Class of 2022: Sam Mills - From undrafted to playmaker to the Pro Football Hall of Fame
By Barry Milner
Special to the Pro Football Hall of Fame
That was the mantra of SAM MILLS, an undersized, small-school, undrafted linebacker who not only found his way into starting lineups with three pro teams, but on Saturday entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Mills, who passed away from cancer in 2005 at age 45, was the heart and soul of the Philadelphia Stars of the USFL, then was with the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers. He was elected in his 20th and final year as a modern-day candidate.
Somehow, that seems fitting for someone who battled throughout his football career to prove himself.
“On the surface, the Sam Mills story is the story of a man who was told that he wasn't good enough to play college football,” said his widow, Melanie, in representing the family at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium. “He wasn't big enough to play professional football, and, at the age 27, he wasn't young enough for the NFL.
“And yet here we are today, celebrating him. That's because Sam worked harder than his peers. He took advantage of every opportunity.”
Those opportunities didn’t seem to be coming when he left Montclair (N.J.) State and was cut by the Cleveland Browns. But he got a look in the USFL with the Philadelphia Stars, and became one of the top players in that short-lived league.
“I get emotional talking about him and I always have, because the darn guy was special,” JIM MORA SR., who coached Mills in the USFL, told the Associated Press. “I loved the guy.”
When the USFL folded, Mills caught on in 1986 with New Orleans, where Mora had been hired as coach. By his second NFL season, Mills, at 5-foot-9 and 230 pounds, nicknamed Field Mouse, was in the Pro Bowl. A previously loss-plagued franchise had four winning seasons with Mills as a centerpiece.
When the Saints allowed him to test free agency, Mills found – at last – that he was a highly coveted player. Expansion Carolina signed him in 1995, and he had three strong seasons with the Panthers, including making the All-Pro Team in 1996. Carolina achieved the unprecedented in the NFC by making the conference title game in its second season.
Although the Panthers fell to Green Bay, Mills was outstanding, taking part in 14 tackles and grabbing an interception.
“He became a legendary athlete,” Melanie noted.
Mills already had established himself as a man of dignity and has a statue honoring him outside the Panthers’ stadium.
“Sam treated everyone with the respect and dignity they deserve,” Melanie added. “He visited his mother and siblings in New Jersey as often as he could. He kept his friends from high school and college, and he made new friends at his cancer treatments. He talked to everyone, and I mean everyone. He told dad jokes and loved childish pranks. I don't recall him ever saying no to an autograph, a picture or a handshake.”
Mills had become a coach with Carolina when he was diagnosed with intestinal cancer before the 2003 season. He continued coaching while undergoing treatments, and it was the night before the Panthers faced the Patriots in the Super Bowl that he shared his motto – again – with his team.
“When I found out I had cancer, there were two things I could do: quit or keep pounding,” Mills said then. “I’m a fighter. I kept pounding. You’re fighters, too. Keep pounding!”
The Panthers lost the game on a late field goal after an impressive comeback. But they had followed Mills’ advice.
“He was a father, a friend, a husband and a leader who always kept pounding, no matter what the odds were,” Melanie concluded. “So thank you for this honor, for believing in Sam and for helping to keep his story alive.
“Keep pounding, everyone. That’s what Sam would want you to do.”
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