(Above photo courtesy of the Carolina Panthers)
(Cover photo courtesy of the New Orleans Saints)
By Clark Judge
Talk of Fame Network
Former linebacker Sam Mills isn’t in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In fact, he’s never been nominated as a finalist or as a semifinalist. While I understand this, I also understand this is the Pro Football Hall of Fame … not the NFL Hall of Fame.
So what? So Sam Mills deserves to be discussed as one of its candidates, and I don’t think I need to draw you a picture. Not only was he a standout linebacker in the NFL; he was so good in the USFL that people tell me he was one of that league’s two best defensive players.
And the other? Reggie White, who is in the Hall of Fame.
An undersized linebacker, Mills went unwanted until former Philadelphia Stars’ defensive coordinator Vince Tobin lobbied then-coach Jim Mora to give him a shot. It was good advice. Mills went on to become a three-time All-USFL choice, a two-time league champion and a member of the all-USFL team.
Then Mills followed Mora to the NFL Saints, ,where he became a five-time Pro Bowler and three-time All-Pro as part of the “Dome Patrol” defense that put New Orleans on the map.
Rickey Jackson was part of that defense, too, and he’s in the Hall of Fame. Jackson was a six-time Pro Bowler; Mills went to Honolulu five times. So he’s at least in the conversation. But throw in those three All-NFL choices, combine them with three All-USFL nominations, and we have something to talk about.
No, we have someone. Sam Mills.
“I know he’s a long shot for the Hall of Fame,” said Bill Kuharich, an executive with the Cleveland Browns who ran the player-personnel departments for the Stars and Saints when Mills was there. “But he was the heart and soul of our defense (in Philadelphia and New Orleans). It’s a great story. It’s just a story that needs to be discussed.”
I know the knocks against the guy. Mills didn't produce a litany of sacks. That wasn’t his game. He left that to Jackson and Pat Swilling in New Orleans. And he wasn’t someone who overpowered his opponents. The guy stood 5-feet-9, for crying out loud. But that wasn’t the measure of this man. He was tough, relentless and reliable – starting 173 of 181 games while making a zillion tackles.
“I remember him being the toughest little man I’ve ever seen in my life,” said Jackson. “He was Mighty Mouse. He’d hit you as hard as he could every time he hit you.”
A free agent in 1995, he signed on with the Carolina Panthers in their first year of expansion and refused to slow down. Not only was he the only player to start every one of the team’s games its first three seasons, he led the Panthers in tackles his first two years, clinched their first franchise victory with an interception, was named to the Pro Bowl in 1996 and became the oldest player in league history to return a fumble for a touchdown.
Mills was 37.
“Every time there’s a small linebacker that people talk about they say, ‘He’s the next Sam Mills,’ “ said Kuharich. “But there will never be another Sam Mills. He was A-1 in every category you can think of. He had a great work ethic. He was intelligent. He was instinctive. And his preparation couldn’t be matched by anyone.
“I remember running into him once during the offseason, and I said, ‘Do you ever take a vacation?’ And he said, ‘For me to stay in this league, I’ve got to work around the clock. The hardest part of the year for me is the offseason.’ Sam Mills' work ethic was over the top. I would put him up against anybody in that conversation. He was a pro’s pro.”
Sam Mills is in the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame, the New Orleans Saints Hall of Fame, the College Football Hall of Fame and the Sports Hall of Fame of New Jersey. And he not only had his jersey number 51 retired by the Panthers -- the first ever for the franchise -- and his name hung in the club's Ring of Honor, but there's a statue of him outside the stadium, too.
What’s missing, of course, is a bust in Canton, and I understand why. He wasn’t an all-decade choice, there are other deserving linebackers in line ahead of him and he wasn’t part of a championship team.
But I also understand that he deserves better. The guy was a complete player – an inspiration to teammates on and off the field and, later, as an assistant coach (“the best coach I ever had,” said former linebacker Will Witherspoon) – and compiled a resume that demands closer inspection.
That won’t happen if he can’t make the cut to 25. So let’s make sure he does. Let’s make Sam Mills a Pro Football Hall-of-Fame candidate whose career can be … and will be … dissected, and not because it’s the compassionate thing to do.
But because it’s the right thing to do.