Sam Mills

American football player and coach (1959–2005)

American football player
Sam Mills
No. 41, 54, 51
Personal information
Born:(1959-06-03)June 3, 1959
Neptune City, New Jersey, U.S.
Died:April 18, 2005(2005-04-18) (aged 45)
Charlotte, North Carolina, U.S.
Height:5 ft 9 in (1.75 m)
Weight:229 lb (104 kg)
Career information
High school:Long Branch (Long Branch, New Jersey)
College:Montclair State (1977–1980)
Career history
As a player:
  • Cleveland Browns (1981)*
  • Toronto Argonauts (1982)*
  • Philadelphia / Baltimore Stars (1983–1985)
  • New Orleans Saints (1986–1994)
  • Carolina Panthers (1995–1997)
 * Offseason and/or practice squad member only
As a coach:
Career highlights and awards
  • 3× All-USFL (19831985)
  • 2× USFL champion (1984, 1985)
  • USFL All-Time Team
Career NFL statistics
Total tackles:1,265
Forced fumbles:22
Fumble recoveries:23
Defensive touchdowns:4
Player stats at PFR
Pro Football Hall of Fame
College Football Hall of Fame

Samuel Davis Mills Jr. (June 3, 1959 – April 18, 2005) was an American professional football player who was a linebacker for 12 seasons in the National Football League (NFL) for the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers. He also played for three seasons for the Philadelphia / Baltimore Stars of the United States Football League (USFL), where he won two championships in 1984 and 1985. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2022.

Early life

Sam Mills was born in Neptune City, New Jersey.[1] While growing up in Long Branch, New Jersey, he loved to tag along with his older brother and play pickup football games with the bigger boys.[2] Mills attended high school at Long Branch High School, where he was a standout football player and wrestler. In 1976 and 1977, he won District Championships at Long Branch as a wrestler. Long Branch High School honors him to this day by hanging his high school jersey and his NFL jersey in the school gym. Although considered a great athlete in high school, Mills' 5'9" frame did not interest college scouts.[2]

Playing career

Montclair State University

Mills attended college at Montclair State College (now known as Montclair State University)[2] and made the football squad as a walk-on. He played for Montclair State from 1977-1980 where he is the all-time leader in career tackles with 501, tackles in a season (142), and tackles in a game (22). He was a three-time NJAC First Team All-Star and was named the New Jersey Collegiate Writers Defensive Player of the Year for three straight seasons (1978–1980).

Cleveland Browns and Toronto Argonauts

Mills signed with the Cleveland Browns as an undrafted free agent in 1981 but was released after the conclusion of preseason.[2] He wore number 41, one of the two times he didn't wear number 51, the other being with the Stars. In 1982, Mills signed with the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League but was released before the season.[3]

Philadelphia/Baltimore Stars

Fred Hill, who coached Mills at Montclair State, said that many pro scouts loved his tape, but when they heard he was only 5'9", they lost interest. Conventional wisdom at the time held that middle linebackers had to be at least six feet tall to see over opposing offensive linemen and scan the field. In the same way it was after high school, Mills' lack of height held him back. After college, his Pop Warner Football coach Thomas Bevacqui Jr. was able to get Mills invited to the Cleveland Browns training camp after meeting with Browns coach Sam Rutigliano. Bevacqui told Rutigliano that Mills was the best linebacker that he had ever seen play the game. While Rutigliano admired Mills, he didn't think he had the size to play in the NFL and cut him from the team. Mills then tried out with the Canadian Football League's Toronto Argonauts but did not make the team. He found a job teaching photography and assisting the football coach at East Orange (N.J.) High School.

However, Rutigliano still liked what he had seen of Mills in camp. He called an old friend, Carl Peterson, general manager of the Philadelphia Stars of the United States Football League, and suggested that he give Mills a look. Mills made his reputation at the Stars' first training camp; as Peterson recalled years later, "he just lit it up." He quickly became known as the "Field Mouse" for his devastating speed; as Peterson put it, "he was a mouse running around a field of elephants, but the elephants wanted nothing to do with him."[4]

In his three years with the Stars (who moved to Baltimore in 1985), Mills became one of the anchors of the Stars' feared "Doghouse Defense," During that time (wearing #54), he became known around the league for both his tenacity on the field and his leadership off it. 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. He has been described as arguably the best defensive player (along with Reggie White) in the short history of the league.[5]

New Orleans Saints

After the Stars won the 1985 USFL title, their head coach Jim Mora was signed on to coach the New Orleans Saints, and Mills followed his mentor. During his tenure with the Saints which began in 1986, Mills was an anchor of the defense. He was a member of the vaunted "Dome Patrol," the stellar linebacking corps that led a ferocious Saints defense in the early 1990s. Mills earned four Pro Bowl appearances with the Saints in 1987, 1988, 1991, and 1992. Mora, who coached 15 seasons in the NFL, called Mills "The best player I ever coached."[6]

Carolina Panthers

Mills became a free agent at the end of the 1994 NFL season. The expansion Carolina Panthers offered him a two-year, $2.8 million deal. While New Orleans matched the offer, Mills was displeased that the Saints did not make an offer until the Panthers forced their hand, and opted to sign with the Panthers.[7]

Mills became a veteran leader for the young team, the only player to start every game during the Panthers' first three seasons. In a 1995 game against the New York Jets, Mills stepped in front of a Bubby Brister shovel pass and took it 36 yards for a touchdown, sealing the Panthers' first win in franchise history. His career rebirth gave him a fifth Pro Bowl appearance 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.[8]

NFL career statistics

Led the league
NFL record
Bold Career high

Regular season

Year Team Games Tackles Interceptions Fumbles
GP GS Cmb Solo Ast Sck Int Yds TD FF FR
1986 NO 16 13 92 0.0 0 0 0 1 1
1987 NO 12 12 58 0.0 0 0 0 1 3
1988 NO 16 16 105 0.0 0 0 0 0 4
1989 NO 16 15 95 3.0 0 0 0 2 1
1990 NO 16 14 112 0.5 0 0 0 2 1
1991 NO 16 16 102 1.0 2 13 0 2 2
1992 NO 16 16 130 3.0 1 10 0 4 3
1993 NO 9 7 85 2.0 0 0 0 2 1
1994 NO 16 16 155 115 40 1.0 1 0 0 2 1
1995 CAR 16 16 110 86 24 4.5 5 58 1 5 4
1996 CAR 16 16 122 90 32 5.5 1 10 0 0 2
1997 CAR 16 16 99 72 27 0.0 1 18 0 1 0
Career 181 173 1,265 363 123 20.5 11 119 1 22 23

Post-playing career

Mills played 12 seasons in the NFL and recorded 1,319 tackles, 20.5 sacks, 11 interceptions and four touchdowns while starting 173 of 181 games. Mills was named to the NFL All-Pro team three times, in 1991, 1992, and 1996. He was elected to the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame (2001), the Greater New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame (2002), the Sports Hall of Fame of New Jersey (2003) and the New Orleans Saints Hall of Fame (1998).[1] After retiring from play, Mills was inducted into the Carolina Panthers Hall of Honor (1998).[1] He became a defensive coaching assistant for the Panthers in 1998, before being promoted to linebackers coach in 1999.

Cancer and death

In August 2003, Mills was diagnosed with intestinal cancer.[2] Though he was told he had only a few months to live, he was treated with chemotherapy and radiation and continued to coach. He was an inspirational force in the Panthers’ post-season run to Super Bowl XXXVIII. His plea to "keep pounding" in an emotional speech before the Panthers' victory over the Dallas Cowboys later became the name of a fund to sponsor cancer research programs and an official team slogan.[9] He continued to coach the team until his death from cancer complications on April 18, 2005.[10][11]


Mills' jersey number 51 was retired by the Panthers at the start of the 2005 NFL season, making it the first number the franchise retired.[12] Mills was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2009, with his son Sam Mills III accepting the award on his father's behalf. Sam Mills III was the defensive line coach for the Washington Commanders.

The speech inspired the Carolina Panthers and Nike, when awarded the contract for NFL jerseys starting in the 2012 NFL season, to feature "Keep Pounding" sewn on the inside collars of Panthers jerseys for the 2012 NFL season, in honor of the elder Mills.[13] Before the start of every home game, the Panthers have an honorary drummer bang a "Keep Pounding" drum. Though Carolina was not the designated home team for Super Bowl 50, the tradition remained a part of the game, with the drummer being Panther fan and Charlotte native Stephen Curry, the star point guard for the four-time NBA champion Golden State Warriors.[14] Mills was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2022.[15]


  1. ^ a b c "Sam Mills | New Orleans Saints Hall Of Fame". Retrieved March 7, 2022.
  2. ^ a b c d e "Sam Mills [2022 Update]: Early Life, Career, NFL & Cancer". Players Bio. February 21, 2022. Retrieved March 7, 2022.
  3. ^ Bernstein, Viv (April 19, 2005). "Sam Mills, 45, a Veteran of 12 Seasons in the N.F.L., Dies". The New York Times.
  4. ^ Pearlman, Jeff (2018). Football For A Buck: The Crazy Rise and Crazier Demise of the USFL. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. ISBN 978-0544454385.
  5. ^ Paul Domowitch, "Stars' Mills small but mighty", Philadelphia Daily News, July 17, 2014.
  6. ^ "Sam Mills: Carolina Panthers' #51 and the Birth of "Keep Pounding"". October 11, 2017.
  7. ^ "'He looked like he belonged - and he did' - How underdog Sam Mills became a Hall of Famer". June 28, 2022.
  8. ^ "Rams Make Vermeil Proud; Mills Retires". Los Angeles Times. Associated Press. December 21, 1997. Retrieved May 24, 2017.
  9. ^ "Carolina Panthers | Keep Pounding". Archived from the original on April 6, 2012. Retrieved October 18, 2011.
  10. ^ "Obituaries in the News". Kentucky New Era. Associated Press. April 19, 2005. Retrieved March 4, 2016.
  11. ^ Badders, Bob (February 11, 2022). "Long Branch Legend Sam Mills Elected to Pro Football Hall of Fame". Shore Sports Network. Retrieved March 7, 2022.
  12. ^ "Panthers retire Mills' jersey at halftime". ESPN. August 13, 2005. Retrieved November 10, 2015.
  13. ^ Official statement from team Twitter account
  14. ^ "Stephen Curry to serve as Panthers' drummer for SB50". Retrieved February 7, 2016.
  15. ^ Gantt, Darin. "Panthers legend Sam Mills elected to Pro Football Hall of Fame". Retrieved February 11, 2022.
Sam Mills—awards and honors
  • v
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Carolina Panthers 1995 inaugural season roster
  • v
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Carolina Panthers
  • Founded in 1995
  • Based and headquartered in Charlotte, North Carolina
Culture and lore
Hall of Honor
Wild card berths (2)
Division championships (6)
Conference championships (2)
Retired numbers
  • 51
Current league affiliations
  • v
  • t
  • e
Carolina Panthers Hall of Honor
  • v
  • t
  • e
New Orleans Saints
  • Founded in 1967
  • Based in New Orleans, Louisiana
  • Headquartered in Metairie, Louisiana
Wild card berths (5)
Division championships (9)
Conference championships (1)
League championships (1)
Retired numbers
Ring of Honor
Current league affiliations
  • v
  • t
  • e
New Orleans Saints Ring of Honor
  • v
  • t
  • e
Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2022
  • v
  • t
  • e
Running backs
Wide receivers /
Tight ends
Pre-modern era
two-way players
Defensive backs
Special teams
Italics denotes members who have been elected, but not yet inducted.