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Sam Mills’ long journey to the Pro Football Hall of Fame is finally over

Mills is the Saints’ fourth Hall of Famer, and perhaps their last of the pre-Sean Payton era.

NFL Hall of Fame Enshrinement Ceremony Photo by Nick Cammett/Getty Images

When Jim Mora signed as the Saints head coach in 1986 and brought with him a 5’9” middle linebacker named Sam Mills from the USFL’s Baltimore Stars, it is unlikely that anyone in New Orleans would have believed one day that Mora would be inducting Mills into Canton. Imagine if I told you that the Saints were signing the current USFL champion Birmingham Stallions middle linebacker Terrill Hanks, and that he was going to have a Hall of Fame career in the NFL. No disrespect to Hanks, but that would sound unbelievable.

The writing on the wall was there for Mills in 1986, however. The former college walk-on was the leader of the two-time USFL champion Stars defense, and had gained a reputation as the best defensive player in that league outside of Reggie White, who is arguably the greatest pass rusher of all time.

New Orleans Saints
Mills was the leader of the greatest linebacker corps in NFL history
Photo by Jim Gund/Getty Images

With the addition of Mills, Vaughn Johnson, and Pat Swilling joining future Hall of Famer Rickey Jackson in New Orleans in 1986, the Dome Patrol was born, the greatest linebacker corps in the history of the NFL. Each player made at least four Pro Bowls in their six years together, and in 1992 became the first, and still the only, team to send four linebackers at once to the Pro Bowl. The Saints never had a winning season in the 19 years prior to the formation of the Dome Patrol, and only had one losing season in the six years the four linebackers were together. The Saints would win their first division title and make their first four playoff appearances during this time as well. A very intelligent middle linebacker, Mills always seemed to be one step ahead of the offense, and his compact frame and huge chip on his shoulder made him one of the hardest hitting linebackers in football. Mills was the heart and soul of this era of Saints football, and it would not have happened without him.

Mills’ legend grew even more during his time with the Carolina Panthers. While he only spent three years on the field in Carolina, his impact with the expansion team was immense. Mills sealed the first win in Panthers’ history with a pick six, and in 1996 became the oldest defensive player to make a Pro Bowl at the age of 37. After his retirement, Mills coached with the Panthers for seven years, and was the only player in their Hall of Honor for over 20 years.

Diagnosed with intestinal cancer in August of 2003, Mills was given just three months to live. Mills would go on to coach during the 2003 and 2004 seasons while undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatment. Mills’ plea to “keep pounding” inspired the Panthers team that would make Super Bowl 38, and it continues to be the team’s mantra to this day. Mills would tragically pass away from cancer on April 18, 2005, 20 months after being given just three months to live.

NFL: AUG 06 Hall of Fame Enshrinement
Melanie Mills and Jim Mora unveil Sam Mills’ bust at the Pro Football Hall of Fame
Photo by Michael Longo/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Mills was finally named a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame earlier this year, and was inducted into the Hall this past weekend in Canton, Ohio in his 19th year of eligibility. Mills and Rickey Jackson are now the fifth pair of linebackers who spent over five seasons together to make the Hall of Fame, a list that includes pairings such as Jack Ham and Jack Lambert of the 1970s Steelers and Lawrence Taylor and Harry Carson of the 1980s Giants. I had the privilege of being present in Canton for Mills’ induction, and it was an outstanding moment for Saints and Panthers fans everywhere. Inducted by his widow Melanie Mills and his former coach Jim Mora on a sunny, Saturday afternoon in northern Ohio, Mills is now the 29th, shortest, and only undrafted linebacker in the Hall of Fame.

Melanie Mills’ Hall of Fame Speech can be viewed here.

Who’s next?

Drew Brees will be named an NFL Hall of Famer in 2026 in his first year of eligibility, but the next Saint to be up for consideration will actually be guard Jahri Evans. 2023 will be Evans’ first year of eligibility, and while it is unlikely he will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer, as only four offensive guards have been (bonus points if you can name all four), he should receive a lot of consideration over the next few years of his eligibility. Evans is a five-time All-Pro, six-time Pro Bowler, member of the NFL’s 2010s All-Decade team, and was the best offensive lineman on the Saints’ Super Bowl-winning team and for the subsequent half decade.

Outside of Brees, Evans has the best chance of being the next Saints player inducted into the Hall of Fame. If Cameron Jordan continues to climb the all-time sack leaderboard (he currently sits at 27th) he too should have a serious chance at making the Hall of Fame when he eventually hangs it up.

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