Hall of Fame welcomes inspirational “field mouse,” Sam Mills

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Perhaps the late Sam Mills admitted to blue-chip college and the high NFL draft pick may have been invented by someone who — as the 5-foot-9 linebacker memorably suggested — “measures the heart.” for a computer.”

Mills played Division III college football and was not drafted. It rose to stardom with the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers — and their prestige at this weekend’s Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio — all the more notable.

Nicknamed “Field Mouse”, the player had a desire to “keep up the pace”, as he famously said. This made him an inspiration to those facing protracted obstacles in many aspects of life, whether they be short of football prospects or cancer patients.

“I get emotional talking about him and I always have, because the darn guy was special,” said Jim Mora, who coached Mills in the USFL with the Philadelphia and Baltimore Stars, and then with the Saints. . “I loved that boy.”

Former Saints quarterback Bobby Hebert was baffled that Mills publicly resembled an NFL player. Mills was not only slightly younger than the average man on the street, but he wore prescription glasses and had an air of humility and acceptance.

Hebert said, “He was a straight and narrow, great man, just down to earth,” noting that Mills also conducted Bible studies with the saints. “He was not only a leader like the Xs and Os, but also a spiritual leader. … Sam was as tough as he came on the field and was a perfect gentleman.”

Hebert also marveled at Mills’ ability to win so well on the fan bases of the two longtime divisional rivals.

Hebert said, “You know, I go from the Saints to the Falcons in the same division, and I’m a mercenary.” “Sam is a hero to both” New Orleans and Carolina.

Mills was part of the Wanted “Dome Patrol” of New Orleans, which included fellow Hall-of-Famer Ricky Jackson, as well as Vaughn Johnson and Pat Swilling, and is widely regarded as one of the best four-linebacker units in NFL history. is cited in.

As Mora said, the Saints player who watched Mills down into the defensive barriers, “everyone looked up to him.” “Maybe they felt like he was an overachiever. He wasn’t. He was just as good.”

Outside the Panthers’ home stadium, there is a statue of Mills wearing the number 51 jersey. Mills spent the last three of his 12 NFL seasons in Carolina. In 1996, his second with the Panthers, he was named an All-Pro. He also went on to coaching with Carolina, and was an assistant when he was diagnosed with intestinal cancer prior to the 2003 season.

Mills continued coaching during his treatment, and made what is known as a “keep pounding” speech on the eve of the club’s Super Bowl match with New England at the end of that season.

“When I found out I had cancer, I could do two things: quit or fast,” Mills said then. “I’m a warrior. I beat. You’re a fighter too. Keep fast!”

The quarterback of that Panthers team was Louisiana native Jake Delhomme, who grew up watching Mills’ pre-snap defensive cues from the Saints, fearlessly shed blocks from offensive linemen who dwarfed him and then put ball-carriers on his back. .

“I’ve always been like the respected Sam Mills,” Delhomme said. “I was that little kid who was like, ‘Man, that undersized guy. That’s the guy who made it. He’s the field mouse.'”

During the speech, “you felt that feeling,” Delhomme recalled. “It was like, ‘Oh my god, let’s put on the uniform now. Let’s play now!'”

But Mills’ most touching memory of Delhomme came at the start of that season, just days after losing to Dallas. Delhomme felt sore, lethargic, and unusually sorry for himself as he walked to practice. Then Mills jogged, slapped Delhomme in the back and said, “Let’s get better.”

Delhomme refers to the moment as an “awakening” in which he said to himself: “You need to grow up and try to be just one tenth of this man.”

“Everybody knew he was dying,” Delhomme continued. “He was doing chemo. And he’s running outside to practice… and he’s going to train his ass.”

When he died in April 2005, Mills was just 45 years old. The Panthers’ tag line remains “keep pounding.”

Mills’ eldest son, Washington Commanders defensive assistant coach Sam Mills III, said, “He used to be ‘fast fast,’ and it resonates with people because it’s real and because it’s not just a sporting thing. “

“I feel honored that I have had the opportunity to be around someone who has touched the lives of so many people,” Mills III said. “You see how many people he has influenced with his story of small school or short stature. And then when you go after cancer, you see how many other people who have nothing to do with football will come and talk to them about their battles. I’ve been privileged to be a part of it — to see what it means to people, to see what it means to people to try and talk to someone for two minutes in your day.”

When Mills was playing high school football in Long Branch, New Jersey, he had little hope of going to college until his coach persuaded him. He was good enough at Montclair State to receive training camp invitations from the CFL’s Cleveland Browns and Toronto Argonauts. No team hired him due to concerns about his size, and he moved back to New Jersey to teach photography and work as an assistant football coach at East Orange High School.

But as the USFL was preparing for its inaugural season in 1983, Sam Rutigliano, the Browns coach, was never comfortable with Cleveland’s decision to cut Mills, asking Philadelphia Stars general manager Carl Peterson to give it a serious look. encouraged for.

Mora, who was the Stars’ head coach at the time, recalled linebacker coach Vince Tobin saying, “I don’t care how tall he is. This guy’s a football player.”

When Mora began to evaluate Mills more closely, he noticed that Mills was fast, had exceptional lower body strength, and that his short stature could be an asset.

Linebackers are taught to lower their shoulder-pad level below the player they are trying to tackle because it gives them an advantage. Also being a high school wrestler, Mills knew all about leverage and taking opponents to the field.

“In football,” said Mora, “sometimes the lesser man wins.”

Mora said that Mills never “bread” during practice and always had meetings on time. He wasn’t just a run-stuffer, either. He could cover tight ends and ran out of the backfield, and his positional soundness and anticipation of the QB’s intentions helped him effectively cover players who were taller than him.

When Mora was hired by the Saints in 1986, he persuaded the club to sign Mills.

In 181 NFL games, Mills made 1,265 tackles, made 23 fumble recoveries, forced 22 fumbles, had 20½ sacks and intercepted 11 passes. He was also part of the first four playoff teams in New Orleans Saints history and the first in Panthers history.

“It was hard to find negative things about that guy on or off the field,” Mora said. “He probably would have had a good future as a coach. He knew sports, studied sports and was always mentally prepared. The players would have loved to play for him.”

Mora has coached other Hall-of-Fame players – household names including quarterback Peyton Manning and receiver Marvin Harrison. Seeing Mills enter the hall would be gratifying in a different way for Mora.

Mora said, many football fans “don’t know Sam Mills until he’s a clever, old football player.” “He’s one of the best people I’ve ever coached, but I always have to explain a little bit who Sam Mills was.”

This may be less so after the mills were established.

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AP Sportswriter Steve Reid in Charlotte, North Carolina contributed to this story

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