No. 51 sticker on Panthers' helmet means a lot to Julius Peppers

The Panthers are honoring Sam Mills with a No. 51 helmet sticker Thursday. Melissa Melvin-Rodriguez/Carolina Panthers

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers was on the practice field on a cold, overcast day in January of 2004, when coach John Fox gathered players around to hear from linebackers coach Sam Mills.

The words that followed he’ll never forget.

“I remember it pretty well when he said the doctors told me that I had this cancer that there was two things I could do: I could quit or I could keep pounding," Peppers said in a video trailer for the NFL Network’s “A Football Life" on Mills, which will air on Friday.

“That’s when that thing was born. The ‘Keep Pounding’ mantra was born on that day."

Mills, who as a 5-foot-9 middle linebacker for the Panthers during their first three seasons (1995-97), looked a lot different on the field than the 6-foot-7, 295-pound Peppers.

But the five-time Pro Bowl selection was bigger than life on that day in 2004 as he shared how doctors diagnosed him with intestinal cancer hours before he showed up to coach in the 2003 preseason finale, and that he had only three months to live.

It was a message that carried the Panthers through their run to Super Bowl XXXVIII, where they lost on a last-second field goal to the New England Patriots.

Mills' message remains a part of the team’s culture, as every jersey has “Keep Pounding" stitched on the inside of the collar.

On Thursday night, when the Panthers face the Philadelphia Eagles, the No. 51 that Mills wore will be visible to the rest of the NFL world in the form of a sticker on the back of each helmet.

The Panthers are calling this their “Keep Pounding" game.

Mills’ number won’t get as much attention from viewers as the all-blue color rush uniforms, but the NFL Network show made players unfamiliar with the story aware of its importance.

“We’ve got history, and Sam Mills was such an integral part of this history, the development of this football team, the development of this culture here, the reason behind ‘Keep Pounding,’" Rivera said on Wednesday.

“For us to introduce it to our players, especially our new players, and for them to get the, ‘OK, I understand why the Keep Pounding is stitched into everybody’s collar’ so every time they see it, it means something, it has relevance now."

Peppers, 37, is the only active member of the roster who really knew Mills, the only Carolina player with a statue outside Bank of America Stadium. Outside linebacker Thomas Davis arrived as a first-round pick just after Mills passed away on April 18, 2005.

Rivera said it was “neat" to see Peppers’ reaction when the team watched the documentary last week.

“You could see -- I’m going to use a big word -- a melancholy look in his eyes about having been around Sam," Rivera said. “It was very neat to watch. He made an impact. I think they hit a home run with this one and is most certainly worth watching."