At age 32, Noah Miller is not ready to die, but he is planning his funeral. He does not want to surrender to the tumors in his body, but he has already chosen the cemetery. He won’t stop sharing his story, but he’s picked the tree he wants planted through the biodegradable urn that will hold his ashes.

Doctors don’t know what to make of him. For the past 15 years, Miller has cheated death seven times and counting. The volleyball players he has coached understand him perfectly. Miller was born to inspire them, to show them how to face the impossible.

He has seen the valley King David wrote about. He has lived in its shadow and come this close to death. Any day Miller could leave this world for the next. He lies in a hospital bed in his Windcrest home, his hair and beard the color of snow, his eyes the color of hope.

What does hope look like? It looks like an artist painting the final strokes of a master work. It looks like a boxer in the final round of his last match – the body weakening, the spirit fighting. It looks like a coach, inspiring a friend to create a movement, #NoahStrong.

A former basketball player at St. Mary’s Hall, Miller stretches out to 6-foot-6. Back in the day, he could dunk and drain the 3-pointer. Today, he cannot move his legs. From his bed, he recounts a life of near disasters and improbable escapes, a journey of miracles for which he is grateful.

He wasn’t supposed to survive a one-car accident at age 17. Miller was pronounced dead after his Honda Civic struck a guardrail at 100 miles per hour on the Southside. Paramedics brought him back, shattered bones, ruptured organs and all, only to have him flatline a second time.

Miller survived renal failure at 19 and a brush with a killer at 23. In 2007, a man who had just killed his wife drove to a school in Houston where Miller was meeting with parents. The killer approached Miller, brandishing two pistols and a shotgun. Officers arrived. Shots were fired. Miller and the parents emerged from a hiding place unharmed, the gunman fatally shot.

Since then, Miller has survived Stage 2 melanoma in his right calf and Stage 4 melanoma metastases in his brain. In February 2015, doctors gave him 10 weeks. Seven months later, Miller was coaching the middle school volleyball ball team at San Antonio Christian School.

Over the past two years, tumors have returned and disappeared. Doctors gave him 10 days, two weeks, one month, then stopped predicting his demise. When a spinal tumor rendered Miller a paraplegic last summer, doctors said he’d never use his legs again. Five months later, he stood for 35 seconds gripping parallel bars during physical therapy.

Noah Miller with Baylee Parrott celebrating a San Antonio Christian district volleyball championship. Credit: Courtesy / Brandon Parrott

“I am here,” Miller said, “to show athletes, adults, and children of any age that you don’t need to give up just because things aren’t going your way.”

The “t” in #NoahStrong forms an extended cross and symbolizes the foundation of Noah’s faith. It is a faith that has changed the atmosphere of a gym, lifted the will of a team, and touched the hearts of parents and players.

Michele Badkte remembers the game. Duke Badtke, her husband, remembers the moment. Their daughter Kylie, a 6th grade basketball player, was playing for the San Antonio Christian Lions in the district championship game. Trailing St. George Episcopal by 20 at halftime, the Lions appeared hopelessly beat in their opponents’ gym.

Then Miller appeared, just days after surgeons removed a golfball-sized tumor from his brain. His arrival ignited the team. With Miller cheering on the bench, the Lions staged an improbable rally to send the game into overtime. When the buzzer sounded, St. George had prevailed by one point, but the girls’ parents recognized something sweet.

“That was the coolest sports moment I’ve ever witnessed,” Duke Badtke said.

After the game, Miller explained the jagged scar on the side of his scalp. He told the girls they inspired him to cheer and coach them less than a week after surgery.

“Noah said, ‘If it wasn’t for you keeping my spirits up, I would have never made it,’” Michele Badtke recalled. “He told them he was proud of them, and the girls just broke down. Everyone started crying and bawling. It was a beautiful moment. You could feel the spirit of joy from a man who had just had a tumor taken out of his head.”

Miller’s middle school volleyball teams won two district championships at San Antonio Christian, one district title and a couple of tournaments at St. Mark’s Episcopal in Houston. Players were drawn to his cool demeanor and infectious spirit, and to the way he motivated and brought out the best in them.

Kylie Badtke, now in 8th grade, played lots of volleyball and basketball for Miller over a span of two years. The game against St. George stands out.

“Seeing him there made me play as hard as I could,” she said. “When he was talking to the team after the game, I was overwhelmed with so many feelings I can’t even explain. He showed me how to do things I never thought I could do. I was filled with joy and happiness. And I wanted him to come back and coach the team more than I wanted anything else. He’s the best coach I’ve ever had.”

It is not possible to measure the impact of a man who has lived the impossible. In February 2015, nearly 1,000 people attended a fundraiser at the San Antonio Christian gym. Students, teachers, and friends prayed for Miller. They offered heartfelt tributes, some through tears. Between that event and a GoFundMe campaign, more than $30,000 were raised within 24 hours.

When News 4 WOAI-TV aired his story later that year, a gush of traffic shut down Miller’s Facebook page. Demand for #NoahStrong T-shirts and wristbands exceeded supply. The TV story, posted and shared via social media, recorded more than 51,000 views.

“That’s not viral,” said Miller’s mother, Irene. “But it sure is a heck of a lot more people than we personally know.”

Melanoma has taken a hard, sometimes mysterious toll. On the evening of May 1, Miller went to bed with brown hair. On the morning of May 2, it had turned white. No one, including doctors, can explain why. The overnight change has created a medical stir. His mother says researchers want to study the Miller DNA and publish an article in the New England Journal of Medicine. A doctor told Irene of his colleague’s fascination.

“He said Noah is a celebrity in the radiation world at MD Anderson [Cancer Center],” she said.

Noah Miller with his mother Irene.
Irene Miller frequently sits at Noah’s bedside. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Irene and her husband Larry raised nine children. Noah, the oldest, aspired to play college basketball. He lost the dream, and nearly his life, on I-35 near Palo Alto College. After consuming more intoxicants than he can recall – “I was on pretty much anything and everything that didn’t require an injection” – Miller left a party and climbed into his Honda.

As he lay in the emergency room, broken and fading, doctors said Miller would not survive. And even if he did, it would likely be in a vegetative state. Eleven months later, Miller stepped onto a basketball court. He could not move or play as he once did. But he could shoot – and he could find trouble.

The narrow escape became a prophetic metaphor. After the crash, Miller careened from one crisis to the next. He had two more accidents and totaled two cars. After parking a third car to visit a friend, it burst into flames from an electrical short. A fourth vehicle was totaled when a driver plowed into it. “I honestly can’t remember the details about most of them,” Irene said. “There were so many.”

Miller drifted through a fog of alcohol and drugs. Addicted to painkillers, he moved to Houston. He wanted to separate himself from his younger siblings, for whom he was setting a poor example, and he wanted to detox. Instead of entering rehab, Miller said, he quit taking painkillers “cold turkey” and suffered wrenching withdrawals.

Nine years in Houston brought a rollercoaster of experiences: He suffered renal failure and recovered, developed a tumor in his calf and survived, got married and divorced, became a coach and teacher’s aide, and met a killer face-to-face.

According to the Houston Chronicle, the killer shot his estranged wife, dumped her body in his 2007 Chrysler Sebring, and drove to St. Mark’s Episcopal. As Miller recalls, the gunman went to confess to a pastor. A frightened student told Miller she saw an armed man. Miller went looking, turned a corner, and there the man was.

“He looked mentally unstable,” Miller said.

The gunman wanted Miller to let him talk to police. Miller listened nervously and left. Officers had already been called, and Miller went to keep parents and students out of harm’s way. Miller recalls a long silence, then a shootout.

“He hasn’t lived a boring life,” Irene said.

Calamity and near death did not turn Miller to his maker. A summer meeting in Houston with a tattooed former Hells Angel now turned preacher did. In a parking garage at MD Anderson Cancer Center, a bearded man – about 6-foot-3 and 260 pounds – approached Miller. The biker-looking character pulled up a wheelchair and introduced himself as Mike Phillips. The preacher and the cancer patient connected. They became friends and kept talking for weeks. Miller’s heart softened; his life turned.

Tumors are lodged in Miller’s brain and neck, lungs and spleen, abdomen and spine. The family stopped counting once the number climbed past 30. Yet Miller remains full of life. Consider his Facebook page: On Valentine’s Day, Miller snapped a smiling self-portrait and wrote, “A beautiful day outside! #noahstrong #neverquit #neversettle #survivor #positivity.”

He welcomes friends and reporters with a warm smile. Every visitor represents an opportunity to lift a spirit. On Feb. 7, Michele Badtke and her two daughters dropped by. They left with a photo and memories and shed a tear or two. Michele’s husband, Duke, is fighting his own battle with cancer.

“He taught us how to get through it,” Michele said.

The next day, Miller co-hosted a one-hour show on ESPN SA. The gig fulfilled a dream – “I’ve always wanted to be a sportscaster” – and the desire to share the faith that drives him. Two weeks later, he welcomed the Rivard Report into his home. Miller opened his life like a book, sparing no detail, unwilling to edit stumbles and flaws.

He painted word pictures of the valleys, the shadows, and the edge of death. It was not easy, he admitted, when doctors told him there was nothing more they could do. It hasn’t been easy planning his own funeral. But it’s been cool planning the party. After his memorial service, there will be food and ’90s music and warm memories shared.

“I don’t want it to be a sobfest,” Miller said. “I prefer it be a remembrance of the good times.”

There is one detail he cannot plan: the day of his passing. No one knows how much time he has left. But Miller can see to the end and beyond. What does it look like? A verse Irene gave him provides a glimpse. “The pain that you’ve been feeling can’t compare to the joy that’s coming” – Romans 8:18.

“Knowing I have something better to go to afterwards is making it a lot easier than having an unknown, scary future,” Miller said. “That goes to my faith in the Lord.

“If I could, I would choose a different path. But that’s the selfish part of me wanting to stay here on earth with my family and friends. While I’m here, I might as well make the most of it and stay positive. So, hopefully, when I do pass I’ll be able to continue to tell my story through my legacy of never giving up.”

In the shadow of death, a pale, withering man shines. He is forever #NoahStrong.

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Ken Rodriguez

Ken Rodriguez is a San Antonio native and award-winning journalist.