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Scott Fowler: As Panthers great Sam Mills enters Hall of Fame, a closer look at how he 'kept pounding'

Scott Fowler, The Charlotte Observer on

Published in Football

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Even death couldn’t stop Sam Mills.

The former Carolina Panthers linebacker’s legacy has kept pounding even after he died of cancer in 2005. On Saturday will come his biggest honor yet — Mills will posthumously be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

Represented by family, friends and colleagues, Mills will be inducted as part of an eight-man class. The ceremony will be broadcast starting at 12 noon on ESPN, with Mills’ induction slated to be one of the earlier ones in the program.

“I can’t understand why it took so long for him to get in, but thankfully it’s finally happening,” said Dan Morgan, once a Panther linebacker and now Carolina’s assistant general manager. Morgan is one of this 2022 team’s last direct connections to Mills, who transitioned from star Panther player into beloved Carolina assistant coach after he retired following the 1997 season.

It did take a long time. Mills wasn’t elected into the hall of fame until his 20th and final year of eligibility as a modern-era player, falling just short several times. But the man who coined the mantra “Keep Pounding” and who has had his own statue outside Bank of America Stadium standing since 1998 — five years before his cancer diagnosis — has finally joined the game’s greatest players. Jim Mora, his longtime head coach in both the USFL and the New Orleans Saints, will be part of Mills’ induction ceremony. Sam’s widow Melanie and his children are also expected to be in attendance.

Although Mills’ story is familiar by now to most Panther fans, it’s worth sketching once more on the eve of his induction. He didn’t get to Charlotte until age 35, when he was one of Carolina’s first free-agent signings before the inaugural 1995 season. (By comparison, linebacker Luke Kuechly retired at age 28; Morgan played his last game as a pro at age 29).

 

“Yes, we signed him, but I really thought his best days were behind him,” said Charlie Dayton, who ran the team’s public relations department at the time. “I thought, ‘Well, Sam’s got a great reputation. He’ll be a good guy to have around.’ But boy, he turned out to be a great player. Because of how much attention the ‘Keep Pounding’ speech gets, it sometimes gets overshadowed how many big plays he made here.”

Mills keyed Carolina’s first-ever regular-season win in 1995 by intercepting New York Jets quarterback Bubby Brister’s shovel pass and running it back for a touchdown. He had an interception in the Panthers’ first-ever playoff win, at home against Dallas. And in his first Panther season alone in 1995, he posted career highs in both forced fumbles and interceptions.

By the time he got to Charlotte, Mills had already been a standout for two teams — for three years for the Philadelphia Stars in the USFL and then for nine more with New Orleans, where he was a key part of a defense nicknamed the “Dome Patrol” and became a linebacker who Mora has repeatedly said was the best player he had ever coached (which is particularly notable since Mora also coached Peyton Manning).

Mills ended up signing with Carolina in 1995 because the Panthers offered him a two-year, $2.8 million contract, which New Orleans — reluctantly, in Mills’ opinion — decided to match.

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