'He looked like he belonged -- and he did' - How underdog Sam Mills became a Hall of Famer

"The first guy I thought of to be the face of the franchise and set the tone for what I wanted our team to be like and look like was Sam,'' former Carolina Panthers coach Dom Capers, the first coach for the franchise, said of Sam Mills. George Gojkovich/Getty Images


That was Sam Mills III's initial reaction when asked if his dad, the late Sam Mills, would have chosen the New Orleans Saints or Carolina Panthers if the Pro Football Hall of Fame required him to be enshrined with one team in August.

"Man, that's tough,'' said Mills III, the defensive line coach for the Washington Commanders. "You can make an argument for the Saints because ... you're part of the wave that was changing the history and tradition of New Orleans, which had been traditionally bad.

"Then you go to Carolina and say you helped build this."

Similar debates have raged across sports. But Mills' case is unique, even among legends.

The dominant inside linebacker overcame long odds to make it to the NFL, then reached iconic status by helping shape the legacies of rival franchises before his death in 2005 at age 45 due to intestinal cancer.

Mills is one of six players in the Saints' Ring of Honor after quarterbacking their defense from 1986 to 1994.

The Panthers erected a statue of Mills outside Bank of America Stadium after he spent three seasons there as a player in the franchise's early days. That life-sized statue stands 5 feet, 9 inches -- which only furthers Mills' legacy as one of the NFL's all-time great underdogs.

His epic "Keep Pounding" speech during their run to Super Bowl XXXVIII remains the team's mantra.

Mills, who coached with the Panthers for seven seasons also, remained in New Jersey and went to Montclair State when major colleges didn't recruit him. Then he went undrafted in 1981 and was eventually cut by both the Cleveland Browns and the Canadian Football League's Toronto Argonauts. Mills spent a year teaching high school photography back in his home state before getting a chance with the USFL's Philadelphia/Baltimore Stars and establishing himself as one of the league's best players.

Former running backs coach Jim Skipper, who joined Mills with the Stars, Saints and Panthers, suggested his rags-to-riches path is even more remarkable than Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner's story, which recently inspired a Hollywood movie.

"To me, Sam had more odds,'' Skipper said. "At least Kurt Warner has the size and everything."

'Couldn't find a bigger heart'

Nicknamed the "Field Mouse," Mills was named All-USFL in each of the league's three seasons. The Stars made the championship game every year, winning two titles. Author Jeff Pearlman, who wrote a book on the league's history, ranked Mills as the USFL's best overall player -- in part because of the "reverential tones" many teammates and opponents used to describe him.

However, Mills had to prove himself all over again when he followed coach Jim Mora and assistants like Vic Fangio, Dom Capers and Skipper from the Stars to New Orleans in 1986. Even with their blessing, Mills wasn't signed until a week into training camp. And former Saints quarterback Bobby Hebert said some teammates were "mocking" the signing at first.

"Look at Mora bringing in one of his boys from the USFL," Hebert mimicked.

Even Mora and Fangio admitted they weren't sure how well Mills would perform when he stepped into his first 9-on-7 run drill back in those days of full-contact practices.

"I'll remember this day forever," Mora said. "Sam gets in the huddle, and I'm telling ya, he looks short to me standing next to these guys. I'm not gonna lie. And I can imagine what some of them were thinking. And I'm standing there watching and saying to myself, 'C'mon Sam, you can do it buddy.'

"Sam steps up and stuffs the guard -- just stuffs him -- and makes the tackle. Well he doesn't only do it this one time, he does it about four or five times. And by the time that drill was over, I know this for a fact, all the players said, 'Holy s---.'

"And this is the truth, after that, for the next nine years I coached him, he never looked short in that huddle again. He looked like he belonged -- and he did."

Fangio said he was standing about 10 yards away from Mora when it happened, "and we made eye contact and just smiled at each other."

"It was embarrassing," Hebert recalled. "We'd do 12 plays, and it was like minus-14 yards."

Mills made a similar impression on opponents. Hebert said he'll never forget the time Hall of Fame running back Eric Dickerson stayed behind in New Orleans after a game because he was friends with Saints linebacker Rickey Jackson. And Dickerson came to the practice facility because he wanted to "see this little guy" who delivered one of the hardest hits he'd ever taken.

So it went for the next decade-plus. Mills was named to four Pro Bowls and earned second-team All-Pro honors twice with the Saints. Then he was named first-team All-Pro with the Panthers at age 37 in 1996 and went to a fifth Pro Bowl -- at the time, the oldest player ever invited.

Beloved as much for his leadership as performance, Mills was the signal-caller for the legendary "Dome Patrol" linebacker corps in New Orleans that included fellow Hall of Famer Jackson, Pat Swilling and Vaughan Johnson. He helped lead the Saints to the first four playoff appearances in franchise history. He was also recognized multiple times for his community efforts.

"You couldn't find a bigger heart in the NFL," Hebert said.

"He was hungry. He was a guy that wasn't supposed to make it," Jackson said. "And when he got his opportunity, he took full advantage of it."

Face of a new franchise

Capers had a plan when he was named coach of the expansion Panthers in 1995 -- and it began with Mills.

"The first guy I thought of to be the face of the franchise and set the tone for what I wanted our team to be like and look like was Sam,'' Capers said. "He had all the qualities you look for in a football player. And on top of that, he was even a better person and a better leader.

"I just trusted him so much.''

Capers had spent the previous three seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers. But Fangio, who coached Mills for all eight seasons in New Orleans before following Capers to Carolina, said he assured him Mills "had a lot of good football left."

And, luckily for the Panthers, Mills was unhappy with the Saints' lack of urgency in offering him a new deal. When they only offered to match Carolina's two-year, $2.8 million deal, he chose the upstart team.

For the next three seasons, Mills was the tone-setter. Whenever Capers sensed issues, Mills would handle them. His locker, in the corner nearest the entrance to the equipment room, became like an office where he would hold court and unite the roster.

It also was a place he would answer reporter questions for as long as they kept asking.

"We were always sitting outside waiting for him so we could leave, and my mother would be like, 'Do you have to always be the last to leave the locker room every time?''' Mills III said with a laugh.

The waiting didn't end there.

"We would go out to eat after games, and I remember how hard it was to get through dinner because so many people would come up to the table,'' he said. "So I remember the generosity that he gave to the city and that they gave back.''

Fittingly, Mills helped the Panthers secure their first victory. They were 0-5 and trailed the New York Jets 12-6 with 20 seconds left in the first half. Quarterback Bubby Brister attempted a shovel pass, but the blitzing Mills intercepted it and rambled 36 yards for the touchdown to ignite a 26-15 win.

"You would have thought we'd won the Super Bowl,'' Capers said. "From that point on, we became a very competitive team, and Sam was the reason.''

The Panthers won seven of their final 11 games to post the best record (7-9) ever by an expansion team. They followed with a 12-4 record and trip to the NFC Championship in 1996.

In 1997, after falling a single tackle shy of 100 for the second time in eight seasons, Mills retired.

The next year, his statue went up outside the stadium. No Panthers player has received that honor since.

"To me, that was a validation," Mills III said. "That's why the Hall of Fame is the cream on top. It's [like], 'OK, now you're validated throughout the entire football world.'''

Legacy lives on

After the Panthers didn't flash "Keep Pounding" on the stadium video board during their 2021 opener, an uproar followed. A fan club tweeted a plea to owner David Tepper begging him "don't take that away from us.''

The next home game, it was back.

Even for fans who never saw Mills play, the chant is a reminder of the impact he had on the 2003 team that lost the Super Bowl to the New England Patriots on a last-second field goal. Mills, then coaching linebackers under coach John Fox, had been diagnosed with cancer that season.

There were times he was too weak to come to the stadium. But that didn't stop him during their magical playoff run, where Mills wanted to speak to the team 24 hours prior.

"When I found out I had cancer, there were two things I could do: Quit or keep pounding," Mills said that day. "I'm a fighter. I kept pounding. You're fighters too. Keep pounding!''

"This is a reminder Sam's getting inducted not just because of the player he was, but the person he was,'' Fox said.

It almost seems fitting that Mills didn't get voted into the Hall of Fame until his 20th and final year of eligibility.

Mills III compares "Keep Pounding'' to "Who Dat'' in New Orleans because it goes to the very fabric of the organization. He can only imagine that his dad's acceptance speech would have embodied that.

"'Keep Pounding' was, 'Hey, you're cut from the Browns. Hey, you're cut from the Canadian Football League,'" Mills III said. "Keep pounding was really his career before cancer ever came into the picture."