Miller defies negative stigma of star athletes

Jacob Pickle

Some people begin their lives in athletics practicing with their parents and siblings out in their backyard, cultivating their skills in private until they are finally old enough to start participating in organized sports. Others are enrolled within developmental academies at an early age, molding the entirety of their formative years around a single game and practically nothing else. Senior Mark Miller’s tennis career got off to a slightly different beginning, starting with a literal splash at the Greenwood Athletic and Tennis Club. 

His mother, Therese, enrolled the youngest of her three sons in the local athletic club’s “Smash and Splash” program just a few miles away from their home in Englewood, Colo. Like most parents, Therese was looking to find a fun and healthy outlet for her son’s boundless energy. 

The day camp for children featured an hour of tennis instruction, followed by a cool down in the facility’s pool. While most children’s minds tend to go blank with excitement anytime they have the opportunity to jump into a large body of water, Miller’s attention focused more on the program’s earlier half. He had a natural inclination for the sport, one that began to develop further as it transitioned from a once annual pastime within the program to a daily practice of its own. 

Eventually, at the age of 12, Miller began to make the demanding transition and commitment to playing the sport competitively. He and his family began traveling throughout the mountain states, competing within the Intermountain Section of the United States Tennis Association, one of the toughest of the 17 regions recognized by the USTA. The Intermountain Section has players from the states of Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming and Colorado. 

Throughout his years as a developing player, Miller worked under the guidance of his coach Rhona Kaczmarczyk. Kaczmarczyk, who claimed the title of top-ranked player in her native country of Ireland at the age of 16 and competed successfully throughout the upper echelon of United States tennis, helped Miller as he developed a similar competitive edge in his game. During his time playing throughout the Intermountain Section, he achieved a Top 20 ranking in the region and held the No. 1 ranking in his home state of Colorado. 

Miller’s success in the sport continued as he excelled during his time at Regis Jesuit High School. In addition to being named as an all-state selection during each of his four years there, he made plenty of additional contributions to the Regis trophy case.

After earning runner-up honors in state play his sophomore year, Miller claimed his first state title as a part of the school’s No. 1 doubles team his junior year. The following season, Regis tennis claimed the Colorado state title with him helping to lead the way as the team’s top singles player.

Arriving at Villanova, Miller made an immediate impact on the tennis team, as he became a regular member in the Wildcat’s lineup throughout his first collegiate season. 

As a freshman, Miller floated around the No. 5 and 6 spots for singles and the No. 2 and 3 spots for doubles, earning his team a crucial win over rival UConn in the first round of the Big East Championship. Through his sophomore and junior campaigns, he moved up throughout each of the six single spots and continued his play at the second and third doubles positions. 

Currently, Miller rotates between the top two single spots and a combination of doubles teams. As one in a handful of senior leaders on the team, he’s quick to play whatever role his team needs from him and provides a great example of the type of student-athletes that don’t receive enough recognition on a day-to-day basis.

Instead, the national sports media has directed its focus entirely on the crimes, judgment lapses and character flaws of a few of the country’s most prolific collegiate athletes. In light of this, it’s refreshing to take the occasional step back from the mainstream lens and appreciate the college athletes like Miller that impressively exhibit the things that are actually right with college sports. While the negative stories of campus stars taking advantage of their celebrity are clearly grounded in some reality (see Jameis Winston and his legal acrobatics around each and every case that comes his way), they provide nowhere near a full or appropriate picture.

For one, and a point that certainly warrants its own article rather than a cursory mention (which is all that it’s going to get here), the coverage of athletes by the sports broadcasting powers of the world is typically unfair in its presumptions. It seems as though the distinction is never appropriately made that professional athletes are not role models. They certainly have the ability to become incredible idols, and many of them take up the role with commendable dedication, but it is not an inherent part of playing a sport at its highest level. 

This idea exponentially applies to college athletes. Granted, the scrutiny that comes with playing largely spectated sports goes hand-in-hand with a responsibility for one’s actions and a realization that an individual’s conduct will constantly be under a magnifying glass. Regardless, student-athletes are still first and foremost college students. They are still young males and females, ranging between their late teens and early 20s, adjusting to the freedoms of living life on their own for the first time. Even though many of them somehow still manage the Herculean task of balancing collegiate academics and athletics, while serving as constantly upstanding citizens within their school’s community, it seems a little ludicrous to assume this lifestyle is easy.

More importantly, the constant negative stigma that accompanies most stories concerning college athletes is a miniscule sample size and one that doesn’t appropriately represent the vast majority of NCAA athletes. A much more apropos representation of such would be Miller. 

Miller, like a multitude of Villanova athletes, is a prime representation of so many of the positive aspects of college athletics. For starters, he is a great example of the benefits athletes forge for themselves from playing sports at such a high level. 

Ask him about his lifetime of experiences playing tennis, and he’ll tell you in earnest how it helped him learn how to keep a level head in emotional situations, manage his time and handle the stressors that accompany sports in such a competitive environment. In regards to his time as a student-athlete at Villanova, he’ll mention how much he’s enjoyed the team aspect that isn’t always fully provided in high school tennis or the travel circuit. 

Additionally, he’ll tell you about how tennis has in some ways even helped him narrow his academic focus to Psychology, after experiencing handfuls of sports psych lectures that are so common throughout elite junior and collegiate programs. Furthermore, Miller is an example of the many incredible human beings that comprise the group of collegiate athletes found throughout university campuses across the country, but often take a backseat to the polarizing figures that fill-up the front pages of national news outlets. 

Unlike the oft-skewed representation of student-athletes in the media being of the “me-first” mentality, so many more demonstrate an incredible selflessness and team oriented demeanor. Ask any one of Miller’s friends around campus what they think of him, and they’ll provide you with a litany of glowing descriptions and superlatives. Humble. Hilarious. Thoughtful. Larger than life personality. Great listener. What you won’t always hear about immediately is the fact that he’s a very talented tennis player on a Division I team at a demanding university, which might be the greatest tribute of all to him as a person. 

The fact that student-athletes, like Miller, are able to juggle two full-time jobs as collegiate students and athletes without complaining or letting that define them as a person is an absolutely incredible feat.

One much more worthy of the daily publicity usually allotted to athletes’ mistakes.