Why Sam Mills belongs in the Hall of Fame

Why Sam Mills belongs in the Hall of Fame
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As a high school star, Sam Mills was told he was too small to make it in the NFL, but he defied the naysayers making it to five Pro Bowls and being named a first team All-Pro.

Yet it is not his playing career that is the most outstanding and inspiring aspect of his life.

Having been told he had intestinal cancer, the former New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers linebacker continued coaching as he battled the devastating disease.

His fortitude inspired the Panthers’ run to Super Bowl 38, marked by his now fabled ‘Keep Pounding’ speech ahead of the 2003 season divisional round win over the Dallas Cowboys.

And the emotional plea for the Panthers not to give up, just as he had not, led to the phrase remaining the franchise’s motto to this day.

Now, having been named a semi-finalist in this year’s Pro Football Hall of Fame nominees, here is why he should be inducted.

You’re too small

In a league, and game, obsessed with size, the 5ft 9in Mills was dismissed coming out of high school as too small and, despite winning leading Long Beach High School to two district championships in 1976 and 77, suitors were not clambering for his signature.

But he was not going to be put off.

As a walk-on at Montclaire State College, he set records for most all-time tackles – making 501 in his time there, a record he still holds – tackles in a season (142) and tackles in a game (22).

In his three seasons, he was a three-time New Jersey Athletic Conference first team all star and named the New Jersey Collegiate Writers Defensive Player of the Year for three straight years.

And still, no professional team was interested in him. Even the Canadian Football League felt he was too small to ever make it.

Sam Mills playing for the New Orleans Saints
Linebacker Sam Mills (Credit: New Orleans Saints)

The Stars Aligned

Having been rejected, Mills turned to teaching photography to subsidise his passion, assisting the coach of the East Orange High School football team in New Jersey.

But in 1983, everything changed for him.

The advent of the new USFL football league saw the door opened for him, and Mills grabbed at the opportunity with both hands.

Then 24, he made the roster of the new Philadelphia Stars, playing for them throughout the three years the league remained in business.

And in that time, Mills earned the nickname ‘Field Mouse’, as he the Stars to two USFL championships and was named to all three All-USFL teams.

He is also a member of the USFL All-Time team.

It was during his time at the Stars that he impressed coach Jim Mora, who took him with him to the Saints when the USFL shut down.

Mora, who spent 15 years as a coach in the NFL, was so enamoured with Mills, he has described him as the best player he ever coached.

In his subsequent NL career, he recorded 1,319 tackles, 20.5 sacks, 11 interceptions and scored one touchdown.

Keep Pounding wall at Carolina Panthers stadium
Sam Mills Keep Pounding tribute (Credit: Carolina Panthers)

Hall of Fame debate

Mills may never have had the most illustrious of careers, he may never have won a Super Bowl, but the Hall of Fame should be about more than just performances and stats.

The linebacker overcame the odds to make it in the NFL and, in a league where many do not last long, he forged himself a very respectable career.

But his most inspirational performance of them all came after his playing days had finished.

Told he had just months to live in August 2003, Mills declared he had two choices, give up or keep pounding.

And he chose the second, continuing to coach through chemotherapy and radiation treatment and inspiring the Panthers to the Super Bowl.

Panthers owner Dave Tepper once told Steve Smith Sr he was the best player in the franchise’s history.

But the wide receiver and now-NFL Network analyst corrected him, responding: “Second-best player. Sam Mills is the first.”

The high-esteem with which Mills is held and the inspiration he was throughout his most challenging days, is why he deserves to enter the Hall of Fame in the league’s Centennial class.

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