Hometown reveres Marissa Miller

Courtesy of the Miller Family

Marissa Miller left her family and friends with an important message: "Be Kind, Work Hard, Have Fun."

She was all of 5 feet tall and 75 pounds, but Marissa Miller earned the nickname "Mighty" because of her fierce determination on the basketball court and soccer field.

Marissa, a 12-year-old resident of Parkersburg, W.Va., died Sept. 5 after collapsing on a soccer practice field. It was later discovered that she had a congenital heart abnormality.

With her self-created motto of "Be Kind, Work Hard, Have Fun," Marissa served as a role model for other kids and even adults.

Perhaps that's why Parkersburg, a town of slightly more than 30,000, reacted the way it did to Marissa's passing.

"I've been to a lot of funerals," said Brad Gault, Marissa's soccer coach, "but I've never waited 90 minutes to get into a viewing. This is a small town, but there were 1,100 people at the viewing."

Marissa wasn't even in high school yet. Even so, the Parkersburg High football team put her initials on its helmets.

In fact, virtually every sports team in the area has honored Marissa, including an annual cross country race that will be named for her and a basketball court that will bear her name.

Marissa's parents -- Lisa and Ken -- are feeling pain that is nearly impossible to fathom, but they both are grateful for the community's support.

"Five years from now, they will still remember her," Lisa said. "But they won't think of her every day like we will."

The support for Marissa has stretched far beyond Parkersburg.

Thanks to a Twitter campaign to get her story on ESPN, sports stars -- including Kobe Bryant and Pat White -- have tweeted about her. Charlotte Bobcats guard Kemba Walker, who was Marissa's favorite player, posted her photo on Instagram.

Courtesy the Miller Family

Marissa Miller's dad says his daughter hustled more than anyone on the soccer field.

"It's really what has helped us get through this time," Lisa said of all the support. "At first, we didn't want people around because we didn't want the constant reminders. But then you realize that [the memories] are all you have.

"We have two older children [Tyler, 17, a senior soccer player at Parkersburg, and Ciara, 15, a freshman volleyball player at the school]. It has helped us go on because we know we have to be there for them, and it has helped them realize that life is special."

"Special" also is the word Gault uses to describe Marissa as an athlete.

When she was a first- and second-grader, Marissa lacked confidence and had few friends. That changed when she started running track in the third grade and soon added basketball and soccer to her pursuits. She immediately made new friends and earned respect as an athlete.

"Marissa tried harder than anyone," Ken Miller said. "She had the best first touch on our soccer team and hustled more than anyone."

Marissa was a central midfielder on Gault's state championship Club Ohio United Dragon squad.

"She had this quiet strength," Gault said. "She could change directions in midair. It seemed like she could do anything. When she got knocked down, instead of getting mad, she would beat you with her ability and make you look like a fool.

"Marissa wouldn't initiate contact, but I never saw her shy away from a bigger kid."

Gault said it pained him to say it, but he realized that as good as Marissa was in his sport, she was even better at basketball, in which she led her league in scoring by a wide margin.

"Her ballhandling and the stuff she could do in basketball … I suspect a lot of pro players struggle to do what she could do," he said. "Her hands would move so daggone fast you could hardly see them."

Marissa, whose favorite class was math, was a straight-A student. She talked about eventually becoming a teacher and a coach and already had started attending camps, instructing younger kids how to play basketball.

She loved animals and would volunteer at the Humane Society. Her goal was to have seven dogs, but she had just one, a beagle named Moguls who would sit next to her on the couch as she watched TV.

Marissa didn't eat much -- which concerned her parents -- but she was an exceptionally happy girl who loved to have sleepovers with friends.

She was the type of child who would come home from school and immediately get her homework done without either parent having to prod her.

Her ballhandling and the stuff she could do in basketball … I suspect a lot of pro players struggle to do what she could do. Her hands would move so daggone fast you could hardly see them.
Brad Gault

After that, it was off to a game or a practice in one sport or another. She was in two leagues in basketball and one in soccer and also ran cross country. When all else failed, she would shoot hoops in the family's driveway or take a quick run in her neighborhood.

"She would come home from a cross country practice and say that the coach didn't work them hard enough," Lisa said, "and off she would go on a two-mile run on her own."

At one point, according to her mother's count, there were 17 consecutive weekends in which Marissa was playing travel ball in either soccer or basketball.

"She looked forward to being in the hotel and causing menace in the pool and the hallways," Lisa said.

While there was no doubt Marissa had fun -- that was part of her motto, after all -- it is clear she also had skill as an athlete.

"She could fly down a soccer field with the ball at her feet at the same speed she could run," Lisa said.

One of Marissa's happiest days was when she got to meet Walker, her idol. Her father drove five hours to Charlotte and paid for expensive seats just behind the tunnel where the players emerge from the locker room.

Sure enough, when Walker came out of the tunnel, he saw Marissa's outstretched hand and gave her a high-five.

Later, at the concession stand, Marissa -- who was wearing an "I love Kemba" T-shirt -- was spotted by Walker's mother.

"I love Kemba too," his mom told Marissa.

Ultimately, though, Marissa's legacy will be her motto of "Be Kind, Work Hard, Have Fun." It's a simple yet spot-on credo, said her father.

Last Saturday, her former soccer team played its first match since her death. Before the game, the Club Ohio girls taught their opponents a new cheer that they immediately performed:

"Be Kind, Work Hard, Have Fun … Marissa."

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