Sam Mills lives on in 'keep pounding'

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- "When I found out I had cancer, there were two things I could do -- quit or keep pounding. I’m a fighter. I kept pounding. You’re fighters, too. Keep pounding!"

Those were the words Sam Mills said to the Carolina Panthers the night before a first-round home playoff game against the Dallas Cowboys following the 2003 regular season.

The former Carolina linebacker had been diagnosed with intestinal cancer hours before showing up to coach the linebackers for the 2003 preseason finale. Given only a couple of months to live, he didn't miss a game that season.

On the Thursday before the Super Bowl, after yet another round of chemotherapy, Mills flew to Houston to be with the team. At a news conference with linebacker Mark Fields, who was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease earlier in training camp, you could tell he was weak.

Sweating and holding onto the podium to support his 5-foot-9 frame, Mills said, "You have your good days and your bad days. I am just glad I am having days, you know?''

Mills passed away in 2005 at the age of 45, but his "Keep Pounding'' message lives on. The words are inscribed in the weight room at Bank of America Stadium, and in large letters by the team meeting rooms.

They are on the inside collar of every jersey.

And on Sunday, before the Panthers face the San Francisco 49ers in their first playoff game since 2008, two of Mills' children will beat the "Keep Pounding'' drum the team uses to pump up the crowd before home games.

It's fitting.

In many ways, the current Carolina (12-4) team is like the 1996 team that Mills led to a 12-4 regular season record and the NFC Championship. In many ways, this team is full of players like Mills -- tough, smart, strong-willed and willing to play every snap like it might be the last.

Most of the current players never met Mills, but they've heard enough stories about him through assistant coaches and team owner Jerry Richardson to understand what he represented.

Richardson doesn't hesitate to say Mills was his favorite Carolina player ever. To this day, Mills is the only player to have a statue outside the stadium in the team's Hall of Honor.

"Keep pounding, for some of the younger guys, they have been explained that it is words that mean something,'' said wide receiver Steve Smith, a 13-year veteran who knew Mills personally. "But for players that were around, it's life. It's adversity. Ultimately, Sam went through ultimate adversity and the last thing that was on his mind was himself.

"So for me, it's more than just words. For me, it's always meant a lot.''

Smith can remember the day Mills died better than most. That's because he got the call from the team chaplain to tell him of Mills' death at the same time he was trying to call to say his first child had been born.

"Sam was one of those guys ... he was special,'' said Smith, who will play in Sunday's game after battling back from a sprained left knee that sidelined him for the regular-season finale. "I'm not exaggerating or making it more than it is. He exuded everything you would want to be.''

Sam Mills III, an assistant defensive line coach for the Panthers, is another constant reminder of his dad. Last season, when the team was struggling at 1-4, he explained what "Keep Pounding'' was about to those that thought it was just an expression.

"How I explain it to them is no matter what we do, no matter what part of the game or life we're in, we don't give up,'' Mills III said. "We keep fighting and keep fighting, and see what happens at the end.''

The Panthers lost 19-14 to the Cowboys after Mills' son spoke, and eventually fell to 2-8. But they didn't give up and won five of their last six to set the stage for this season.

"It gave me chills when I heard that speech,'' cornerback Captain Munnerlyn recalled.

Munnerlyn (5-8) is a lot like Mills, undersized and an overachiever. But few who have come through the NFL overachieved like Mills.

He went to little-known Montclair State as a walk-on and became the team's all-time leading tackler with 501. After failing in tryouts with the Cleveland Browns and Toronto of the Canadian Football League, he took a job teaching photography at a high school in New Jersey.

He finally got back on the field with the USFL's Philadelphia Stars, where he earned the nickname "Field Mouse.'' When Stars coach Jim Mora was hired by the New Orleans Saints, he took the linebacker he today calls the "best player I ever coached'' with him.

Mills made the Pro Bowl four times with the Saints, then was lured to Carolina by former Saints assistant coach Dom Capers, who had been hired from Pittsburgh after the 1994 season to build the expansion team.

Mills quickly became the face of the team.

And in 1996, at the age of 37, he was selected to his fifth Pro Bowl.

This doesn't have anything to do with the matchups on Sunday. It doesn't have anything to do with how the Panthers will try to shut down 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick like they did in a 10-9 victory at Candlestick Park on Nov. 10.

It has nothing to do with how Carolina quarterback Cam Newton handles his first playoff game.

And yet it has everything to do with this game.

This Carolina team epitomizes Mills' spirit. Look at outside linebacker Thomas Davis. He had three season-ending ACL surgeries on his right knee. No NFL player had come back from that before.

Davis is having one of the best seasons of his career.

"It definitely means a lot to this team,'' Davis said of Mills' mantra. "We understand the history of this organization, what [Mills and Fields] meant to this team. It's something we're constantly reminded of.''

That Rivera and the organization chose to remind us once again on Sunday is fitting.

"It just kind of reminds me of that's the way he played the game,'' Mills III said. "He played it trying to be smart, hard-nosed and caring about his teammates. That's carried on throughout our organization.''