would get checked out for the job after a couple of weeks of safety training. There was just one slight glitch in the plan.
"I was 16 years old and out there with a couple of college guys who said, 'Man, show us what you can do.' I said, 'Guys, I'm gonna have to level with somebody here - I can't ski,'" laughs Mark, recalling their stunned expressions.
"How did you get the job?" one of them asked in disbelief. "I told 'em I could," Mark replied.
"They asked me what I was going to do - and I was cocky," says Mark. "I said, 'Guys, listen, I'm a great athlete. I can do anything if you show me how to do it one time.' And they said, 'Dude, we've been skiin' for our whole lives!' And I said, 'I'm tellin' you, if you work with me on our breaks - I can do this.' "
And he did.
"In three weeks the supervisor came out to approve me," declares Mark. "I'd been able to get everything, except skiing backwards. I kept falling. But I only had 10 to 15 minutes during our breaks to work on it twice a day. So I actually had four days of about an hour a day.
"And not only that, I had to do it in a Pinocchio costume!
"The supervisor was watching in front of the Polynesian Resort Hotel," continues Mark. "I did everything fine, and then he motioned for me to ski backwards. I didn't even think, man, I just did it. And I turned around and I made it. And I'm skiing backwards!
"But I didn't know how to come back around - so I just stayed backwards until we were out of sight around the lagoon! "So he walkie-talkied to us, 'Yeah, the kid'll be fine.' And I got the job. Then I spent the next six months really learning how to do all this stuff. Yes ... trick skiing is what I do!" laughs Mark, thinking back on that brash 16-year-old kid.
Mark retained his early confidence to take on later challenges. After more than 20 successful years, his Sawyer Brown group is still going strong, playing about 75 dates a year, and recently signed with a new label. They've released the title cut of a forthcoming new album, "I'll Be Around," which should be on sale by midyear.
On the personal front, there's nothing that means more to Mark than his faith and his family. He and wife Lisa are very involved in the lives of their kids, 9- year-old son Gunnar and daughter Madison, 12, participating in school and scouting activities and spending quality time on the lake together. Mark, a basketball lover and former pro player, also coaches a team at his kids' school, and Gunnar's Amateur Athletic Union team. But sometimes he feels that, even with all he has going in his career, his kids are equally busy.
"My daughter is taking piano lessons," explains Mark. "But she also plays basketball. And she's really into horseback riding and jumping, so her plate's kinda full. Her piano teacher had told her she needed to practice 45 minutes a night. My wife and I were discussing this at dinner and I said, 'Well, realistically, she just doesn't have 45 minutes a night, with homework and everything.'
"So my wife looks at her and says, 'Honey, would you just like to quit?' And she said, 'No, I don't want to quit. I'd feel like I was a failure.'
"And my son - who's also into basketball, Cub Scouts, baseball and piano lessons - was sittin' there listening to all of this, and he goes, 'Hey! Hey! People! Make me that offer! Let me quit! I won't feel like a failure at all.' Typical little boy."
It's obvious Mark is in a great place in his life - pleased with his career accomplishments and happy in his personal life. But he doesn't leave any of it to chance. "The thing I concentrate on and work harder at than anything else is being a good husband and a good dad. And also trying to be a good Christian. That's something I believe in.
"That's where my priority lies - God, my family and then my job. And somewhere down the line is basketball.
He pauses, then laughs. "But not too far down!"
-- Story by David Scarlett