As part of Homecoming 2022, the campus community celebrated the legacy and recent Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement of its greatest football player of all time – linebacker Sam Mills ’81.
Mills, who was once considered too small to play linebacker in the NFL, received the league’s most prestigious honor on August 6 when he was posthumously enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 2022. One of the all-time greatest athletes to graduate from Montclair State University, Mills was an NCAA Division III standout from 1977-80, setting school records with 501 career tackles, 142 tackles for a single season, and 22 tackles for a single game. Montclair retired Mills’ No. 62 jersey in 1981, inducted him into its Athletic Hall of Fame in 1992 and conferred an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree on him in May 1998.
During Homecoming on Saturday, October 29, Montclair celebrated Mills’ posthumous honor with a lunch reception for the Mills family, friends and teammates and the unveiling of a plaque on Sprague Field before the Red Hawks football game against Christopher Newport University.
Mills’ wife, Melanie, attended the ceremony and the festivities celebrating his legacy, including the premiere screening of the Montclair faculty- and student-produced film Teammates, which can be seen on hawkplus.tv.
After retiring from playing in 1997, Mills became an assistant coach with the Carolina Panthers. He was diagnosed with cancer in 2003 and told he had only a few months to live. Despite that, he underwent chemotherapy and radiation and continued coaching. In the Panthers’ postseason run-up to Super Bowl XXXVIII, he was an inspirational force. His plea to “Keep pounding” in an emotional speech before the Panthers’ victory over the Dallas Cowboys later became the name of a fund to sponsor cancer research programs and an official team slogan.
The first 400 fans who arrived for the Red Hawks’ Homecoming game received a commemorative rally towel inscribed with Mills’ inspirational motto, which also now adorns the back of the Montclair football players’ helmets.
“We took our place in the Hall of Fame and they encouraged us to call Canton our home, but today coming back to Montclair on this Homecoming, this is our home, New Jersey is our home. Montclair State University is our home,” Melanie Mills told the crowd at the game. “We, the Mills family, are honored to share his biggest accolade with all of you and know that you are a part of his journey. Keep pounding!”
Montclair’s Head Football Coach Rick Giancola, aka Coach G, an assistant coach while Mills was at Montclair, told Montclarion Sports Editor Matt Orth that he recognized from the beginning that Mills was more than a stand-out player.
Montclair coaches initially were concerned that Mills would follow his high school coach to William Paterson University, he said. “When Head Coach [Fred] Hill spoke to him about that, Sam said ‘I give you my hand.’ They shook hands. And Sam was committed to Montclair State. That’s the kind of young man he was; a young man of character, he was upfront and honest.”
Coach G went on to say, “He was always doing what he was asked to do. But more than that, he was always willing to help people. And he played with the gusto and the challenge of a young man who loved football, and that’s the way he played.”
With his name and motto featured inside the Panzer Athletic Center, his legacy continues to inspire students on campus to achieve their dreams.