Be a Light - from The Messenger
As Damien Miller walked the halls of Butler Elementary School on a recent day, he was greeted with a combination of hellos and hugs from students passing by. The friendly greetings were mixed with a couple of sneers, too.
A nickname was even shouted his way — “Hi Dame,” a student could be heard saying.
“Some nicknames are good,” he said. “Some are bad.”
One teacher noticed Miller walking by her classroom. She flagged him down to tell him there was a particular student who could use his help that day.
Miller, Fort Dodge Senior High assistant varsity girls basketball coach and Athletics For Education and Success coach, helps out at Butler as a behavioral specialist.
“I’ll talk to him here in about 10 minutes,” Miller said.
Miller graduated from Fort Dodge Senior High in 2014. He’s been coaching basketball in one form or another since he was a high school freshman.
“I was introduced to basketball through the AFES program,” Miller said. “I played AFES from seventh through ninth grade. Then I didn’t go out for basketball freshman year.”
Miller said that’s when he was directed to start coaching.
“Charles Clayton (executive director of AFES) said, ‘You’ve put in all this time and you’re not going to go out?'” Miller recalled. “So he told me to start coaching. Everybody that knows Charles — he’s telling you, not asking.”
AFES would later lead Miller into a role of helping students find their focus.
During his freshman year, Miller encountered someone who continues to motivate him to this day.
He met Allison Huss, a St. Edmond Catholic School student who excelled in basketball.
One of their first encounters was on a basketball court at the downtown REC. The two were on opposing teams.
“She was by far the best girl I have ever competed against,” Miller said. “And that’s not even close. I was like who’s this girl that’s destroying us? There’s nothing we can do with her.”
The friendship grew from there. The two often talked about coaching together in the future. Miller even tried to persuade her to attend Fort Dodge Senior High.
“She was one of the few people — she got along with all the Fort Dodge kids and all the St. Edmond kids got along with her,” Miller said. “That doesn’t happen too often.”
One of Huss’s dreams was to play basketball at the University of Iowa. She had plans to play at Iowa Central Community College, too.
But she never got those chances.
Huss was diagnosed with T-cell lymphoma in 2014.
She passed away on this date in 2015 after a nine-month battle with the cancer. She was 18.
“If she was still here, I am pretty sure she would have fulfilled her dream,” Miller said.
Losing Huss was a big blow to the community, Miller said. And the loss had him questioning his own path forward.
“When she passed it steered me away from coaching for a bit, but then I was like no, that’s what she wanted to do,” Miller said. “I am going to continue to coach and be a light in the community and make a name for myself. That’s what she would want for herself and that’s what she would want for me, too.”
Miller remembers Huss as a hard worker and someone who was willing to help others.
“She was someone who if you say dedication to her sport, she would be someone who put in time in the gym,” Miller said. “Always at the REC working on her jump shot and ball handling. Little girls would come to her asking questions and she would be right there helping those girls.”
In 2017, Miller was recruited to coach at the high school level.
“I had no intention of coaching high school sports until Julius Michalik came up there (to AFES),” Miller said. “The girls I was coaching at AFES, he said, ‘You ever thought about coaching at the high school?’ He said, ‘We have a freshmen position available.’ It was an easy adaptation. I didn’t have to worry about not knowing the freshmen girls or parents so I said, ‘Yeah I’ll take the job.'”
Two years ago, he became the assistant varsity coach for Dodger girls basketball.
Then during the 2019-20 school year, Miller was called to help another cause.
A student who attended AFES was having behavioral problems at school.
“Charles and I started going back and forth to check on these kids,” Miller said.
Eventually, through conversations with Jesse Ulrich, Fort Dodge Community School District superintendent, it was decided to have an AFES staff member spend time at the elementary schools.
Miller has been spending his time at Butler. His presence can change a student’s attitude in a moment.
“Seeing those kids and to put a smile on their faces, that means a lot to me,” Miller said. “Teachers are fun to be around. Principals are fun to be around. It’s a good environment.”
One student Miller interacted with recently was Brooklyn Gilliland, 9, a fourth-grader.
Gilliland said Miller is fun to be around.
“We talk about sports,” she said. “Basketball or Patrick Mahomes.”
On occasion, she gets to practice her skills on the court with Miller.
“We play basketball sometimes one-on-one,” she said. “Sometimes he takes us back to class and we play silent seat ball.”
This past Christmas, Miller wanted to reward students who demonstrated good behavior at the school.
Students who modeled good behavior consistently got to go shopping with Miller at Target.
One student couldn’t believe he was selected.
“There was one kid who didn’t believe his parents when they said Damien is taking you out shopping for Christmas,” Miller said. “The kid said, “No I don’t believe you.’ So the parents called me and asked me to tell the kid on the phone. I messed with him and said, ‘If you dont want to go, I’ll take someone else,’ and he said, ‘No, no, no I want to go.’ That’s one thing that will probably stick with me for a while.”
Miller said he enjoyed growing up in Fort Dodge.
“Life in Fort Dodge as a child, it was good,” he said. “It was a lot easier than the lifestyle now as kids being introduced to electronics and social media at younger ages. Kids are stuck in the house more. That was a plus for me. We didn’t have that. We were always going to Dodger Courts and the REC. That’s how we got our friendship and teamwork and IQ. That’s what benefited me in Fort Dodge growing up at a younger age, not having the electronics as much.”
Whether through AFES, on the hardwood at FDSH or in a classroom at Butler, Miller is focused on being a positive influence for the youth.
“Most people don’t realize as a coach or a teacher, those right there can have more of an impact than parents sometimes,” Miller said. “Sometimes coming to school or basketball practice could be those kids’ getaway.
“If I can come and put a smile on those kids faces for an hour and a half or two hours, that motivates me to do it. Keep pushing these kids to do better. Just coming here, we know they aren’t out running the streets or at home in a bad environment. As long as I know they are here with me, I know they are safe.”