ESTABLISHING A FOOTPRINT
THE ORIGINAL OBJECTIVE OF THE PROGRAM was to start small and then build upon successes. The full extent to which LIFE has expanded over 10 years might not be evident to students, parents and visitors until they get to campus. Those who come to the University’s football practice complex meet Marsden Miller working behind its front desk.
Miller is cool, easygoing, soft-spoken. He arrives and leaves quietly, his wheelchair gliding at high speed before stopping, abruptly but gracefully. When he takes visitors on tours of the facility, he opens up.
“I’m a huge football fan, and in this role, I get to go to practice and games,” Miller says. “I started the program and worked here the year we won the national championship; it was so awesome.”
Miller’s mother, LaMonica Miller, says doctors told her that because of his premature birth and spina bifida, he wouldn’t be able to function in a typical environment — and that he wouldn’t live past the age of 10. She’s learned to stop listening to expert advice and follow her son’s lead.
During high school, Miller directed his mother to the LIFE program after a Clemson football player told him about it. She told him he must have been confused.
“He pushed and pushed and pushed me to ask his teachers about it, and he was right,” she says. “We visited the campus after that, and it was all over for him. He was determined. For the rest of high school, LIFE was the goal.”
After Miller was accepted, LaMonica Miller said the transition was harder for her than it was for him. She worried. She kept repeating that if he needed to go home, he could. She feared that her son and the other students would be isolated. She realized this was far from the truth when he talked about his job and the friends he’d made across campus.
J.C. Chalk, a tight end for Clemson’s football team, met Miller at the football practice facility. They share a love of sports, dogs and the outdoors. Church is another shared interest, so Chalk and Miller began going together on Sundays.
“The first thing that comes to mind with Marsden is how confident and humble he is and just how positive he is,” Chalk says. “There are times when we’re driving around, and I’ll be complaining about a test, and he’s the one encouraging me and finding the positive side of things.”
The full extent of the football team’s involvement with LIFE wasn’t apparent to Chalk until head coach Dabo Swinney told the team they would spend some time with LIFE students after a practice and scrimmage.
Chalk remembers seeing uncertainty on some of the players’ faces. After the scrimmage, the players set up stations to do pass drills and hang out with them.
“I looked around and saw players having just as much fun as the LIFE students,” Chalk says. “Now the players look forward to these practices because they get to know people like Marsden on a personal level. We’re all students here at Clemson, and we’re developing relationships across years, not just at one practice.”
The tie between the LIFE program and Clemson Athletics started with a single internship but has developed into a powerful relationship. LIFE’s footprint within athletics has since grown to include 13 internships with the baseball, basketball, football, cheer, lacrosse, tennis, rowing and volleyball teams. In 2018, Clemson Athletics received the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Game Changers Award for its work with the LIFE program.