CANTON, Ohio — Did Sam Mills go into the Pro Football Hall of Fame Saturday as a Saint or a Panther?
Unlike baseball, the Pro Football Hall of Fame does not ask its new members to declare their primary team. In baseball, the ball cap of the chosen team is affixed to his head on his Hall of Fame plaque.
Canton uses bronze busts. The one of Mills unveiled at Saturday’s Enshrinement, like everyone else’s, depicted his face, but not his teams.
That noted, had Mills been given his choice in the early 1980s, his only team would have been the Cleveland Browns.
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Mills went undrafted out of of Montclair State (New Jersey) in 1981, but Browns head coach Sam Rutgliano had an inkling that little Sam, the 5-foot-9 linebacker, might be a player. Mills became convinced he would make the team.
Rutigliano put the final call in the hands of defensive coordinator Marty Schottenheimer, and then told friends he was afraid cutting him, as the Browns did, was a bad idea.
And the older Sam was right. Mills starred on three Philadelphia/Baltimore Stars teams that won USFL championships, rocked ’em with the New Orleans Saints for nine years, and made such an impact in three years with the Carolina Panthers that they put up a statue.
Mills’ long-standing approach to overcoming was “keep pounding.” He used the words in a famous postseason speech to the Panthers, when he was a Carolina coach dying of cancer.
He left the world in 2005, at age 45.
“He was a father, a friend, a husband and a leader who always kept pounding, no matter the odds,” said his widow Melanie, speaking in his place at the Enshrinement. “He treated everyone with the dignity and the respect they deserved.”He made friends everywhere. He made friends at his cancer treatments. He never forgot he was just a man.”
The family chose Jim Mora to be Mills’ Hall of Fame presenter. It was Mora who nervously gave Mills a roster spot in the USFL. After leveraging three USFL championships into the Saints head coaching job, Mora reluctantly gave Mills a roster spot in New Orleans.
“When he first got in the defensive huddle with the Saints, I had to admit he looked short,” Mora said. “As we got going, he never looked short to me again.”
Mills was still hammering away in 1996, at age 37, when he helped lead Carolina, a second-year expansion team, to the NFC finals.
Melanie Mills and Mora both gazed at Sam’s likeness on the Enshrinement stage as they jointly pulled a gold drape off the bronze bust.”I got very emotional when Sam was chosen for the Hall of Fame,” Mora said.