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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.

“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.

Sam Mills’ last days

In 2005, when Mills was in his final days of life, he asked Morgan to come to his home so they could say their goodbyes. Mills had shepherded Morgan’s early years with the team — taking him bowling and mentoring a linebacker who was living outside of his Miami home for the first time. Like so many, Morgan loved Mills, and he has always remembered both that last conversation and his friendship with Mills.

“As a former player, he was an awesome coach,” Morgan said. “He understood what it was like. He let you make mistakes and then, in the meeting room, he would make corrections. He didn’t over-coach you. He was just so knowledgeable, but he was never a pain in the butt.”

Mills died on April 18, 2005, slightly more than 17 years ago. Morgan still keeps a photo of himself, his wife and Mills on Morgan’s wedding day on his desk at his office in Charlotte. “I like to look at that picture every day,” Morgan said, “to remind me of Sam.”

The four children Sam and Melanie Mills produced have grown up and gone onto their own lives. Sam Mills III followed in his father’s footsteps — he also played at Montclair State and was a longtime assistant coach for the Panthers. Former Panthers head coach Ron Rivera brought Mills with him when he took the head job with the Washington Commanders, where Mills III is now the defensive line coach.

The Mills family has waited many years for Saturday, and for Sam to get his gold jacket. As Mills III once told me about what this day would mean to Sam’s family when it happened: “I feel like with his career, going to a small school to begin with, then getting a couple tryouts and not making it, then catching on with the Philadelphia/Baltimore Stars, then the Saints, then Carolina — he’s always worked toward being included as a major piece of the puzzle in an organization. This would be kind of the final graduation. This would be, ‘Hey, you are part of the ultimate football family.’ ”

After starring for the Panthers’ first three teams and giving the squad the slogan that remains its heartbeat, Mills joins that ultimate football family Saturday.

What a moment this is for his own family — and for the Carolina Panthers fan base as a whole. The next time you’re in a tight spot in your own life, think of Sam Mills. And keep pounding.

©2022 The Charlotte Observer. Visit charlotteobserver.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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