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100 Things Panthers Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die
By Scott Fowler
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2013 Scott Fowler
All rights reserved.
Sam Mills and "Keep Pounding"
When you think of the best the Carolina Panthers have been able to offer their fans in their first two decades of existence, one man and one motto come to mind first.
The man is Sam Mills.
The motto is "Keep Pounding" — a phrase Mills first used in 2004 in a speech to the team before a big home playoff win against Dallas. "Keep Pounding" has been widely adopted as the team's theme. The words are now sewn inside the collar in every one of the Panthers' jerseys.
Mills was many things to the Panthers: first, a Pro Bowl linebacker, who will always be the first player ever honored with his own statue outside of the team's home stadium. Then a valued assistant coach. Then a cancer victim who fought the disease valiantly, continuing to coach even as the disease wracked his body. And always a gentleman — a symbol of dignity and class who every Panthers player would do well to emulate. His No. 51 is the only Panthers jersey to have ever been retired.
Mills died of colon cancer in 2005, at age 45. But by then he had already established a legacy with the Panthers, even though he didn't get to Charlotte until the final decade of his life.
Mills and the Panthers first linked up in early 1995. Mills was 35, a time by which most NFL players have already been forced into retirement. But he had been the ultimate late bloomer, and Panthers head coach Dom Capers and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio wanted Mills to anchor their 3-4 defense at inside linebacker.
Mills didn't make the NFL at all until he was 27 years old. The first of his parents' 11 children to earn a college degree, he was a good player at Division III Montclair State in New Jersey — but not good enough to get drafted. With no pro prospects, his first job out of college was as a woodworking and photography teacher at a New Jersey high school. He made $13,600 a year.
But that didn't last long, because Mills made the old USFL at an open tryout in 1982 and became a standout in that short-lived league for the Philadelphia/Baltimore Stars. His prowess there earned him a spot with the New Orleans Saints (Jim Mora coached both teams), where Mills was a great linebacker for many years on a lot of average Saints teams.
Mills was only 5'9". Panthers coach Ron Rivera was also an NFL linebacker — although not as renowned as Mills — in Chicago, and respected Mills' work from afar. "They called him the field general," said Rivera, who also knew of the constant teasing Mills endured for his lack of height. "That or the field mouse."
But Mills was incredibly good at getting to the right place on the field. He was like a Peyton Manning on defense, diagnosing plays before they were ever run. And man, could he ever hit. Hall of Fame linebacker Lawrence Taylor once said of Mills, "Just once, I'd like to get a hit like he does. It has to be better than sex."
Mills liked to make fun of himself. He wore gold-rimmed glasses everywhere except on the field. He had a squat build and had lost almost all of his hair by the time he got to Charlotte. He sometimes referred to himself as a player who was "short, balding, and can't see very well."
Mills was an unrestricted free agent when the Panthers came into existence, in 1995. Carolina offered him a two-year, $2.8 million contract. New Orleans then matched the offer, but Mills was disappointed that it took Carolina's money to make the Saints ante up. As he told me once in an interview, "After all that I'd done playing in New Orleans, it kind of bothered me that they were only going to pay me the money because they had to pay it and not because they wanted to pay it. To me, it's almost like inviting somebody to your party or to some special event because your mom says you've got to invite them. If I found out I was invited to an event because somebody forced you to invite me, I'd rather not be invited at all."
So Mills took Carolina's offer instead. He and his wife, Melanie, brought their three children to Charlotte (they would soon have a fourth). Sam III was the oldest and would eventually become a Panthers assistant coach himself, although back then he was a ball boy when the team went to their first training camp.
Mills immediately became the leader of a defense that had six starters over 30 and was nicknamed the "Grumpy Old Men." Teammates loved to tease Mills about his age — "What was it like to play with leather helmets?" wide receiver Willie Green would sometimes ask him — but they all respected his work ethic and his talent. It was Mills' interception of a shovel pass that keyed Carolina's first-ever win, in 1995.
His best season came in 1996, when the Panthers — in only their second year as a franchise — made a stunning run to the NFC Championship Game before losing to Green Bay. Mills had a late interception in Carolina's 26–17 home playoff win against Dallas that season that clinched the Panthers' first-ever playoff victory over a Cowboys team that included future Hall of Famers Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin, and Deion Sanders.
Since I have covered the Panthers from the beginning, I had the great fortune to know Mills fairly well. In our last extensive interview — a three-hour lunch at a Charlotte restaurant in 2004 — I asked him what his favorite game was in all his years as a player.
"The first Dallas playoff game," he said. "That was a real big moment. We knocked off the big kids on the block."
A five-time Pro Bowler, Mills retired after the 1997 season. Simply for his playing career with the Panthers, owner Jerry Richardson made Mills the first former Panthers player (and as of early 2013 still the only player) in the team's Hall of Honor. That led to the bronze statue of Mills being erected outside the stadium.
Mills was cut by the first two teams he tried out for in the pros — the NFL's Cleveland Browns and the Canadian Football League's Toronto Argonauts. When first told of his impending Hall of Honor induction in 1998, he said: "You're talking about a guy who was kicked out of one stadium in Cleveland, kicked out of another in Toronto, and now is going to be a permanent part of one right here in Charlotte. That's very special to me."
Mills then joined the Panthers as an assistant coach in 1999, becoming the linebackers coach and guiding players such as Dan Morgan and Will Witherspoon to fine seasons. But in August 2003 he was diagnosed with colon cancer. Doctors privately told him they weren't sure he would live to the new year.
That was the beginning of the Panthers' Super Bowl season, and Mills kept pounding at his job all the way through it. In a normal game week, he would have seven hours of chemotherapy on Monday, seven more on Tuesday, and then three more on Wednesday. His mind and body would ache. His black skin gradually lightened by several shades due to the chemicals. But he would go back to work Thursday, coach through the game on Sunday, and then start chemo all over again on Monday.
The Panthers players on that team knew of Mills' struggle with cancer, as well as the battle fought by linebacker Mark Fields. Fields missed that season with a more treatable form of cancer and later returned to play for one more season; he is still alive today.
But the players seemed almost afraid to ask Mills about the particulars of his disease, and while he didn't mind talking to them about it he also didn't go around volunteering about the daily details of his life. Then on January 2, 2004, John Fox, the team's head coach at the time, asked Mills to address the Panthers the night before the Dallas playoff game in a hotel meeting room.
In a calm, measured voice, Mills told the players about his cancer. He told them that they had to keep pounding — not just in football, but in life. That when things got tough, they had to remember to "Keep Pounding, keep pounding, keep pounding." The speech lasted no longer than 10 minutes, but it was so unforgettable that part of it is now plastered on the walls of the Panthers' weight room.
Steve Smith was one of the players in that room.
"His speech was so impactful to me," Smith told me in 2012. "Even nine years later, I remember it. You had a guy who had every opportunity to take pity on himself, to be like 'I don't feel like dealing with this.' And he opened up. And he made it about something else. Something bigger."
The Panthers won that home playoff game, 29–10, over Dallas — so Mills had a major impact on two different playoff victories over the Cowboys in Charlotte. He coached the rest of that season and the next as well, but passed away in April 2005.
Since Mills III still coaches for the Panthers — most of the rest of the family lives in the New Jersey area — he still hears lots of stories about his father.
"Fans will sometimes tell me their stories of meeting him," Mills III told me once. "A lot of the stories revolve around something like: 'Hey, one day I was shopping at T.J. Maxx and I ran into your dad. He sat there and talked to me about football for 20 minutes.'
"It's funny," Mills III continued. "I try to teach our young guys that they don't understand what it's like to be a fan. Sometimes your younger guys look at something like that almost like a nuisance. They need to take a step back and understand, you're that person's idol half the time. You taking five minutes out of your day just to chitchat — even if you're just talking about buying a belt — it can mean so much to them."
Smith has long kept Mills in his heart, too — and probably no other Panther has better personified the "Keep Pounding" motto. And Smith has another more personal reason for remember Mills.
"On April 18, 2005," Smith said, "my younger son, Boston, was born. And Sam died at almost the same time. Almost the same hour. As I was calling the team chaplain to tell him about the birth, he was calling me to tell me about Sam's passing. So as one part of the Panther family was born, another was passing away. Life moves like that sometimes in families, doesn't it?"
Mills' legacy threads through the Panthers today — on their jersey collars and in their team motto. When the going gets tough, you have to keep pounding. That was the message from an undrafted, undersized linebacker who was an NFL rookie at age 27 and made five Pro Bowls after that — a player who didn't play his first game as a Panther until age 36 and still became the most significant player in team history.
Sam Mills' Three Biggest Plays
The Shovel Pass. The Carolina Panthers were 0–5 in 1995, their first season, and trailing 12–6 in the second quarter of their sixth game, against the New York Jets. Mills was blitzing and came through the line untouched. Jets quarterback Bubby Brister was throwing a shovel pass and couldn't stop himself — he threw it right to Mills.
Mills would remember the play later like this: "The way it happened, it just kind of clicked. Right call, right place, right time. I intersected with where the Jets' back, Adrian Murrell, was supposed to be. I was never touched at all. I know I surprised Brister."
Mills then trundled toward the end zone, scoring from 36 yards out on what seemed like a slow-motion run. Noted then-Panthers quarterback Frank Reich, "I thought he was trying to do two things: score a TD and run out the clock."
Mills' teammates teased him about his speed for years afterward, but he would always say, "Hey, I got there."
The interception return was the key play in Carolina's first-ever win — a 26–15 victory over the Jets on October 15, 1995.
The Stop. On the opening day of the 1996 season, Carolina hosted Atlanta. On third-and-1 from the Carolina 14, Mills and Atlanta's bowling ball running back, Craig "Ironhead" Heyward, collided in the hole. The boom was like thunder — and Heyward fell backward like an oak tree, losing a yard. Not only that, he hurt his shoulder and left the game for good.
"Sam Mills hit me right on the shoulder," Heyward told reporters afterward, "and it hurt really bad. I could have gone back in and played, but only if somebody had died."
The Falcons were forced to kick a field goal after that hit, which cornerback Eric Davis would later term his favorite play of the 1996 season. Carolina would go on to score 19 straight points for a 29–6 victory that kicked off their first-ever playoff season.
Sadly, both Mills and Heyward died early of cancer and its complications — Mills at age 45, Heyward at age 39.
The Playoff Interception. The Panthers' first-ever playoff game — and the Dallas Cowboys' 51st — wasn't decided for sure until Mills made a huge play. With Dallas trailing 26–17 but Troy Aikman trying to engineer a comeback in the final two minutes, Mills stepped in front of an Aikman pass at the Dallas 25. He thought about going to one knee but, with no one around him, started rumbling toward the goal line.
"I ran the whole time with two hands on the ball," Mills said. "So I wasn't going that fast — not that I have that many gears to work with anyway." He ended up making it inside the Dallas 5 to clinch the January 1997 victory.CHAPTER 2
The best player the Carolina Panthers have ever had is a complicated man. He can brim with fury or charm a child, spin a ball or snap at a perceived slight.
Steve Smith leads the Panthers' all-time list in touchdowns by a fair amount and in "Did you just see that?" moments by even more. No one has mesmerized Panthers fans more often. The Panthers drafted Smith out of Utah in the third round of the 2001 draft. Despite several bouts of serious rockiness, he has been at Carolina ever since.
Among the qualities that make No. 89 what he is: Extreme confidence. An incredible work ethic layered over enough ridiculous talent to compensate for his 5'9" height. A chip on his shoulder so wide his jersey should include extra material to cover it.
Ranked in the NFL's all-time top 35 in career receptions, receiving yards, and 100-yard receiving games (he's in the top 10 in that one), Smith is a possible Pro Football Hall of Famer and a Panthers player who will never be forgotten.
Before Smith ever played a single down for Carolina, the rookie sat in Marty Hurney's office. He hadn't liked Hurney's contract offer and wanted to make sure the future Panthers GM (Hurney didn't have the title yet) knew how important a player he was going to be to the team.
Excerpted from 100 Things Panthers Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die by Scott Fowler. Copyright © 2013 Scott Fowler. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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