Sam Mills died too soon.
Mills was 45 years old when he lost his battle with intestinal cancer in 2005. He was a 12-year NFL middle linebacker and when he died, he was the linebackers coach for the Carolina Panthers.
Throughout his football career, Mills was an inspiration. He was undersized at 5-foot-9. He needed to get his NFL shot by going through the USFL first. He kept coaching through cancer treatments and told the team to "keep pounding" before its playoff opener at the end of the 2003 season. The Panthers ended up playing in their first Super Bowl later that postseason against the New England Patriots and Mills' "keep pounding" mantra is everywhere around the Panthers. Mills has a statue outside the Panthers' stadium, a testament to his popularity and enduring spirit.
This year, Mills was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
"It's a shame he couldn't be here, he can't be here with his peers," Sam's son Marcus Mills told the Panthers' web site after he toured the Hall of Fame. "But when you see it, you know, it does feel right. He does belong here. He really does."
Sam Mills was an unlikely NFL star
Mills has one of the more unlikely Hall of Fame stories. He went undrafted in 1981. He didn't make his NFL debut until 1986.
Mills was overlooked because he was a short middle linebacker who played at Division II Montclair State in New Jersey. After he was undrafted, he was signed and cut by the Cleveland Browns in 1981. He was also cut by the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League.
Mills caught a break with the USFL's Philadelphia/Baltimore Stars and found an ally in coach Jim Mora. Mills was a three-time all-USFL linebacker and a two-time champion with the Stars. Mora convinced the Saints to sign Mills after the USFL folded. He became one of the greatest players in Saints history, making four Pro Bowls in nine years.
"People always ask me, ‘Who’s the best player you’ve ever coached?’” Mora said, according to a Montclair State University magazine article in 2014. “And I always say, ‘Sam Mills.’ I was fortunate to coach a lot of players, but Sam Mills was No. 1 on that list.”
Mora also coached Peyton Manning, among others.
"I'm so happy for him and his family and I'm extremely excited and kind of overwhelmed with it because I think it was overdue," Mora told WDSU in New Orleans about Mills' Hall of Fame induction.
Mills left a legacy wherever he played. Even though he only played three seasons with Carolina, that's where he's remembered best.
Mills was beloved in Carolina
Mills became a quick fan favorite in Carolina. In the team's first ever win, he intercepted a shovel pass from New York Jets quarterback Bubby Brister and returned it for a touchdown. That gave the Panthers the lead, and they wouldn't trail again.
Mills was a key part of a second-year Panthers team that made the NFC championship game before losing to the Green Bay Packers. He was a Pro Bowler and first-team All-Pro that 1996 season, at age 37. He retired after the 1997 season.
Mills immediately joined the Panthers' coaching staff after he retired. He was linebackers coach when he was diagnosed with cancer. He was given three months to live. He was still coaching at the end of the 2003 season when he gave a speech that lives in Panthers lore.
"When I found out I had cancer, there were two things could do: quit or keep pounding," Mills said, via the Hall of Fame. "I'm a fighter. I kept pounding. You're fighters, too. Keep pounding!"
The Panthers bang the "keep pounding" drum before home games, a tradition that started in 2012.
Mills' induction into the Hall of Fame on Saturday will be bittersweet. But it will be a great reminder of the odds he beat to become an all-time great linebacker and a franchise icon.