CANTON, Ohio – Will Sam Mills go into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on 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 selected team’s ball cap is affixed to his head on his Hall of Fame plaque.
Canton uses bronze busts. One of the Mills unveiled at Saturday’s enshrinement, like all others, depicted his face, but not his teams.
Had Mills been given his option in the early 1980s, his only team would have been the Cleveland Browns.
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Mills walked out of Montclair State (New Jersey) in 1981, but Browns head coach Sam Rutgliano thought the younger Sam, a 5-foot-9 linebacker, could be the player he was. Mills was convinced he would make the team.
Rutigliano put the final call in the hands of defensive coordinator Marty Schottenheimer, then told friends he was afraid to cut him, as the Browns did, which was a bad idea.
And old Sam was right. Mills starred on three Philadelphia/Baltimore Stars teams that won USFL championships, rocked them nine years with the New Orleans Saints and three years with the Carolina Panthers where they erected a statue.
Mills’ long-time strategy for overcoming is “keep hitting.” He used the words in a famous postseason speech to the Panthers when he was the Carolina coach dying of cancer.
He left the world in 2005 at the age of 45.
“He was a father, a friend, a husband and a leader who always fought back against the odds,” his wife Melanie said, speaking in his place at the enshrinement. “He treated everyone with dignity and respect.” He made friends everywhere. He made friends during his cancer treatment. He never forgot just one man.”
The family chose Jim Mora as the Mills Hall of Fame presenter. Mora nervously offered Mills a roster spot in the USFL. After three USFL championships in the Saints’ head coaching job, Mora reluctantly gave Mills a roster spot in New Orleans.
“When he first got into the defensive huddle against the Saints, I had to admit he looked short,” Mora said. “As we were going, he didn’t look small to me again.”
Mills helped lead second-year expansion team Carolina to the NFC Finals in 1996, at age 37.
Melanie Mills and Mora jointly watched Sam’s likeness on the stage of enshrinement as they pulled the golden cloth from the bronze statue.