By John R. Barrows
They all said Sam Mills was too small. His entire life, at every step, too small.
Too small even for small college football. MUCH too small to be a pro football player, especially a linebacker. At 5-9, 225 pounds, Mills faced off against running backs, receivers, and even quarterbacks who were taller and heavier, every time he stepped on the field, to say nothing about the many blockers who came at him at full speed outweighing him often by more than a hundred pounds.
Undrafted out of Montclair State, Mills was eventually able to catch on with the New Orleans Saints in 1986, and despite his disadvantage in size, he would step on the field for 181 NFL games in 12 seasons over the course of his stellar career, culminating in his enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, on August 6, 2022.
A Multi-Sport Star for the Long Branch High School Green Wave
Samuel Davis Mills Jr. was born June 3, 1959, in Neptune City. He grew up in Long Branch and attended Long Branch High School, where he starred in football, wrestling, track & field, and basketball. As a wrestler, Mills won District Championships in 1976 and 1977 at 170 pounds. In basketball, Mills was a “smooth point guard,” with point guard being a position often associated with players of smaller stature. He was a winner throwing the discus for the Long Branch track & field team; and on the gridiron, he played tight end on offense in addition to anchoring the defense at linebacker.
In his senior season, Mills made 88 solo tackles and assisted on 99 more, and helped lead the Green Wave to a 9-2 record and the Central Jersey Group III championship game. Long Branch Head Coach Frank Glazier called Mills, “the finest football player I’ve coached in 18 years.” Glazier said, “Sam is a tremendous credit to Long Branch. Sam’s a credit to his mother and father, his whole family, his high school and his town. He became a hero to all the kids in Long Branch. He became somebody for all of them to be like. He showed every one of them that they can get a chance to better themselves too. He changed the whole character of the town.”
But Sam Mills was still considered too small to play football at the next level.
The Best Football Player in the History of Montclair State University was a Walk-on
Mills was not offered a football scholarship, so he tried out as a “walk-on” at Montclair State. Mills made an immediate impression, and emerged a star on a statewide basis.
Sam Mills quickly became one of the most feared linebackers to ever come out of Division III football. Mills left Montclair State in 1980 as a three-time New Jersey Collegiate Football Writers Defensive Player of the Year. He was named to the New Jersey Athletic Conference All-Star Team all four of his years. He set three records at Montclair State, two of which may never be broken. He owns the most tackles in a game (22 versus Southern Connecticut) and tackles in a career (501). He was a three-time East Coast Athletic Conference Metropolitan All-Star, a two-time All-East selection, a two-time Co-SIDA All-American and First-Team Kodak All-American. Mill’s jersey, No. 62, became only the second jersey in school history to ever be retired. In 2009, Mills became the first Montclair State player to be enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame.
While at Montclair State, Mills was dubbed “Captain Crunch” by students and fans for his hard-hitting style of play.
Frank Burns, head football coach at Rutgers, once told Sam Mills, “We missed the boat on you. I know that.” Montclair State defensive coordinator McKinley Boston said Sam Mills was “the best Division III player I’ve seen in my 20 years in football.”
But Frank Maloney, head coach at Syracuse University, summed up what the rest of the experts in football believed: “He’s just too small to play linebacker at our level of competition.” And so Mills went undrafted by the National Football League after graduation.
Too Small for the National Football League
Mills was fortunate to have the fledgling United States Football League (USFL) as an alternative to the National Football League for a chance to become a professional football player. He signed on with the Philadelphia Stars and played three seasons before the USFL folded in 1986.
The Philadelphia Stars (in season three they moved to Baltimore) were the most successful team in the brief history of the USFL, making it to the title game in all three years the league was in existence, and winning the championship twice. The head coach of the Stars was Jim Mora, and NFL teams were taking notice of his success.
By 1986, the New Orleans Saints were widely considered the ineptest franchise in NFL history, if not all of professional sports. In the Saints’ first 20 years in the NFL, they never posted a winning record, and never appeared in even a single playoff game. After the USFL folded, the Saints hired Jim Mora to reverse their fortunes. Mora brought some of his favorite players from his Stars teams to the Saints roster, including Sam Mills.
The Saints signed Mills to a contract that year and he immediately established himself as a leader and a star defender at inside linebacker. In his first year, the Saints posted a 7-9 record, but the following year was a breakout season for the Saints, who finished 12-3, the second-best record in the league in a strike-shortened season. That year, Sam Mills was named to the Pro Bowl, which he would achieve four more times. Mills anchored the defense that helped the Saints establish sustained success for first time in franchise history; during his tenure in New Orleans, the team made its first four playoff appearances.
Despite being a key contributor to the Saints’ success, Mills was unable to gain the respect he felt he deserved from his team in terms of being paid. When his contract was up, the Saints had only offered Sam a ten percent raise. An unrestricted free agent who could sign with any team, Mills was forced to stay with the Saints because no team made him a better offer.
“Nothing about my career so far has been likely,” Mills said at the time. “I came into this league being too something and I’ll go out being too something. Too short, too old, too expensive, I’ve heard it all.”
In 1995, Sam Mills signed with the expansion Carolina Panthers as unrestricted free agent, and helped his new team claim the division title and an appearance in the NFC Championship Game. In 1996, Mills’ penultimate season in the NFL, he was named First Team All-NFL and was named Defensive Player of the Year by the Associated Press. Retiring following the 1997 season, Sam Mills for his career accounted for 1,265 tackles, 363 solo, with 20.5 sacks, 11 interceptions returned for 119 yards and a touchdown, and three fumble recoveries for touchdowns.
After his career Mills became an NFL coach for the Panthers. In 2003, he was diagnosed with cancer. Terminal cancer. He was told he had three months to live. While undergoing treatment, Mills gave a speech to the Panthers prior to a playoff game vs. the Dallas Cowboys that started the Panthers’ postseason run to Super Bowl XXXVIII in 2004. In his speech, Mills implored the team to “keep pounding” because he felt the team had inspired him to fight for his life through cancer treatment. “Keep Pounding” became the mantra of the Carolina Panthers and still is to this day. Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme said, “It wasn’t just something he said. It was something he lived. And then when he talked to the team before that (playoff) game, he brought that up. Every play, keep pounding. That was him. It just kind of embodied what we became and in essence, the Carolina Panthers motto to this day.”
Sam Mills, as usual, proved doubters wrong and lived another 17 months before he passed away on April 18, 2005.
Among the many honors bestowed on the man who refused to believe that physical stature was an obstacle are:
- Pro Football Hall of Fame
- New Orleans Saints’ Ring of Honor
- Carolina Panthers Hall of Honor (the first former Panthers player to be so honored)
- College Football Hall of Fame (Mills was the first Montclair St. player to be enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame)
- Montclair State University Hall of Fame
- His high school football jersey is proudly displayed in the Long Branch High School gymnasium
- The Sam Mills Spirit Award is presented annually to the high school football player in Monmouth County who best exemplifies Sam Mill’s dedication, perseverance, integrity and commitment to his community.
All statistics, NFL honors, and other details are all courtesy of Pro Football Reference, https://www.pro-football-reference.com/.
Foster, Mary. (1995). Mills’ Career of Uncertainty Still in Doubt. Associated Press, published in The Daily Advertiser, Lafayette, La., January 5, 1995, P. 17.
Graham, Tony. (1980). Branchers’ Mills learns apologizing easier than sitting. Asbury Park Press, Asbury Park, N.J., March 9, 1980, P. D6.
Menzer, Joe. (2019). How the Mantra “Keep Pounding” Became the Panthers Rallying Cry. Carolina Panthers. Available: https://www.panthers.com/news/how-the-mantra-keep-pounding-came-to-become-the-panthers-rallying-cry
Mills Realistic About a Future in Pro Football. (1980). Asbury Park Press, Asbury Park, N.J., December 21, 1980, P. 24.
Montclair State University Athletics Hall of Fame. (2022). Available: https://montclairathletics.com/honors/hall-of-fame
Politi, Steve. (2016). Who are the 50 greatest NFL players from New Jersey? NJ.com, February 1, 2016. Available: https://www.nj.com/giants/2016/02/who_are_the_50_greatest_nfl_players_from_new_jerse.html
Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2022. (2022). Pro Football Hall of Fame. Available: https://www.profootballhof.com/news/2022/2/pro-football-hall-of-fame-to-enshrine-eight-in-class-of-2022/
Stellar MSC Linebacker Kodak All-American. (1980). The Montclair Times, Montclair, N.J., December 11, 1980, P. 32.
Wheeler, Lonnie. (1986). Saints’ Mouse can Roar. The Times, Shreveport, La., November 12, 1986, P. 31.