Even death couldn’t stop Sam Mills. The former Carolina Panthers linebacker’s legacy has kept pounding even after he died of cancer in 2005. On Saturday will come his biggest honor yet — Mills will posthumously be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. Represented by family, friends and colleagues, Mills will be inducted as part of an eight-man class. The ceremony will be broadcast starting at 12 noon on ESPN, with Mills’ induction slated to be one of the earlier ones in the program.
“I can’t understand why it took so long for him to get in, but thankfully it’s finally happening,” said Dan Morgan, once a Panther linebacker and now Carolina’s assistant general manager. Morgan is one of this 2022 team’s last direct connections to Mills, who transitioned from star Panther player into beloved Carolina assistant coach after he retired following the 1997 season.
It did take a long time. Mills wasn’t elected into the hall of fame until his 20th and final year of eligibility as a modern-era player, falling just short several times. But the man who coined the mantra “Keep Pounding” and who has had his own statue outside Bank of America Stadium standing since 1998 — five years before his cancer diagnosis — has finally joined the game’s greatest players. Jim Mora, his longtime head coach in both the USFL and the New Orleans Saints, will be part of Mills’ induction ceremeony. Sam’s widow Melanie and his children are also expected to be in attendance. Although Mills’ story is familiar by now to most Panther fans, it’s worth sketching once more on the eve of his induction. He didn’t get to Charlotte until age 35, when he was one of Carolina’s first free-agent signings before the inaugural 1995 season. (By comparison, linebacker Luke Kuechly retired at age 28; Morgan played his last game as a pro at age 29).
“Yes, we signed him, but I really thought his best days were behind him,” said Charlie Dayton, who ran the team’s public relations department at the time. “I thought, ‘Well, Sam’s got a great reputation. He’ll be a good guy to have around.’ But boy, he turned out to be a great player. Because of how much attention the ‘Keep Pounding’ speech gets, it sometimes gets overshadowed how many big plays he made here.”