Passing of a Hero: Sam Mills - 1959-2005

Today, the field at Bank of America Stadium is silent. There are no cheering fans, no pre-game excitement and no teams ready to take the field. It seems appropriate that before the official season gets started up again with draft day that we take a moment to stop and reflect. Today, we lost a hero. Today, we lost Sam Mills at the age of 45.

Sam Mills, former linebacker for the Carolina Panthers and most recently a linebacker coach for the Panthers, is also known for his fight against intestinal cancer, after being diagnosed back in 2003. Even though Sam was undergoing treatment for the disease, he continued to inspire us all by showing up for work and motivating his teammates to "keep pounding" no matter what adversity they faced. Doctors at one point had thought that the cancer had been removed and that it would go into remission but Mills' condition had worsened over the past couple of weeks.

Mills was one of the most respected players and coaches in the NFL and the only player to be in the Panthers Hall of Fame. Mills finished his career with 1,319 tackles, 20.5 sacks, 11 interceptions and four touchdowns while starting 173 of 181 games. But beyond the numbers, Sam will leave an empty place in our hearts when we don't see him the sidelines this fall. However, the "keep pounding' legacy left beyond by the great man will stay with us for a very long time.

Mills is the only player in the Panthers short history to be enshrined in the Ring of Honor and be immortalized outside the North Gate of Bank of America Stadium with a life-sized bronze statue.

Sam is survived by his wife, Melanie, their two sons, Sam III and Marcus, and two daughters, Larissa and Sierra.

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Originally posted on Dec 9, 2004 by Johnathon Riley - 10 Reasons to be a Carolina Panther Fan: #2

Nobody 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.

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