His story has all the makings of an incredible movie. The tale of the undersized guy succeeding against the bigger opponents is something that appeals to so many of us. But Sam Mills was so much more than the ‘David versus Goliath’ narrative.
For Mills, the NFL Pro Bowls, NFL All-Pro Awards, All-USFL honors, USFL Championships, Saints Hall of Fame induction and having his jersey retired by the Carolina Panthers are all impressive feats. But you can’t define Mills by his extensive list of accomplishments. To those who shared the field with him, he was so much more.
As we journey back to look at the life of the late Sam Mills through the eyes of his former teammates and competitors, we learn about the type of guy he was, the things that were important to him and hear some interesting, touching and humorous memories along the way.
Life of a Saint: Sam Mills
Brett Maxie on Sam Mills
“Sam was the most genuine teammate that I ever played with. He was one of the brightest guys and accomplished a lot considering his stature and playing that position. He was probably the best player, pound for pound, that I ever played with. For what he did, with the type of player he was – from a physical standpoint, it was incredible. He is the consummate football player.
I remember when I thought about going into coaching, he was there at that same Super Bowl. We were playing in a golf tournament. He was staying in the hotel a couple of rooms down from where I was. He and I were talking in my room about our careers after football. We retired the same year. I told him what my thoughts were, that I was going into coaching. I asked, ‘How about you?’ He said, ‘I don’t want to coach. I have this insurance thing that I have going. I think that’s what I’m going to do.’ So, he was going to sell insurance. Well, that same year, once I got hired in Carolina with the Panthers, Sam ended up being a part of the organization, but not in coaching. He started out in the personnel department. He thought about it and decided he needed to stay in football. I think that’s what he really wanted. Something just steered him away from football for a while. We talked at that Super Bowl for a while. We kept talking about it and I just kept bringing it up. Next thing I know, a couple of months later, we’re both working for the same organization, just in two different departments.
You talk about a great individual though, good grief.”
Toi Cook on Sam Mills
“Whenever you’d see Sam, we’d always say ‘Sammie’ like Sammie Davis. His nickname for me though was, ‘All I know’ because he’d always start out saying ‘All I know…’ His other one to me was, ‘Stanford my ass!’ I think that was his favorite. One time, we were in a special teams meeting and Joe Marciano asked us a question about this one formation. No one could answer it. He finally gets to me and I think I was sleeping when he called on me. I said the wrong answer and Joe was like, ‘Wrong! Stanford my ass!’ From that point on, to Sammy I was ‘Stanford my ass.’
I remember when they did the statue of him in Charlotte. I was there. I was like, ‘Sammy, who gets a statue while they’re still playing?’ That just goes to show you what kind of person Sam Mills was.
You want to talk about hard work and ‘want to’, he was the epitome of ‘want to’. Everyone has some kind of disability or disadvantage when it comes to playing sports, unless you’re Michael Jordan or Kobe or Lebron. As far as being small or undersized, he ain’t the only guy. But I don’t know a lot of people that taught high school while they were trying to be a football player. And I’m not talking about P.E. He was a teacher. When he was trying to make the USFL, the jobs he was doing, it’s just an unbelievable story.”
Toi Cook also mentioned that he is in the early stages of trying to put together a movie about Sam Mills.
Willie Roaf on Sam Mills
“Sam was one of the two nicest guys I ever played with. It was him and Dermontti Dawson. Sam Mills was the nicest guy you’d want to play with. He was the leader of our team. I still don’t understand why we let him go to Carolina. Then he became the oldest linebacker to make All Pro. Me and him lived around the corner and had a great relationship.
I remember one time in practice, I went to hit Sam and if you didn’t get low, he was gonna be up underneath you. So, I got low and I hit Sam and he bent the bar on the front of my helmet. He hit me so hard that he bent the bottom of my helmet to let me know. Sam brought it. Sam was a class act. It’s crazy that a lot of those linebackers get Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Mark Fields, who I played with, got Hodgkin’s. A lot of those linebackers and safeties get Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. When he passed, I was happy that there was the statue of him outside of the Panthers facility. But Sam should have never left the Saints organization. When Jim Mora got him from the USFL and he got a chance to get in the NFL, he earned it. Sam is another one of those guys that when you talk about the Hall of Fame, he deserves it. He was one of those unsung heroes to me and doesn’t get the credit. He’s another guy that deserves to be in the hall.
I remember going to his house. His wife and kids were there. We’d just sit down and talk about life. He’d ask how I was doing. He was a man of God and he’d talk about living the right way. I needed to hear that. He helped teach me how to do things the right way. He offered those words of wisdom along the way. Obviously, my dad taught me a lot, but Sam was always there for me too. I look at Sam and Reggie White in a similar way. They were similar guys in that everybody respected them. There is not one guy that wouldn’t walk in and listen to them talk Aeneas Williams is another guy. Those guys were just guys that carried themselves in a way that you have to respect them.”
Stan Brock on Sam Mills
“Without sitting down and looking at everyone Coach Mora brought in, Sam Mills was the game changer. He was the guy. Not because he was a great football player, which he was, but because of his attitude, his demeanor and the way he went about the game. He brought a lot to a lot of us who thought we knew better. We thought we were a little bit better than what we were. He brought that attitude and that character. He had that quiet, do your work mentality and his ability to play football was crazy.
When they first got there, Coach Mora’s first year, I was a seven-year veteran. When you’re a seven-year vet in the National Football League, you have all the answers. Well, you think you have all the answers. So, we’re sitting there at our first dinner. Our new coach is there, and we’ve never really talked to this guy before. He was kind of a hard guy to warm up to. Then we started looking at these players because that’s when the USFL was folding and they were bringing players in. We knew Coach Mora was from the USFL.
So, we’re looking around and we see this little, short guy in the chow line and we were wondering what position he played. We thought, ‘He must be a running back or something.’ The next day, we go over to the lockers and we see he’s got a black jersey on. So then we thought, ‘Man, he’s too thick to be a DB. Is he a linebacker? Oh my God, he’s gonna get killed.’
So we go out and this is the old days where you used to hit all the time. You lined up and you hit. We had full pads every day of practice. So the first time we go one-on-one, sometimes you’d line up against a linebacker or a DB. It was just luck of the draw. So, it looked like this little, short guy was gonna work against me. I said to someone in line, ‘Oh, I’m gonna show this guy what it’s like in the NFL.’ I came off the ball and Sam hit me right underneath the chin, picked me up and threw me on the ground like a rag doll. At that point, some of my teammates were like, ‘Whoa!’ The figured I must have stepped wrong or twisted my ankle or something must have happened. The next time I came around in line, I made sure that I was gonna go against Sam. This time, I concentrated on it and I was gonna get him. I came off with the best technique that I had and he put his helmet underneath my chin, stood me up, threw me on the ground and stood there in the hole. I got up, dusted my pride off and thought, ‘Well, I think that guy’s got a chance to make it.’ Everyone was laughing at me.
We were very lucky to have him on our team. He did more than just play that linebacker position. He was a team leader on and off the field and taught a lot of us how to prepare and go about playing the game.”
Pat Swilling on Sam Mills
“I called him ‘The Field General’. Rickey Jackson was the guy that when the hammer needed to be brought down, Rickey brought down the hammer. Sam Mills was the everyday, student of the game. He used to call me ‘Sack Man’. He’d say, ‘Here they come, Sack Man. They’re coming right.’ Low and behold the quarterback would be looking at Sam, and then he’d run the play. And sure enough, here they come.
Sam Mills was a coach on the field. Sam Mills was a wonderful person. I’ll tell you the truth, when I think about Sam I get choked up just because of who he was. He was a hard-working guy and a family guy. And I’ve never seen a guy who loved football more than Sam did. He loved the game and he played that way.
He wasn’t the most gifted guy at 5’9”, 5’8”, 5.7” or whatever he was. Hell, when I first saw him, I thought, ‘Damn. Is he a running back or something?’ I’m standing at 6’4” and I was looking at him thinking, ‘He’s really an inside linebacker?’ But man, when he strapped it up, he would knock your d-ck in the dirt. He was something special. When he used to hit those guards, it didn’t take them long to figure out he was for real.”
Brad Edelman on Sam Mills
“He was an ideal teammate. If you had to use someone to define ‘teammate’, Sam Mills was the guy who would come to mind. He was loyal. He led by his actions and he was very well respected for that.
I practiced against him most every day. Although we didn’t go full speed, Sam never half-assed it, ever in his career, even at practice. So, even though we weren’t going full speed, we hit pretty well. Sam had a great leverage because of his size and his physique. He had a low center of gravity. For a shorter player, he really packed a punch. He could get underneath you and he could get on you very quickly. He would hit you and he’d move.
He was THE ideal teammate. The kind of guy you’d get in the foxhole with. He was a trusted ally on the field and a genuinely unpretentious, good-natured human being off the field.”
Quinn Early on Sam Mills
One of the things that really stood out for me about Sam was the fact that he was the hardest working guy that I knew. He worked hard in practice. He didn’t take any crap from anybody. He had this amazing work ethic.
But the biggest thing about Sam was, what an amazing and free man he was. He would make it a point to sit down and ask you how you were doing. He would talk your life and your achievements, He honestly cared about his teammates as people, not just as football players.
As athletes, we all go through different levels of people not believing in you. ‘He can’t do it.’ Many of us, Sam included, were motivated by that in spite of all that. Even when he proved it, they’d still say, ‘He’s too short.’
I remember we were playing a game and Sam didn’t necessarily play on the kickoff team. Something happened where somebody got hurt. Keep in mind that at this point in his career, he’s a Pro Bowl player and he’s part of the Dome Patrol. He is THE guy. Anyway, the special teams coach yelled out, ‘I need one!’ Sometimes, these star players are not going to be the first ones to run out on the field. But Sam was sitting on the bench and coach needed one. He was the first one to jump up, grab his helmet, threw the helmet on and ran on the field. He didn’t even play on the kickoff team. He ran down there and made this amazing hit. I think he made the guy fumble. He made this amazing play and I remember just seeing him grab the helmet and run out on the field and make the play.
That’s just an example of what Sam brought to the team.
John Fourcade on Sam Mills
“Sam Mills, to me, was the heart and soul. He was a gentleman. He was well respected and was always business first, pleasure second. The guy was all about playing the game of football. He never let his height, his weight or whatever interfere. Sam was a class act and a gentleman to be around.
I’m not just saying this because he’s deceased. I’m saying this because I witnessed it for five years. The guy was just class on and off the field. He treated you, and not just former players, he treated people with kindness and respect that people deserved to be treated with.
He was a workaholic. He showed up with his lunch pail every day. Then he went home at the end of the day. I remember that split-gap tooth that you’d look at all the time. Sam was just a great guy to be around. I don’t think there’s anything that anyone could say bad about Sam on or off the field. ‘Mighty Mouse’ was a great one.”
Vaughan Johnson on Sam Mills
“He was like a big brother. He was a great friend. A lot of people talked about his football playing and that’s kind of obvious. He was a better man than he was a football player. He really cared about other people. His humility was unprecedented. He’d do anything to help you.
Since we played the same position, we played side-by-side. But before that, we were competitors. We were both trying to make the team when we first got there. Think about it. He was far more advanced in the defense than I was. He had played in Jim Mora’s system in the USFL. But any questions I had, any problems I had, He never had a problem helping and telling me things to make me better even though we were fighting for the same job. That just goes to show you what type of person he was; tremendous man. He was an excellent football player, but a tremendous man and a great friend.
The thing about Sam was, the fans in New Orleans used to call him, ‘Field Mouse’. That wasn’t his favorite comment about him. Sam and I, after the game, would go to get something to eat. So, one time, we go into New Orleans to go to dinner and this place is packed. We walk in the door and one of the fans stood up and hollered, ‘FIEEEELD MOUUUUSE!’ It was hilarious. The whole restaurant looked. Of course, he’s onto the autograph signing. So, even though it wasn’t his favorite thing, he handled it with class and signed autographs, smiled for pictures.
But I never let him forget it. Anytime I’d see him, ‘FIEEEELD MOUUUUSE!’”
Tyrone Hughes on Sam Mills
“The little time I knew him, he was a great guy and great teammate. He was one of the guys who was willing to help out the younger guys to learn. But not only that, he worked hard in film study and on the field. He was a veteran guy and some of the things he did really made you appreciate him but also made you appreciate how much he appreciated the game.
You’d hear coaches talk about wanting their starters play special teams. I know Coach Osborne used to do that with us in college. Once I got to the pros, I didn’t think that that was the case. But with a 53-man roster, a lot of those guys, especially the defensive guys, have to get in there and play special teams. One of the things that made me successful was Sam. Sam Mills was the center on kickoff returns. He was on the front line and he was the reason I scored a couple of touchdowns, both on punt returns and kickoff returns my rookie year. Anytime I needed to know something, I could always go to him and say, ‘Hey Sam, what did you see on that play?’ You could always go to him. He was always approachable and happy to help.
He used to call me ‘Ninth Ward’. It wasn’t anything negative. Just the fact that I was from the Ninth Ward, he and Gene Atkins used to call me that. But I think I earned their respect as a rookie by being able to do the punt and kickoff returns as well as I did. He would always say, ‘Hey, Ninth Ward! Keep doing what you’re doing. Keep working hard.’”
Merril Hoge on Sam Mills
“Sam and I went over to Europe on a couple of trips for the NFL. That’s where I got to know him. I had already played against him. Playing against him and then meeting him were completely to the contrary. He’s a very soft-spoken, mild-mannered, respectful, genuine guy. But he is fierce on the football field. He was like a load of dynamite.
I remember, we were getting ready to play them and this is where I get the term, ‘fist fight at the 50’. It seemed like we stayed at the 50-yard line and just went back and forth, toe-to-toe when we went there to play him.
Everybody has to have some level of intellect to play in the NFL and to play for a long period of time. If you don’t have some intelligence and work at your craft, you just get exposed. That level of football is just too complicated and too sophisticated. He was a student of the game and he was a ball of dynamite when he hit man! He played the game the way it was supposed to be played.
Everybody always used to talk about his size. Quite honestly, people forget that we’re not the NBA. We aren’t trying to play above the rim. We want to play below the rim. We want to play a leverage game. It’s not about size. Size is irrelevant if you play with great leverage and technique, especially at his position.
As a person, I genuinely got to know him. We really connected. I was really moved by the kind of person he was. I remember when he got diagnosed (with cancer). I remember I was driving to NFL Films to do a show when I heard. I hadn’t talked to him in a couple years. The one thing I remember when I was diagnosed was people would say, ‘I’m sorry I didn’t call. I just didn’t know what to say.’ With Sam, I didn’t know what to say either. I remember what all those people said to me and it struck me. You don’t have to know what to say. Just knowing that you’re thinking of somebody and calling them up and telling them, ‘Hey, I’m not sure what to say, but I’m thinking of you.’ Those things matter. So, I called him up and I said, ‘Sam, I really don’t have words. I know the kind of person you are. I know you’ll take it on and I’m here if you need anything. I don’t expect you to follow up because you have to battle. I will be the one checking in.’ I remember he started crying. He told me how much he appreciated it and I remember how grateful I was that I made that call versus hoping I’d make that call or wishing I would have made that call.”
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