Sam Mills died too soon.
Mills was 45 when he lost his battle with colon cancer in 2005. He was a 12-year-old NFL linebacker, and when he died, he was the linebacker coach for the Carolina Panthers.
Throughout his football career, Mills has been an inspiration. He was short, 5 feet 9 inches tall. He needed to get a chance in the NFL by going through the USFL first. He continued to coach despite cancer treatment and told the team to “keep hitting” ahead of the playoffs at the end of the 2003 season. After all, the Panthers played in their first Super Bowl later that postseason against the New England Patriots, and Mills’ mantra to “keep hitting” is: all around the Panther. Mills has a statue outside of Panther Stadium, a testament to his popularity and fortitude.
Mills was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame this year.
“It’s a shame he can’t be here, he can’t be here with his peers,” said Sam’s son Marcus Mills. Panther website after he toured the Hall of Fame. “But when you see it, you know it feels right. He is really here. He’s really here.”
Sam Mills was an unlikely NFL star
Mills has one of the most unlikely Hall of Fame stories. He was not drafted in 1981. He did not make his NFL debut until 1986.
Mills was overlooked because he was a short, average linebacker who played in Division II at Montclair State in New Jersey. After going undrafted, he was signed and cut by the Cleveland Browns in 1981. He was also cut by the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League.
Mills took a break from the USFL Philadelphia/Baltimore Stars and found an ally in coach Jim Mohr. Mills was a three-time all-USFL linebacker and two-time All-Star Champion. Mora convinced the Saints to sign Mills after the USFL closed. He became one of the greatest players in Saints history, winning four Pro Bowls in nine years.
“People always ask me, ‘Who is the best player you’ve ever coached?'” Mora said. according to a 2014 Montclair State University Journal article.. “And I always say, ‘Sam Mills.’ I’ve been lucky enough to coach a lot of players, but Sam Mills was number one on that list.”
Mora has also trained Peyton Manning, among others.
“I’m so happy for him and his family, I’m very excited and a little overwhelmed by this because I think it was overdue.” – Mora. told WDSU in New Orleans about induction into the Mills Hall of Fame.
Mills left a legacy wherever he played. Despite only playing three seasons with the Carolinas, it was there that he was best remembered.
Mills was loved in Carolina
Mills quickly became a Carolina fan favorite. In the team’s first win, he intercepted a pass with a shovel from New York Jets quarterback Bubby Brister and returned it for a touchdown. This gave the Panthers an edge and they would no longer fall behind.
Mills was a key part of the Panthers sophomore team that won the NFC championship before losing to the Green Bay Packers. In the 1996 season, at the age of 37, he was a professional bowler and first-team All-Pro player. He retired after the 1997 season.
Mills immediately joined the Panthers’ coaching staff upon his retirement. He was a linebacker coach when he was diagnosed with cancer. He was given three months to live. He was still coaching at the end of the 2003 season when he gave a speech that lives on in Panther lore.
“When I found out I had cancer, I had two choices: stop smoking or keep exercising,” Mills said. through the Hall of Fame. “I am a fighter. I continued to hit. You are fighters too. Keep hitting!”
The Panthers beat the drum before home games, a tradition that began in 2012.
Mills’ induction into the Hall of Fame on Saturday will be bittersweet. But it will be a great reminder of the odds he overcame to become the all-time great linebacker and franchise icon.