At just 5-foot-9, college coaches doubted Sam Mills out of high school. The same thing happened in college. Each time, however, Mills proved the doubters wrong. He eventually appeared in five Pro Bowls with the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers. After retiring in 1998, Mills stayed in the game as a coach for the Panthers and coached until his untimely death in 2005 at age 45.
Sam Mills excels in college
After making the Division III Montclair State football team as a walk-on, Sam Mills proved he belonged, becoming the school’s all-time leader in tackles for a career, season, and game. In 1980, he made the Kodak All-American team.
Despite those accolades, no NFL teams showed any interest. After failing to make the Cleveland Browns and then Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League, he started teaching photography and assisting the football coach at East Orange (N.J.) High School.
Through contacts he had made with the Browns, he received an offer to attend training camp for the Philadelphia Stars of the newly formed USFL. Mills made believers of the Stars and the rest of the USFL for the next three years, making three All-USFL teams and earning a pair of USFL titles.
Sam Mills becomes Pro Bowler with Saints and Panthers
In 1985, when Stars head coach Jim Mora signed with the New Orleans Saints, Sam Mills followed him. He had taken a circuitous route to the NFL, but he was about to make an impact for the next dozen years.
In his second season in 1987, he made his first Pro Bowl. He repeated the following year. Mills earned two more Pro Bowl appearances in 1991 and 1992, the latter, the most productive statistical year of his career, finishing with 130 tackles, three sacks, four forced fumbles, and an interception.
After the 1994 season, Mills became a free agent. Instead of re-signing with the Saints, he opted to join the expansion Carolina Panthers. Mills was the natural leader of the young Panthers’ defense and led the team in tackles that first year.
In 1996, Sam Mills replicated his efforts of the year before and was a big part of the defense that ranked second in the NFL and helped earn a berth in the NFC title game. He received Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors. He retired after the 1997 season.
Tragically loses fight with cancer
Sam Mills never left football after retiring. He became a defensive assistant for the Panthers in 1998. A year later, he was promoted to linebackers coach.
During training camp in 2003, Mills was diagnosed with intestinal cancer. For the next two years, he continued to coach the Panthers linebackers while battling the disease, which included undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatments. On April 18, 2005, Mills died at age 45.
The Panthers retired Sam Mills’ No. 51 at the start of the 2005 season, the first number retired in franchise history. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2009 with this son Sam Mills III accepting the honor on his father’s behalf. In addition, he is also in the New Orleans Saints Hall of Fame and the Carolina Panthers Hall of Honor.
While Sam Mills is no longer alive, his legacy lives on through his famous words “Keep Pounding,” which he uttered in the 2003 playoffs while battling cancer. That phrase became the name of a fund to sponsor cancer research programs and has raised more than $3 million and is also the Panthers official team slogan.
All stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference.