2. Sam MillsNobody embodies the Carolina Panthers like Sam Mills. He has been a fighter from day one, and since day one of the franchise, has been the heart and soul of the team. He is a man of upstanding character, who does whatever it takes to get the job done. Anyone unfamiliar with his story should certainly hear it.
To those new to Panthers or NFL fandom, Sam Mills has a most unique story. Many thought that he was too short to play football, as he stands just 5'9. Because of this, he did not play professionally out of college; instead, he went on to teach after being waived by Cleveland. Many coaches disregarded Sam because of his size, but they were measuring the wrong thing. Sam's heart and mind are his greatest assets, and these things helped him get noticed.
Three years removed from playing college ball at Montclair State, Sam Mills went to play with the USFL's Philadelphia Stars. His stand-out performance with the Stars landed him a tryout with the New Orleans Saints when a young Jim Mora went from coaching the Stars to coaching the Saints. Many players and assistants thought Sam being at tryouts was a joke; but Mora knew the commodity he had, and when Sam went out on the field, he took it over.
The under-sized Mills played for the Saints for 9 seasons, from 1986-1994. During that time, he amassed four Pro Bowl trips while with the black and gold. However, at the end of the 1994 season, the Saints felt that the aging Mills might not be worth keeping, and Carolina was there to pick him up to build their defense around. Little did Mora or the Saints' staff know, Sam's best football had yet to come.
During his three years with the Panthers, Sam Mills helped lead his team to the best expansion record in history in 1995, a playoff berth and Pro Bowl trip the year after, and then retired in 1997. He had started 50 straight games at the time of his retirement, and led the team in tackles two of his three years. He was, without a doubt, the leader of the new Panthers franchise, and one that would shape the direction the franchise would go.
After his retirement, Sam Mills was inducted into the Panthers Hall of Honor, currently the only former Panther player to be inducted. His statue stands near the entrance to Bank of America Stadium, helmet tucked under his arm, looking forward. In 1999, he was hired on by the Panthers to be their new linebackers coach, and continues his tenure in Carolina, his true football home.
Sam Mills was already the inspiration for the team. His play, his leadership, and his life have helped define what this franchise is. When he and Mark Fields were diagnosed with cancer before the 2003 season, he served as even more inspiration. Instead of cowering and giving up, Sam fought, and is still fighting. Fox gave him an out, but Sam Mills still stands with the team on the sidelines for every game. He is still there, doing his job, and being a 110% kind of guy.
Sam Mills is, and always will be, the personification of the Carolina Panthers.