Like athletes at any level of competition, Division III student-athletes become role models in their communities.
However, few student-athletes at any level of competition get to be a role model like Ronda Jo Miller.
Type Miller’s name into an internet search engine, and you’ll find essays written by school children about the three-time Gallaudet basketball all-American who also played volleyball at the school.
Miller wore No. 23, and like Michael Jordan, who also famously wore that number, kids want to be like her. Her coach, Kitty Baldridge, knows.
“There are a lot of accomplishments, a lot of things you’d be astonished to hear about – how she treats children and how they look up to her, and how they talk about her once they realize who she is, and ask for autographs,” Baldridge said during a Gallaudet ceremony in February to retire Miller’s No. 23.
Coaches, knowing Miller is deaf, still saw her potential and sought to recruit her out of high school. But Miller passed up offers from Division I and II programs, and then did what many Division III student-athletes do – she picked the school she believed was right for her academically, socially, and athletically.
In her case, the school was Gallaudet – the nation’s only university for the deaf and hard of hearing and at that time a member of Division III’s Capital Athletic Conference (the university moved its athletics program in 2010 to the North Eastern Athletic Conference).
Miller flourished, especially athletically, leading the Bison to two Division III Women’s Basketball Championship appearances and leaving her name etched into NCAA record books – and not just in basketball, where she still ranks among top Division III career scorers. She also was a three-time CAC volleyball player of the year and still holds the Division III career record for kills (3,579).
“When you saw her play, when you saw her out on the court, you’d say, wow, that’s amazing,” Baldridge remembered. “That’s Ronda Jo. It didn’t look like she was putting effort into it. She made it look so simple. So easy. Her ability to be able to perform, and the results -- the statistics that we saw at the end of each game -- were mind-blowing.”
She drew attention – in media interviews the young Minnesotan who communicated through American Sign Language initially avoided, then in two books published about her team, and then when she was invited after graduation to a tryout with the WNBA’s Washington Mystics. Miller played in exhibition games with the Mystics, becoming the first deaf player to suit up in the league, and then played in the National Women’s Basketball League in addition to playing on the U.S. gold medal team at the 2002 Athens Deaflympics.
And with the attention came her status as a unique role model – a hero to deaf children who aspire to the most demanding and visible professions.
Miller now is student life director and also has taught and coached at the Metro Deaf School in her home state, working with youngsters as they strive to pursue their own places in society. She’s ideally suited for the role.
“Ronda Jo is a very humble person, very fun-loving, easy-going,” Baldridge said at the Gallaudet number-retirement ceremony. “There are times when she is serious but that’s pretty rare. I don’t think I ever saw her angry, or mad, or upset. If there was something that had happened that she wasn’t proud of, she would let it go and move on. And I think that’s very admirable.”
It’s a great model for children to follow – and not just the deaf children who want to be like Miller.
Nominated by Sam Atkinson, assistant director of athletics for communications at Gallaudet University.