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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

“After all that I’d done playing in New Orleans, it kind of bothered me that they were only going to pay me the money because they had to pay it and not because they wanted to pay it,” Mills once said. “To me, it’s almost like inviting somebody to your party or to some special event because your mom says you’ve got to invite them. If I found out I was invited to an event because somebody forced you to invite me, I’d rather not be invited at all.”

Mills’ best years with Panthers

New Orleans’ loss was the Panthers’ gain, as Mills immediately became a team leader and a central force in the 3-4 defense instituted by head coach Dom Capers and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio.

Nicknamed “The Field Mouse” because he only stood 5-foot-9 — which was one of the primary reasons he had gone undrafted out of Division II Montclair State in New Jersey — Mills actually used the lower center of gravity to his advantage. He explosively drove ball carriers backward time and again. Hall of fame linebacker Lawrence Taylor was once quoted as saying of Mills: “Just once, I’d like to get a hit like he does. It has to be better than sex.”

Mills had a gift for self-deprecating humor. He wore glasses off the field that made him look like a well-muscled insurance agent (a career he briefly considered after retirement). His hairline had long ago started to recede by the time he got to the Queen City. He would say sometimes he was “short, balding and can’t see very well.” Teammates would joke with him and ask questions like how he enjoyed early in his career playing football with leather helmets or what it had been like to tackle Jim Brown.

His banner year with the Panthers came in 1996, when a Carolina team paced by Mills and outside linebackers Kevin Greene and Lamar Lathon rode its stingy defense all the way to the NFC Championship game. (The late Greene was the first Panther who had played more than one season in Charlotte to make the Pro Football Hall of Fame, in 2016). There the Panthers lost at Green Bay to quarterback Brett Favre, denying Mills his best chance at playing in a Super Bowl.

 

Mills would coach in a Super Bowl, however, in 2003, as a Panther assistant. That was also the year Mills was diagnosed with intestinal cancer, which was so severe that doctors told him he might only live for 3-4 months.

Mills told me once that when the doctor first gave him that death-sentence diagnosis he said: “Are you serious?” Then he started to cry.

Later, before the Super Bowl that season, he said during a press conference: “You have your good days and your bad days. I’m just glad I am having days, you know?”

Mills lived for 20 months after that diagnosis, courageously fighting cancer at every turn. He would have chemotherapy treatments during the early part of each week, and then coach for the rest of the week. His “Keep Pounding” speech came on Jan. 2, 2004, to the Panther team, after a walk-through practice the day before another home playoff game against Dallas. In a 10-minute speech, Mills described his fight against cancer to a rapt audience of players and fellow coaches — maybe 80 people in total. No recording of the speech is preserved, but the words “Keep Pounding” have become threaded into the team’s soul. Before each home game, the “Keep Pounding” drum is banged by a special guest, and the “Keep Pounding” chant echoes through Bank of America Stadium every Sunday.

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