A favorite son of New Jersey, as well as a USFL and NFL player may have lived a short life, but he certainly accomplished a lot. This week Sam Mills reached the pinnacle in his sport; induction into the Pro Football NFL Hall of Fame.
Born in Neptune City and raised in Long Branch, Mr. Mills began his love affair with football at an early age, like many boys. While attending Long Branch High School, he was a standout football player and wrestler. In 1976 and 1977, Mr. Mills won District Championships at Long Branch as a wrestler. His high school and NFL jerseys hang in the gym in his honor.
Mr. Mills attended college at Montclair State and made the football team as a walk-on. He played for Montclair from 1977-1980 where he is the all-time leader in career tackles, tackles in a season, and tackles in a game.
In 1981 Mr. Mills signed with the Cleveland Browns as an undrafted free agent, however, he was released at the end of the preseason. Despite several setbacks being cut by multiple teams, he persevered.
In 1983 he signed with the USFL, Philadelphia Stars, and began a three-year playing career with the team. Mr. Mills led the Stars to two USFL championships, was named to three All-USFL teams and is a member of the USFL’s All-Time Team.
In 1985, Stars’ head coach Jim Mora was hired as head coach of the NFL New Orleans Saints and Mr. Mills went with him. He started his career in New Orleans in 1986 and earned four Pro Bowl appearances with the Saints in 1987, 1988, 1991, and 1992. He was inducted into the New Orleans Saints Hall of Fame in 1998.
Mr. Mills signed with the newly-formed expansion team, Carolina Panthers, in 1995 and was the only player to start every game during the Panthers’ first three seasons. He earned a trip to his fifth Pro Bowl in 1996 at the age of 37 which, at the time, made him the oldest defender to be invited to a Pro Bowl. He retired after the following season. After his retirement, Mr. Mills was inducted into the Carolina Panthers Hall of Honor in 1998. He became a defensive coaching assistant for the Panthers the same year and was promoted to linebackers coach in 1999. His jersey number 51 was retired by the Panthers at the start of the 2005 NFL season, making it the first number the franchise ever retired.
In August 2003, Mr. Mills was diagnosed with intestinal cancer. Though he was told he had a short time left to his life, he underwent chemotherapy and radiation and continued to coach. He was an inspiration to the team during their post-season run as the team faced Dallas and won Super Bowl XXXVIII. Mr. Mills continued to coach until dying from cancer complications on April 18, 2005. He was 45.
Mr. Mills made a positive impact during his short life and his speech to the team before their Super Bowl appearance with a focus on “Keep Pounding,” is now the name of a name of a fund to sponsor cancer research programs and an official team slogan.
He will now be inducted to the NFL Pro Football Hall of Fame.