`Soccer is life' not just phrase

Survivor: Coaching girls teams has been a big part of John Miller's life, and it has taken on an even bigger role in the 54-year-old's struggle with lung cancer.

November 11, 1999|By Glenn P. Graham | Glenn P. Graham,SUN STAFF

The adage goes: Being around young people helps you stay young. John Miller says it helps him stay alive.

The news came in February 1997, just three months into early retirement from his job as director of General Services with the state of Maryland. After doctors diagnosed him with metastatic lung cancer, Miller said he was given three to six months to live.

He turned to his strengths, "passions" as he so eloquently calls them: family, God, enjoying life and coaching girls soccer.

"I think I cried for all of 30 seconds. Then I turned around and said, "Well, then, we've just got to beat this," said the 54-year-old Miller, who just finished his first season as junior varsity coach at Maryvale.

"You can sit here and lament about a disease and do nothing about it and you're going to die. Or you can sit there and say, `Well, I have a disease and I'm going to fight this thing and I'm going to go out and live the rest of my life doing everything I've always wanted to do.' "

So, after aggressive and successful treatment -- chemotherapy and radiation followed by lung and abdominal surgery -- CT scans taken every three months for more than a year now have shown no trace of the disease.

"Under the conventional treatment of chemotherapy, the vast amount of patients live six months or less," said Dr. Richard Huslig, Miller's oncologist.

"Because John was younger, we were able to be much more aggressive with his treatment. That's what prompted the radiation therapy followed by the surgeries. I think it was very rough treatment and he tolerated it as well as anybody. He has a great attitude and we've given him the best shot at surviving this."

Miller brought 35 years of experience as a youth soccer coach to Maryvale, which didn't have a junior varsity coach until he accepted the position less than a week before the start of the season. He had one simple request for his new team.

"What I basically tried to tell the girls is, `Look, I can't shout twice. I can't shout to tell you to please be quiet and at the same time try to teach you. So I ask that when you hear my voice that you please stop what you're doing.' "

A persistent cough, shortness of breath and quick fatigue are the long-term side effects from the harsh treatment Miller endured. But he somehow has something in reserve for game day.

His voice easily carries over the entire field, as it did during a recent game against Park School, providing encouragement to his players and even some kind words for the referee.

"Great shot, Lauren," he exclaimed in the first half. A little later, after Melanie Rozek, parked at the far post, put in a rebound to tie the score at 1, he exuberantly shouted: "It's not only your long throws I like, it's also that left foot."

Late in the second half, the referee made an incorrect call, awarding a throw-in to Park after it clearly went out of bounds off one of its players.

While some of the Maryvale supporters were grumbling a bit on the sideline, Miller said: "She's right, you know why? Because she's the one who has the black uniform on." Another second or two went by. He smiled and added: "I can live with that."

Only after a 3-1 win was secured could Miller's voice finally get some much-needed rest. By then, it was clear why Miller is out there.

"Watching the smiles, you can tell when they've had fun," he said. "You can also tell when they've learned something. And you can tell that this means something to them personally. That's what it's all about."

Last year, Maryvale's first with a junior varsity program, the team didn't win a game and scored just one goal the entire season. With two wins and eight goals this season, which ended last Thursday, the team's improvement was evident. But Miller has never measured success by wins and losses.

"Winning is not a process, it's a result. So it's the last thing that needs to be emphasized," he said. "In fact, I try not to emphasize it at all because if you do all the other things you're supposed to do -- learn and have fun -- winning takes care of itself."

Miller, a true technician of the game, has little difficulty passing along the message, sending it with enthusiasm and warmth.

"Coach John really takes time to work with everyone individually, but also concentrates on the team as a whole," said sophomore Emily Voshell. "He gives us great encouragement and always tells us we should never give up."

Many others have learned from Miller, as well.

"John will forever be an inspiration to me, the way he addresses adversity with an absolute positive outlook. He's always looking forward, never looking back," said Notre Dame Prep varsity coach Mark Deaton, whom Miller assisted last season.

"One of the more important lessons kids learn from sports is to always move forward and optimistically from disappointment. John is a vivid example to all of us of how this lesson can be applied to our lives."

At the age of 9, Miller, who grew up in Maine, was introduced to soccer when he spent three years in Switzerland.

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