Carolina Panthers legend Sam Mills named Hall of Fame finalist

Sam Mills of the Carolina Panthers Mandatory Credit: Al Bello/ALLSPORT
Sam Mills of the Carolina Panthers Mandatory Credit: Al Bello/ALLSPORT /

Former Carolina Panthers legend Sam Mills has been named a 2020 Pro Football Hall of Fame finalist.

On Thursday night, the Pro Football Hall of Fame released its list of 15 modern-era finalists for the class of 2020. Among them was legendary Carolina Panthers linebacker Sam Mills. At 5’9,” Mills was one of the smallest middle linebackers to ever play the game. The Montclair State product didn’t reach the NFL until age 27 after spending the early portion of his pro career fighting to make it in the CFL. The New Orleans Saints gave him his first NFL opportunity in 1986, as he remained with the organization through the 1994 season.

Mills joined the Panthers for their inaugural season in 1995, and played two more years in Carolina before retiring at the conclusion of the 1997 campaign. He would spend the next seven years working as a coach on the Panthers’ staff before tragically passing away in 2005. As good as he was on the field, Mills’ legacy goes far outside the white lines, as his fight with cancer was the inspiration for Carolina’s Super Bowl run in 2003, and his “Keep Pounding” speech would go on to become the team’s official mantra.

In 12 NFL seasons, Mills was a five-time Pro Bowler in addition to being named an All-Pro.

Once making it to the NFL, Mills became one of the best linebackers of his generation. He was five times named to the Pro Bowl, and was named a first-team All-Pro in 1996. Mills played in 181 regular-season games, totaling nearly 1,300 tackles, 22 forced fumbles, and 11 interceptions. He nearly led the league in tackles in 1994, and since his retirement in 1997, only Ray Lewis, London Fletcher, and Derrick Brooks have tallied more in their careers than Mills.

After being signed by the Panthers in 1995, Mills started all 48 regular-season games during his three years with the team, and was a key member of Carolina’s second-ranked defense in 1996. In Week Seven of the team’s inaugural season, Mills recorded the only pick-six of his career to give the Panthers the lead in what would go on to be the franchise’s first-ever victory. He would finish the season with a career-high five interceptions to go with what was also a career-best five forced fumbles. In 1996, Mills finished with 122 tackles and a career-high 5.5 sacks en route to being named a first team All-Pro for the first time. He retired following the 1997 season, and joined the Panthers’ coaching staff as a defensive assistant and linebackers coach. Mills finished his playing career with 1,265 tackles, good enough for 21st all-time.

Mills and his fight with cancer not only served as an inspiration to the team, but also brought the “Keep Pounding” mantra into existence.

During his playing career, Mills was undoubtedly a difference-maker for the Panthers; however, even after, he continued to have an impact on the franchise. His post-career influence began through coaching, but was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2003, and was told he had only months to live. Despite that, Mills continued in his role with the team during the 2003 and 2004 seasons, all while undergoing his treatments. During the Panthers’ playoff run in 2003, Mills delivered his famous “Keep Pounding” speech that served as the team’s inspiration. Mills’ words fueled Carolina all the way to the Super Bowl that season. He remained with the team through the next season before passing away in 2005 at the age of 45.

Carolina Panthers "Keep Pounding" drum
Carolina Panthers “Keep Pounding” drum (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images) /

"“When I found out I had cancer, there were two things could do: quit or keep pounding. I’m a fighter. I kept pounding. You’re fighters, too. Keep pounding!”-Sam Mills to the Panthers prior to the 2003 regular-season finale"

Since his death, Mills has become the only Panther in franchise history to have his jersey number retired, in addition to becoming the first member of the team’s Hall of Honor, while also remaining the only player to have a statue outside Bank of America Stadium. His Keep Pounding mantra has become synonymous with the team’s name, and can be found anywhere from license plates, to the players’ jerseys, to the drum featured before each home game. In honor of Mills, the Panthers began the Keep Pounding fund for cancer research, as well as sponsor the annual Keep Pounding 5k.