Behind The Inspirational Track Team Led By 'Coach Miller'

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"Those moments, you feeling that, you tasting that. You're gonna want to feel that again. If I can get you to feel that through your years in high school, you're going to want to continue to feel that throughout college. So now once I can get you focused, I can give you the process on how to get there." -- Mike Miller

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GREENSBORO, NORTH CAROLINA -- Mike Miller leaned against steel railing as one of his athletes navigated her first interview on Sunday. He was slightly nervous. She was slightly nervous. 

But one thing was certain: They were both smiling, ear-to-ear. 

For Karla Funes, who had joined the Alief Clovers Track Club two seasons ago, this was all so sudden, so fast. Gold medals? When she joined this summer track team in Houston, Texas, back in 2018, it wasn't about that. It was about finding some consistency in her life. She had started race walking first as a curiosity, then as a means to getting fit, then out of a determination -- because a passion was brewing. 

Like a lot of athletes on this team, life hadn't been easy for her. There were no luxuries. It seemed like she was running uphill every day. And like a lot others around her, she had been doing some soul searching trying to find her purpose. Where's my life going? 

But that's where Mike came in. One way or another, students had met him at the Crossroads Alternative Technology School within the Alief ISD system. He was a PE teacher and had been there since 2006. Many had found him comforting. He had an easy smile, was generous with his time, and truly valued his job as a teacher. He cared about your future. 

Beyond that, Karla and others saw Mike's story as one of inspiration. 

He was never shy about his past. In fact, he often led with it. He would tell students how his life was struck with pitfalls before it actually really started going. He talked about his second chance, his two degrees from Prairie View A & M and now, at 36, his full life. 

By now, 18 years past his own high school experience, he knew something very clearly. There was a perspective they couldn't quite understand unless 'Coach Miller' told them directly. 

"I was incarcerated for eight months, right out of high school," he said. 

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Mike Miller is a father now; he has an 8-year-old boy, Micah. He's a coach and a teacher. His Alief Clovers Track Club is in its third year, though it's an off-branch of the Alief Clovers basketball team which started back in 2010 and has guided countless young men to Division I scholarships. 

And yet, if he was being honest, he's always been a track guy. He says it every day: #TrackLife.

Before graduating from Alief Hastings High School in 2001, he earned a partial scholarship to the University of Kansas as a distance runner. 

"All my friends were sprinters," he said. "But it just didn't work for me. I loved to run. I found out I was a good distance runner."

But at 18, he didn't have the stability he has now. His life took a turn before college. 

"Selling drugs in the streets," he said. "I grew up without a dad. My mom was handicapped since I was four years old. I grew up in section 8 (housing), it was just the regular community. I was in bad situations and influences." 

He was arrested. And when he went to jail, he lost his scholarship. Those eight months felt like eternity. 

"I visualized (my life) every day," he said. "It hurt me. It hurt me a lot." 

And then Mike received a letter. Prairie View A & M University track and field coach Clifton Gilliard had written to him, offering a second chance. 

"He said 'I believe in you,'" Mike remembered. "He said, 'When you get out, I'll give you an opportunity to run track for me. I don't have a scholarship for you. But I will give you an opportunity to earn one.'"

That was all he needed. 

Mike eventually took up that offer, enrolled at Prairie View A & M, worked his tail off to pass a placement test, then earned his first jersey with the cross country and track and field team. 

At 20. 

The summer before his first official season was the hardest of his life. But in a different way. It was a positive experience that shaped him. 

"We ran 1,000 miles that summer," he said of his time with his teammates. "We all went to classes. That summer, one apartment, 12 guys. We woke up, did six miles, went to class, did another six miles. We were eligible the next year." 

Mike's career blossomed from there. He ran 4:03 in the 1,500m. He went 1:55 in the 800m. He ran 3:02 indoors in the 1,200m. Better than that, his team won two Southwestern Athletic Conference titles in cross country. He left with nearly a full hand of rings. Gillard was named Men's Indoor Coach of the Year for the SWAC in 2008. 

Mike graduated with a bachelor's in kinesiology. He got a job teaching, then later a master's in education administration. 

But then something happened, while he was teaching. Life still had its moments.  

"I would get close to kids and I'd be like, 'Where's such and such at?'" Mike remembers. "And a coach would be 'He got shot last night.' Or coach, 'He's in jail, 15 to 20 years.' I'd think, What more could I have done? I'm from the community. I look like them. Teaching is easy for me. But nothing is changing.

"So I did more," Miller continued. "I stepped back. I started to save my paychecks and buy uniforms."

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When Gilliard passed away on June 20, 2017, Mike knew it was time to finally take the next step with his club. His basketball team was flourishing. He had a handful of coaches working hand-in-hand, working with kids and making them better, giving them life. 

Track had saved him. Gilliard had given him his second chance. 

So he decided to honor his mentor. Mike added a track team within the Alief Clovers.

The club had two athletes his first year. But it quickly grew and by 2019, he brought 12 to their first AAU Junior Olympic Games. 

He had always envisioned himself driving a team of kids to various places across the country. He was the coach who "drove the van." Much of his paycheck had gone directly to the club, to help his athletes have these opportunities -- these memories.

"For me, I just want to give them the experience," he said. "The reason why I drive is I want to give them the student-athlete experience. What are you going to experience in college? Traveling. Getting on the van. Got your earphones on. You're at the hotel with the guys.

"Those moments, you feeling that, you tasting that. You're gonna want to feel that again. If I can get you to feel that through your years in high school, you're going to want to continue to feel that throughout college. So now once I can get you focused, I can give you the process on how to get there."

He rented two vans for the trip from Houston to Greensboro for the Games. 

His athletes readied for their first major experience at a championship. 

On Sunday, two of his athlete competed in the 17-18 year-old girls race walking championship. 

Karla, who had blossomed under his wing, won with a time of 21:04.72. A recent graduate, she was planning on enlisting in the military -- and also was hopeful about competing in college.  

"Honestly, it feels amazing," she said. "It's something I've never done in my life. It's a big step that I took, to take the decision to come out here and compete. It's a national event. It feels great to know you're ranked within the state and the nation." 

But another athlete, Reianna Robinson, who competed in the 15-16 year-old division, finished 14th overall. She didn't get a medal. 

"I'll be honest, she cried on my shoulder," Miller said of Robinson's disappointment. "I cried." 

And yet, he also saw something bigger from that moment. 

"It was a teachable moment, to see where she came from," he said. "She came to me in the fall of last year from the alternative school a very angry kid. I was able to break down the process. You have to realize, before you were fighting and now your mom is talking about how you're arguing less. Now you have a family and it's Track Life. You're crying because you didn't get a medal. But that's amazing. Those are good problems to have." 

For Miller, it was another sign that he was making a difference. 

There was reason to smile again.