Join Date: May 2003
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Cancer kills Sam Mills
This guy was absolutely huge in his USFL days with the Philadelphia Stars. He was a prime reason why Jim Mora ruled the short-lived league, and he will be missed.
By JENNA FRYER
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) - Small in stature, Sam Mills was a giant both on and off the football field.
Told 5-foot-9 was too small to be a professional linebacker, teams didn't give him tryouts and agents refused to represent him. None of it stopped Mills, who went on to make five Pro Bowls in a stellar 12-year NFL career.
Mills couldn't beat cancer, though. He died at his home Monday after a two-year battle with intestinal cancer. He was 45.
"Sam was one of the finest people you will ever meet. You would never know that he was a player who made Pro Bowls and had all this attention because he treated everybody the same no matter who they were," Carolina general manager Marty Hurney said. "He never had a bad thing to say about anybody and had a great ability to laugh at himself.
"He was the type of guy you want your kids to grow up to be."
There is a statue of him outside Bank of America Stadium and he is the only player in the team's Hall of Honor.
An undersized linebacker out of Montclair (N.J.) State who failed several times to catch on with NFL and Canadian Football League teams, Mills gave professional football one last shot when the USFL debuted in 1983. After starring in that league for the Philadelphia Stars for three years, coach Jim Mora brought Mills along to the Saints in 1986.
Mills spent nine NFL seasons with the Saints, then joined the expansion Panthers. He finished his career with 1,319 tackles while starting 173 of 181 games.
Mills was elected to Louisiana's Sports Hall of Fame. He is also a member of New Jersey's Sports Hall of Fame.
"I remember him being the toughest little man I've ever seen in my life," said former Saints linebacker Rickey Jackson. "He was mighty mouse - he'd hit you hard as he could every time he hit you.
"When he had a bum knee one time, he still showed up every day. He pushed you. Looking at him doing it made you know you better put out. If a little man like that worked so hard and put out, you better put out for all you were worth. He always inspired me to do better, to work harder, to be better."
Mills moved to the Panthers in 1995, and figured prominently in the franchise's first win, against the Jets on Oct. 15, 1995, when he intercepted a shovel pass and returned it 36 yards for a key touchdown.
He led the team in tackles in 1995 and 1996, when the Panthers won the NFC West and made a surprise run to the NFC title game.
Mills joined the Panthers' coaching staff upon his retirement.
"He's definitely the best coach I ever had," Panthers linebacker Will Witherspoon said. "I got to talk to him the last couple of weeks and I knew that he wasn't doing well, but he never wanted to bring that up.
"He always wanted to focus on how I was doing. There's nothing better than the fact that he concentrated more on other people than he did himself."
He will forever be remembered not for his on-field accomplishments, but for the person he was off the field.
"Sam Mills was not only one of the finest football players that I have ever been around, but above and beyond that he was one of the finest individuals," said Houston coach Dom Capers, who lured Mills away from the Saints when he coached the Panthers.
"He had tremendous physical ability, which I think was exhibited on the playing field. He had all the intangibles you look for in a player in terms of work ethic, attitude and leadership. He was at the very top of players that I have ever been around in my career."
Kansas City chiefs president Carl Peterson, who led the USFL's Stars when Mills was signed, called Mills "one of the toughest defensive players in pro football pound for pound that I've ever witnessed."
"He overcame a lot of adversity in his life as a player beginning with his size. Everyone felt he was too small to play professional football and his nickname in the USFL was the Field Mouse," Peterson said.
"I know no one fought harder than he did or probably lived longer than he should have with the cancer in his body."
Mills was diagnosed with cancer in 2003, hours before he showed up at the stadium to coach the linebackers in their preseason finale. It was a devastating blow to the team, which learned two weeks earlier that linebacker Mark Fields also had cancer.
Carolina restructured its coaching duties to take some of the responsibilities off Mills during his treatment.
Originally given just a few months to live, Mills didn't miss a game that season. He scheduled treatment for off days, and he often coached from the press box that year to preserve his strength.
He was an inspiration to the team as Carolina went on to the Super Bowl. Players wore his No. 51, along with Fields' 58, under their jerseys that season, and Mills gave an emotional pregame speech during their playoff run.
He flew to Houston on the Thursday before the Super Bowl, one day after a round of chemotherapy, and joined Fields for a news conference. Sweating and holding on to the podium for balance, he said, "You have your good days and your bad days. I am just glad I am having days, you know?"
"During the 2003 season," quarterback Jake Delhomme said, "he told us that the way we played inspired him to keep fighting. I think it was the other way around. We were able to draw a lot more from him than he did from us."
Mills continued his treatment all of last season. He was honored by the NFL in March with the Johnny Unitas Tops in Courage Award.
"Although it can be said that he left his imprint on the NFL as a player, it is his legacy as a human being that serves as an example for all of us to follow," said Bill Kuharich, Kansas City's vice president of pro personnel, who was with Mills with the Stars and Saints.
Mills is survived by his wife, Melanie, and four children: Sons Sam III and Marcus and daughters Larissa and Sierra.
The history of Arizona speaks for itself. This time of year, we not only represent ourselves, but all the great players and teams of the past. --Sean Miller, March 2013