In My Opinion

Remembering Sam Mills: Carolina Panthers ‘Keep Pounding’

sfowler@charlotteobserver.comOctober 21, 2012 

The son is Sam Mills III. He’s 34 years old now and has literally spent half his life around the Carolina Panthers. He is only a year younger than his father was when his dad first signed a contract to play for Carolina in its inaugural 1995 season.

The father was Sam Mills Jr. In 2005, the beloved former Panther linebacker and assistant coach died of cancer.

“Seven years,” Sam Mills III said quietly. “Just doesn’t seem that long. Maybe three. Not seven.”

Before the elder Mills died at age 45, he played starring roles in the only two home playoff wins in the Panthers’ history.

Those two wins both came against the Dallas Cowboys, seven years apart. The twin victories prompted the two most electric crowds in Panthers history.

And the memory of those games is seared so deeply into the minds of Panthers fans that when the Panthers host the Cowboys once again Sunday at 1 p.m., many longtime Carolina supporters will spare a thought for the legacy of Sam Mills.

That legacy encompasses many things – a statue outside the stadium, the retired number 51, an interception of a shovel pass and an entire family.

But it can be summed up in two words – a phrase the 2012 Panthers, who enter Sunday’s game a disappointing 1-4, need now as much as they ever did.

Keep pounding.

The Panthers have made “Keep Pounding” – a phrase first used by the elder Mills in an emotional speech to the players on Jan. 1, 2004, the night before the second home playoff game against Dallas – their unofficial team theme.

“Keep Pounding” is inscribed in the weight room. It is posted in huge letters by the team’s meeting rooms.

And this season, for the first time, it is also tucked inside the collar of every Panthers jersey. Every Carolina player sees the words “Keep Pounding” for a moment when he tugs on his jersey each Sunday.

Mills III explained the significance of “Keep Pounding” to the team in a meeting earlier this year at head coach Ron Rivera’s request, since only two current Panthers (Jordan Gross and Steve Smith) were around to hear his father’s original speech.

“I thought it was important that our guys learn a little bit of our history,” Rivera said.

What did Mills III tell the squad?

“What ‘Keep Pounding’ is all about,” said Mills III, now the Panthers’ assistant defensive line coach and a team employee since 2003. “It means put your head down. Play hard. Do what you’re supposed to do no matter how tough it gets.

“That 2003 team (which eventually reached the Super Bowl before losing) had it. That’s where we’re trying to get with this team now. It was important to tell them about it, because guys were about to put on something inside their collars and had no clue what it actually meant.

“They didn’t understand that our organization is now based around ‘Keep Pounding.’ ”

‘Short, balding and can’t see’

Sam Mills Jr. didn’t make the NFL until age 27, coming up the hard way through Montclair State in New Jersey. He was undrafted. His first job out of college was as a woodworking and photography teacher at a New Jersey high school for $13,600 a year.

But Mills made it into the USFL, where he was a star, and used that as a springboard to get to New Orleans. Mills was a standout linebacker for a bunch of average Saints teams. He was noted for his smarts, his lack of height and his explosive tackling. 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 was soft-spoken and self-deprecating. He wore glasses off the field. He sometimes referred to himself as a player who was “short, balding and can’t see very well.”

“They called him the field general,” said Rivera, an NFL linebacker in Chicago at the same time who said he greatly respected Mills’ achievements from afar and like the rest of the league knew of the jokes that surrounded Mills’ 5-foot-9 height. “That or the field mouse.”

Signing Mills was a coup for the expansion Panthers, who lured him away from New Orleans and immediately started him at inside linebacker in Dom Capers’ 3-4 defense. Mills and his wife, Melanie, brought their four children to Charlotte – Sam III was the oldest and would play football at Charlotte Latin. He was a ball boy for the Panthers at their first training camp, in 1995.

Mills’ interception of a Bubby Brister shovel pass in 1995 keyed the Panthers’ first victory, over the New York Jets. But the team’s best year during his three years with Carolina came in 1996, when the Panthers made a startling run to the NFC Championship Game.

Mills had never been part of an NFL playoff win until that game against defending Super Bowl champion Dallas on Jan. 5, 1997, and his late interception clinched the Panthers’ 26-17 victory.

“Dallas still had their studs,” recalled Mills III, noting the Cowboys’ roster included Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin and Deion Sanders at the time.

“It was so exciting. I was in high school. I remember being at that game. It was the only Panthers game I had ever been at as a fan to where we didn’t sit down the whole time. There was an electricity in the stadium that was unbelievable. And a lot of guys that are here can’t even relate to that because they haven’t seen that atmosphere. But it was a special night.”

Since I have covered the Panthers since their inception, I knew the elder Mills pretty well. In 2004 during our last extensive interview, I asked him what his favorite game was in all his years as a player. He didn’t hesitate.

“The first Dallas playoff game,” he said. “That was a real big moment. We knocked off the big kids on the block.”

The ‘Keep Pounding’ speech

That Panthers team lost the next week, at Green Bay, in the NFC championship. It was seven years before Carolina got back to the playoffs. By then Mills had retired as a player and had been hired as a Panthers assistant coach. But in August 2003 he was diagnosed with colon cancer.

He would undergo seven hours of chemotherapy on Monday, seven more on Tuesday and then three more on Wednesday. With both his mind and body aching, with his black skin gradually lightening because of the chemicals, he would return to work Thursday, coach through the game on Sunday and then start the whole process over again the following Monday.

Sam III was his father’s roommate – the rest of the Millses lived at the family home in New Jersey – and made sure life ran as smoothly as it could.

Panthers players knew generally of their coach’s struggle with cancer, as well as that of linebacker Mark Fields, who missed that season with a more treatable form of cancer (and later returned to play for one more season – Fields is still alive today).

But Mills had never shared the particulars of his fight with them until the night before the Dallas playoff game. John Fox, then the head coach, asked Mills to address the team in a hotel meeting room.

Sam III was there.

“It wasn’t just a rah-rah speech, and it wasn’t just about football,” Mills III said. “He spoke for probably seven to 10 minutes. It was very quiet. He had their attention. He told them about the cancer. He said that ‘Keep Pounding’ had to carry over to your normal life, too.

“It was emotional. Then the guys understood his journey.”

Steve Smith was in that room, too.

“His speech was so impactful to me,” Smith said. “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 game 29-10 on their way to a Super Bowl run that ended with a three-point loss to New England.

Connecting with Mills

Sam Mills III looks and talks a lot like his father – although he has more hair. But he is his own man, with his own dreams. He would like to move up the ranks, become a position coach, then advance to defensive coordinator and eventually become an NFL head coach. Unmarried, he puts in long hours at the stadium, like all the assistants do.

“He’s a players’ coach,” defensive end Charles Johnson said of Mills III. “Players just get that vibe with him. He brings a lot to the table. He’s up in the coaches’ box during the game, and he tells me a lot of different stuff that other people might not see.”

Sam III’s younger siblings have all grown up. Brother Marcus and sister Larissa are in their late 20s. Sierra Mills, Sam and Melanie’s youngest daughter, is a freshman in high school. The rest of the family lives in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

“But they all still live and breathe Panthers football,” Sam III said. “My mom still comes down for just about every home game. We still have six PSLs in the stands. And a lot of times my brother or my sisters will come into town for the weekend, too.”

Sam III said during our interview he is reminded of his father every day. “Especially working at the stadium,” he said, gesturing behind him toward a picture frame. It was an enormous picture of his father in uniform. “If I leave this room and go up to my office, I will pass a picture or his name anywhere between four and five times.”

But it’s not just at the stadium where Mills’ impact resonates. It’s also in the community.

“Fans will sometimes tell me their stories of meeting him,” Mills III said. “A lot of the stories revolve around something like: ‘Hey, one day I was shopping at TJ 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 chit chat – even if you’re just talking about buying a belt – it can mean so much to them.”

Smith always remembers Mills, too. Perhaps no player on the Panthers has better personified “Keep Pounding” on the field than Smith, who still remembers how Mills encouraged him as a young wide receiver who wasn’t getting to play much in 2001.

And Smith has another reason for remembering No. 51, too.

“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?”

Scott Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @Scott_Fowler

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