Sam Mills — the 5-foot-9 linebacker who liked to say he was short, balding and couldn’t see very well — made it to the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday.
Mills joined the ultimate football team posthumously. He died of cancer in 2005, at age 45. He was inducted in Canton, Ohio, site of the hall of fame, along with seven other members of the Class of 2022. Jim Mora, Mills’ former head coach both in the USFL and with the New Orleans Saints, and Melanie Mills, Sam’s widow, presented Mills for enshrinement and unveiled his bust.
“So thank you for this honor, for believing in Sam, and for helping to keep his story alive,“ Melanie Mills said at the close of her acceptance speech on her late husband’s behalf at the ceremony Saturday afternoon. “Keep pounding, everyone. That’s what Sam would want you to do.”
As a star for the Carolina Panthers’ first three teams from 1995-97, Mills showed that an inside linebacker in his late 30s could still have Pro Bowl-level seasons. He was so impactful in those three seasons that the Panthers and then-owner Jerry Richardson commissioned a statue of Mills to sit outside the stadium. It was unveiled in 1998 and still looks out over Bank of America Stadium today.
As an assistant coach for the Panthers, Mills showed grace both on the sideline and then under the pressure of cancer. He was diagnosed in 2003 with an aggressive form of cancer. Doctors told him then he might only have 3-4 months to live.
Most notably, Mills gave the famous “Keep Pounding” speech on Jan. 2, 2004, the day before a home playoff game against Dallas. Mills told the players and coaches that not fighting had never been an option for him and shouldn’t be for them, either — to keep pounding no matter what happens. The Panthers crushed Dallas, 29-10, the next day, on their way to their first appearance in the Super Bowl.
The rest of the class of 2022 was tackle Tony Boselli, wide receiver Cliff Branch, safety LeRoy Butler, official Art McNally, defensive lineman Richard Seymour, coach Dick Vermeil and defensive lineman Bryant Young. Mills was elected on his 20th and final try as a “modern-era” player.
Panther fans have long considered Mills as one of their own, but he didn’t get to Charlotte until age 35 and didn’t play a game for the Panthers until age 36. Before that, he was an undrafted free-agent linebacker out of Montclair State in New Jersey. Cut by both the Cleveland Browns and then the CFL’s Toronto Argonauts, Mills got a job out of college making $13,600 a year as a woodworking and photography teacher at a New Jersey high school.
But he got one more chance at football, with the USFL, and made the most of it in the early 1980s, leading the Philadelphia Stars defense and transitioning to the NFL’s New Orleans Saints once Mora made the leap to Saints head coach in 1986.
Mora, who also was Peyton Manning’s head coach in Indianapolis, has long maintained that Mills was the best player he has ever coached.
At 5-foot-9, Mills was nicknamed “Field Mouse” due to his stature. He wore glasses off the field. But he was known for his explosive hits, his smarts and his durability. In 12 NFL seasons, he missed a total of 11 games due to injury.
“He would ask about your day, and he would listen, because he cared,” Melanie Mills said in her speech in Canton Saturday. “.... You could be a teammate, a coach, a ball boy, a security guard. He would make you feel seen. It’s no wonder Sam inspired so many people, or that the Panthers adopted his motto: ‘Keep Pounding.’”