Working as a 19-year old custodian at Peachcrest Elementary School, Mike Miller began a 28-year journey that changed his life and the lives of many students.
In 1985, Miller was asked to help coach a group of disabled students who play sports from wheelchairs in a league involving just two teams in Georgia (both in DeKalb).
“Kim Grass approached me and said she noticed how well I worked with the various handicapped students and wondered if I would like to coach wheelchair sports,” Miller said. “Saying yes to her and getting involved with these great young people really made me the person I am today.”
The sports program was called DASH and the only teams playing wheelchair basketball and football were DeKalb teams the Red Hot Rollers and the Silver Streaks, who still compete in varsity competition in both sports as well as handball.
During the 1990s, Bev Vaughn became involved in the program and brought other counties in by having exhibition games. DASH evolved into what is now the American Association of Adapted Sports Programs (AAASP).
“When we started we just had old hospital wheelchairs that were nothing like the sport chairs they play in these days,” Miller said.
As the sports developed and handball was added Miller and the program moved to Laurel Ridge Elementary where it is currently based.
“I just moved with the program to Laurel Ridge and I just didn’t look at the kids and their disability but saw what they could do if taught,” Miller said.
As the years passed, Miller began to see kids grow up and move on to better things in their lives. He could not be happier to see those athletes succeed.
“These kids and even the opponents’ team members became like family,” Miller said. “They all talk, text and get together for movies and hang out.”
“Mark has been an outstanding coach all of these years,” said adapted sports coordinator Scott Coleman. “He’s been in it longer than I have and always has given of himself for these kids. He has taught these students life values, teamwork, skills and sportsmanship. We are going to miss him a lot and hope he will continue to help us find these students to play in the program.”
Miller’s 2007 DeKalb Eagles junior varsity basketball team won the state title. He’s helped coach the Silver Streaks and got to see one of his predictions come true when Georgia Public Broadcasting began televising the wheelchair basketball state championship from Gwinnett Arena.
One of his former players, Daniel McLaughlin, has even returned to referee games in the program and Miller sees how he has matured from the student he coached for so many years.
“I was so proud of Daniel when he made a bad call and the other coach was really getting on him. He just turned and started rolling away saying ‘Coach, I made my call’ and never looked back,” Miller said.
Several of his former players returned for his final game as a coach to help celebrate his retirement.
“I knew something was up when I started noticing players I hadn’t talked to in quite a while were there and cheering the team on,” Miller laughed. “This program is such a life-changing situation for these kids. They learn teamwork, responsibilities and develop friendships they may never have a chance to form. It has to continue.”
The program already has a new coach. Mark Miller Jr. takes over at the same age his father was when he began his 28-year journey.
“Mark first came to practice with me when he was 2 years old and he would ride in the players’ laps on the wheelchairs while they practiced,” Miller said. “I guess that helped him develop the same kind of feelings for these athletes and the sports that I have.”