If you are watching football tomorrow night, you may notice the number 51 on the back of some helmets — this is the story of why.
Football is a clash of titans. Giant men violently tearing into each other, with one side trying to invade a territory that the other side is trying to defend… all to the cheers of the adoring crowd. It’s as close as we have to the gladiatorial games of Ancient Rome. The gridiron heroes become the stuff of legends and there was none bigger than 5’9″ linebacker Sam Mills.
He wasn’t the typical NFL story. He grew up in Long Beach, New Jersey, where he played high school football. He led Long Beach High School to the district championships in both 1976 and 1977 and had his jersey retired by the school. But because of his size, no colleges were interested in him.
He was a walk-on at Montclaire State College, where he still owns the record for most all-time tackles (501), tackles in a season (142) and tackles in a game (22). Mills played at Montclair from 1977–1980, where he was a three-time NJAC First Team All-Star and was named the New Jersey Collegiate Writers Defensive Player of the Year for three straight seasons (78–80). But because of his size, no professional teams were interested in him.
His college coach convinced a friend on the Cleveland Browns to give him a try out, but he was deemed too small. All the scouts loved his game tape, but lost interest when hearing “Five foot nine.” He even tried out for the Canadian Football League, but they passed. Mills ended up getting a job teaching photography and assisting the football coach at East Orange High School in New Jersey.
In 1983, his fate would change with the start of a new football league, the USFL.
The 24-year-old tried out for the Philadelphia Stars and made the roster. He played for the team for three years (that’s how long the league existed). He earned the nickname “Field Mouse” because of his tenacity and speed. He was also known for his leadership. Mills led the Stars to two USFL championships, was named to three All-USFL teams and is a member of the USFL’s All-Time Team. He is considered one of the two best defensive players from the league, the other being Hall-of-Famer Reggie White.
When the league ended, the Stars coach Jim Mora was signed by the NFL’s New Orleans Saints, and he brought Mills with him. The Field Mouse became a leader of the ‘Dome Patrol’ and was selected to the Pro Bowl four times (’87, ’88, ’91, ’92) while with the Saints. Mora, who coached 15 years in the NFL, has referred to Mills as the best player he ever coached.
In 1995, Mills became a free agent and signed with the newly formed Carolina Panthers. He quickly became the defensive leader and was the only player to start the teams first 48 games (three seasons). Mills intercepted New York Jets quarterback Bubby Brister and returned it 36-yards for a touchdown and giving the Panthers their first franchise victory. He was part of the ’96 team that made it to the NFC championship game, and that year, Mills was selected to his fifth pro-bowl — at the time, he was the oldest player ever selected at the age of 37. Mills would go on to play one more season with the Panthers before retiring.
In his 12 seasons, Mills recorded 1,319 tackles, 20.5 sacks, 11 interceptions, and four touchdowns. He started 173 of 181 games and was named to the NFL All-Pro team three times (’91, ’92, ’96). He was also inducted into the Carolina Panthers Hall of Fame.
Mills stayed with the Panthers, becoming a defensive assistant coach (98) and then Linebacker coach (99-04). In August of 2003, Mills was diagnosed with intestinal cancer and given only a few months to live. He went through chemo and radiation while continuing to coach. The team was pulled together and told at the same time. Mills explained that he had a choice: to give up or keep pounding.
Head Coach John Fox asked him to gave a speech before a big playoff game. He called for the team to “keep pounding.” It was a speech that inspired the team to victory over the Dallas Cowboys later that year and on to the Super Bowl, losing at the last moment to the New England Patriots. “Keep Pounding” has become the team’s mantra.
Mills continued to coach the team through the 2004 season, but after a two-year battle, he passed away on the morning of April 18th, 2005. The number 51 jersey he wore was retired; the first number ever retired by the Panthers.
A statue of Mills was erected outside the stadium, and the Keep Pounding foundation was created to raise money for cancer research. When Nike was awarded the contract to make the NFL players jerseys in 2012, they were inspired by his speech and sew the words “Keep Pounding” on the inside collar of every Panther jersey. And prior to every home game, an honorary drummer pounds a big drum with “Keep Pounding” on it.
Even though they weren’t the home team in Super Bowl 50, the Panthers pounded the drum anyway with the honorary drummer being NBA star and Panthers fan Stephen Curry.
Tomorrow night, the Carolina Panthers will host the Philadelphia Eagles for a Thursday Night prime time game. On the back of each Panthers helmet you will see the number 51, as the team remembers Sam Mills — one of the biggest men to ever play the game.
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