SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- The Carolina Panthers will honor the
late Sam Mills by retiring his No. 51 at halftime of their Aug. 13
Mills died April 18 after a nearly two-year battle with cancer.
Mills, a five-time Pro Bowler with the New Orleans Saints and
the Panthers, played three seasons in Carolina. He joined the
coaching staff upon his retirement following the 1997 season. He is
the only player in Carolina's Hall of Honor and is the first
Panther to have his number retired.
There is also a statue of him outside of the Panthers' stadium.
"He's somebody that is a part of all of us, everybody that was
here with him from ownership on down to his teammates," coach John
Fox said Sunday. "He still has a presence here. He is not here
physically but spiritually he is. It is not like he is gone for
most everybody that had a close relationship with him."
The Panthers will also wear Mills' number on a decal on their
helmets, and he will be featured on the game ticket when Carolina
plays the Saints.
"Sam will always have a special place in the history of the
Panthers," team president Mark Richardson said. "His
contributions as a player and coach are unique in our team's short
history, but I expect they will be just as meaningful and
significant many years in the future. He was an extraordinary man
who is the model for all those who follow him with the Panthers."
An undersized linebacker out of Montclair (N.J.) State who
failed several times to catch on with NFL and Canadian Football
League teams, Mills gave professional football one last shot when
the USFL debuted in 1983. After starring in that league for the
Philadelphia Stars for three years, coach Jim Mora brought Mills
along to the Saints in 1986.
Mills spent nine NFL seasons with the Saints, then joined the
expansion Panthers. He finished his career with 1,319 tackles while
starting 173 of 181 games.
Mills was elected to Louisiana's Sports Hall of Fame. He is also
a member of New Jersey's Sports Hall of Fame.
Mills was diagnosed with cancer in 2003, hours before he showed
up at the stadium to coach the linebackers in their preseason
finale. It was a devastating blow to the team, which learned two
weeks earlier that linebacker Mark Fields also had cancer.
Carolina restructured its coaching duties to take some of the
responsibilities off Mills during his treatment.
Originally given just a few months to live, Mills didn't miss a
game that season. He scheduled treatment for off days, and he often
coached from the press box that year to preserve his strength.
He was an inspiration to the team as Carolina went on to the
Super Bowl. Players wore his No. 51, along with Fields' 58, under
their jerseys that season, and Mills gave an emotional pregame
speech during their playoff run.
He flew to Houston on the Thursday before the Super Bowl, one
day after a round of chemotherapy, and joined Fields for a news
conference. Sweating and holding on to the podium for balance, he
said, "You have your good days and your bad days. I am just glad I
am having days, you know?"