Samantha Miller was known as Slam Van Diesel on the Confluence Crush roller derby team. Miller’s nickname matched her style of play: flint-hard and fierce, with little patience for trash-talking opponents.
“She had the hips,” said Sandra Niemeyer in describing Miller’s hip-checking prowess.
Miller, of Swansea, was also an extraordinary teammate, said Katie Robbins, a.k.a. Monica La Whiskey, and the president of Confluence Crush.
A single mom who balanced school with jobs at a laundromat and nursing home, while raising three small kids, Miller “was super-dedicated and would do anything I needed her to,” Robbins said. “She’d come straight from work to practice and go back to another job. ... She was super in it to win it.”
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On Saturday night, before a crowd of more than 500 people at Belle-Claire Fairgrounds, Robbins led a deeply emotional tribute to Miller, 27, who died in late October when her stalled car was struck by a vehicle along Interstate 55/70 near Maryville in Madison County.
“She was always one of the last ones to leave the track” at the end of practice, Robbins told the crowd. “She was always trying to better herself.”
She was always one of the last ones to leave the track. She was always trying to better herself.
Katie Robbins, roller derby teammate of Samanta Miller
Robbins retired Miller’s jersey number, 1988, and then watched as two teammates — Melissa Dunn and Shawn Vratney, who was Miller’s cousin — presented Miller’s father and younger sister with a team photo and bouquets of roses.
The sister, Zoe Monroe, described Miller as her best friend, whose passing has made life very difficult.
“It’s been a wreck, really,” Monroe said. “I’ve been going to work more just to keep it off of my mind, but it’s been hard.”
Christmas “was horrible,” she added. “Because every Christmas she’s there with the kids, but this year she wasn’t there.”
The tribute to Miller took place during the intermission between bouts of competing roller teams. Barry Monroe, Miller’s father, watched the first bout of the night, a fiercely fought contest between The Roadsters and The Hotrods, while his grandson — Miller’s youngest child, Brantly, 3 — sat quietly in his lap.
Barry Monroe described Miller, who also had a son Jay, 9, and and a daughter Haily, 6, as “a loving, caring mother. A wonderful daughter. She had her ups and downs in life, but she was on the way of recovering from the divorce.”
Miller took up roller derby two years ago, and she took to it rapidly, advancing to the rank of co-captain of the Crush’s “B” team.
“It let her spread her wings a lot,” her father said. “She made a lot more friends. It made her much happier.”
Barry Monroe had played roller hockey for many years, and that’s how Miller learned to skate, he said.
For the uninitiated, flat-track roller derby is like rugby, but without a ball, and featuring lots of aggressive pushing and shoving and flying elbows around a small oval track. Once the action ends, though, opposing teams come together; the camaraderie is tight.
“These girls did a lot for my family,” Monroe said as he jostled Brantly on his lap. “They’re a very tight group of girls. Once you’re in, you’re in with them.”
The 38-year-old driver of the pickup truck that killed Miller, Steve L. Willis, of Maryville, was later charged with two counts of aggravated DUI, including aggravated DUI causing death, which carries a maximum sentence of seven years in prison.
According to Illinois State Police, Miller was outside of her vehicle when Willis’ 2014 Cheverolet Silverado struck Miller.
Since Miller’s passing, the practices for the Crush have been noticeably quieter, said Dunn, the teammate.
“She never gave up, no matter what,” said Dunn, a.k.a. Murderous Maverick. “She liked to yell, but she was always loving when she did it. She was always trying to help others try to better themselves.”