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|Date of birth:||June 3, 1959|
|Place of birth:||Neptune City, New Jersey|
|Date of death:||April 18, 2005(aged 45)|
|Place of death:||Charlotte, North Carolina|
|Height:||5 ft 9 in (1.75 m)|
|Weight:||232 lb (105 kg)|
|Career highlights and awards|
|Career NFL statistics|
Samuel Davis Mills Jr. (June 3, 1959 – April 18, 2005) was an American football linebacker who played twelve seasons in the National Football League (NFL) for the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers.
Sam Mills was born in Neptune City, New Jersey. While growing up in Long Branch, New Jersey, he loved to tag along with his older brother and play pickup football games with the bigger boys. Mills attended high school at Long Branch High School, where he was a standout football player and wrestler. In 1976 and 1977, Mills won District Championships at Long Branch as a wrestler. Long Branch High School honors him to this day by hanging his high school jersey and his NFL jersey in the school gym. Although considered a great athlete in high school, Mills' 5'9" frame did not interest college scouts.
Montclair State University
Mills attended college at Montclair State College (now known as Montclair State University) and made the football squad as a walk-on. As of today, Mills is the all-time leader in career tackles at Montclair State with 501, tackles in a season (142) and tackles in a game (22). Mills played for Montclair State from 1977–1980. He was a three-time NJAC First Team All-Star and was named the New Jersey Collegiate Writers Defensive Player of the Year for three straight seasons (1978–1980).
Fred Hill, who coached Mills at Montclair State, said that many pro scouts loved his tape, but when they heard he was only 5'9", they lost interest. Just like after high school, Mills' lack of height held him back. After college, his Pop Warner Football coach Thomas Bevacqui Jr. was able to get Mills invited to the Cleveland Browns training camp after meeting with Browns coach Sam Rutigliano. Bevacqui told Rutigliano that Mills was the best linebacker that he had ever seen play the game. While Rutigliano admired Mills, he didn't think he had the size to play in the NFL and cut him. He then tried out with the Canadian Football League's Toronto Argonauts but did not make the team.
Mills found a job teaching photography and assisting the football coach at East Orange (N.J.) High School. It was at this time, Mills tried out and made the Philadelphia Stars of the USFL's roster. Mills played for the Stars for three years. During that time (wearing #54), he became known around the league for both his tenacity on the field and his leadership off it. His speed, surprising for a man of his size, earned him the nickname "Field Mouse." Mills led the Stars to two USFL championships, was named to three All-USFL teams and is a member of the USFL’s All-Time Team. He has been described as arguably the best defensive player (along with Reggie White) in the short history of the league.
New Orleans Saints
After the Stars won the 1985 USFL title, their head coach Jim Mora was signed on to coach the New Orleans Saints, and Mills followed his mentor. During his tenure with the Saints, starting in 1986, Mills was an anchor of the defense. He was a member of the vaunted "Dome Patrol," the stellar linebacking corps that led a ferocious Saints defense in the early 1990s. Mills earned four Pro Bowl appearances with the Saints in 1987, 1988, 1991, and 1992. Mora, who coached 15 seasons in the NFL, called Mills "The best player I ever coached."
Mills became a free agent at the end of the 1994 NFL season. The expansion Carolina Panthers offered him a two-year, $2.8 million deal. While New Orleans matched the offer, Mills was displeased that the Saints didn't make an offer until the Panthers forced their hand, and opted to sign with the Panthers.
Mills became a veteran leader for the young team, the only player to start every game during the Panthers' first three seasons. In a 1995 game against the New York Jets, Mills stepped in front of a Bubby Brister shovel pass and took it back 36 yards for a touchdown, sealing the Panthers' first win in franchise history. His career rebirth gave him a fifth Pro Bowl appearance in 1996 at the age of 37. Mills holds the NFL record for the oldest player to return a fumble for a touchdown (37 years, 174 days).
Mills played 12 seasons in the NFL and recorded 1,319 tackles, 20.5 sacks, 11 interceptions and four touchdowns while starting 173 of 181 games. Mills was named to the NFL All-Pro team three times, in 1991, 1992, and 1996. He was elected to the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame (2001), the Sports Hall of Fame of New Jersey (2003) and the New Orleans Saints Hall of Fame (1998). After retiring from play, Mills was inducted into the Carolina Panthers Hall of Honor. He became a defensive coaching assistant for the Panthers in 1998, before being promoted to linebackers coach in 1999. In August 2003, however, Mills was diagnosed with intestinal cancer. Though he was told he had only a few months to live, he underwent chemotherapy and radiation and continued to coach. He was an inspirational force in the Panthers’ post-season run to Super Bowl XXXVIII. His plea to "keep pounding" in an emotional speech before the Panthers' victory over the Dallas Cowboys later became the name of a fund to sponsor cancer research programs and an official team slogan. He continued to coach the team during the entire 2004 season, but after battling with cancer for almost two years, Mills died at his home in Charlotte, North Carolina on the morning of April 18, 2005.
Mills' jersey number 51 was retired by the Panthers at the start of the 2005 NFL season, making it the first number the franchise retired. Mills was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2009, with his son Sam Mills III accepting the award on his father's behalf. Sam Mills III currently holds the position of Quality Control – Defense coach for the Carolina Panthers.
The speech inspired Nike, when awarded the contract for NFL jerseys starting in the 2012 NFL season, to feature "Keep Pounding" sewn on the inside collars of Panthers jerseys for the 2012 NFL season, in honor of the elder Mills. Also, before the start of every home game, an honorary drummer will pound the big drum. Though Carolina was not the designated home team for Super Bowl 50, the tradition remained a part of the game, with the drummer being National Basketball Association star, and Panthers fan, Stephen Curry.
- Paul Domowitch, "Stars' Mills small but mighty", Philadelphia Daily News, July 17, 2014.
- "Obituaries in the News". Kentucky New Era. Associated Press. April 19, 2005. Retrieved March 4, 2016.
- "Panthers retire Mills' jersey at halftime". ESPN. August 13, 2005. Retrieved November 10, 2015.
- Official statement from team Twitter account
- "Stephen Curry to serve as Panthers' drummer for SB50". NFL.com. Retrieved 2016-02-07.