Editor’s Note: This story first appeared on Montclair State’s Red Hawks Athletics.
True to his inspirational words, Sam Mills kept pounding, and Thursday evening, it finally paid off for the Montclair State great.
Mills’ outstanding football career will now take a place posthumously in Canton, Ohio, as the former NFL All-Pro was among the eight newest inductees into the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2022. The announcement was made during the 11th NFL Honors primetime special that aired from Los Angeles, the site of Super Bowl LVI.
Mills will be enshrined into the Hall of Fame on Saturday, August 6, at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium. Tackle Tony Boselli, wide receiver Cliff Branch, safety Le Roy Butler, defensive linemen Richard Seymour and Bryant Young, coach Dick Vermeil and official Art McNally will join Mills in the class.
Mills was elected from a list of 18 finalists, who had been determined earlier by the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee. Mills was in his 20th year of eligibility and third as a finalist.
It will be the sixth Hall of Fame induction for Mills, who was enshrined into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2009. He is also a member of the New Orleans Saints Hall of Fame and the state Hall of Fame in Louisiana, New Jersey, and North Carolina.
Mills, who passed away in April 2005 at age 45 following a 20-month battle against cancer, was a standout at Division III Montclair State from 1977-80. He was named captain his final two seasons and a Kodak All-American selection a senior. His 501 career tackles set a school record, 142 tackles as a sophomore the school’s single-season mark, and his 22-tackle performance as a junior established a single-game record. He was a three-time defensive player of the year selection by the New Jersey Collegiate Football Writers Association.
Mills’ No. 62 was retired by Montclair State in 1981, one of two numbers in MSU history to be retired.
Deemed “too small” to play linebacker in the pros, the 5’9″ Mills went on to an outstanding career which began in the United States Football League (USFL) with the Philadelphia Stars. He then moved on to the National Football League (NFL), where he became an All-Pro with the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers.
In 1997, Mills finished his Carolina playing career, having not missed a start in 50 games, including the playoffs, and leading the team in tackles two of his three seasons. His Panthers career was distinguished by two of the biggest plays in team history.
His 36-yard interception return for a touchdown versus the Jets in 1995 triggered the first victory in team history. It was a turning point in the team’s record-setting inaugural season. The following year, his interception versus Dallas in the 1996 divisional playoffs sealed the first postseason win in franchise history. In recognition of his contributions, Mills became the first former player and the second member of the Panthers Hall of Honor.
Overall, Mills played 12 seasons in the NFL and recorded 1,319 tackles, 20.5 sacks, 11 interceptions, and four touchdowns while starting 173 of 181 games. He played the first nine seasons with the Saints and was a four-time Pro Bowl selection, making the trip as a Panther in 1996. He was also a three-time All-USFL selection and helped the Stars to league titles in 1983 and 1984.
After his playing career, Mills became an assistant coach with the Panthers and was diagnosed with cancer in 2003. Although told he had only a few months to live, he underwent chemotherapy and radiation and continued to coach. In the Panthers’ postseason run to Super Bowl XXVIII, 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 speech inspired Nike, who was awarded the contract for NFL jerseys starting in the 2012 NFL season. “Keep Pounding” was sewn on the inside collars of Panthers jerseys in honor of Mills.
In 2002, Mills was one of several players nominated to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The Panthers honored him with a statue outside Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina. In 2017, the life and career of Mills were chronicled in the hour-long A Football Life on the NFL Network. A Football Life showcases the lives and careers of legendary players, coaches and executives. NFL Films examines the untold stories of the most influential NFL icons with unprecedented access. Each film tells the story of how their legacy is forever intertwined in the fabric of NFL history. The show featured Mills’ journey from a standout linebacker at Division III linebacker Montclair State to one of the great linebackers in NFL history. He was a five-time Pro Bowler and selected All-Pro three times. Former Montclair State head football coach Fred Hill was among the many former teammates and coaches that took part in the filming.
Mills graduated from Long Branch High School and earned a Bachelor of Science degree in industrial technology from Montclair State, and was inducted as a member of the MSU Hall of Fame in 1992. He was awarded an honorary doctoral degree at Montclair State University commencement ceremonies in 1998.
Mills’ name and famous motto are featured inside the Fitness Center inside the Panzer Athletic Center. One of the four residence halls inside Montclair State’s The Heights bears his name (Sam Mills Hall) in addition to one of the dining areas, Sam’s Place.
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Lasting Legacy, Montclair Magazine