Mills, Sam 1959–
Sam Mills 1959–
Former professional football player, assistant coach
From most descriptions Sam Mills sounds like the type of person you’d love to have over to the house for a barbecue or to watch the game. He is good-natured, outgoing, and can take a joke with the best of them. And it is good that he can, because no one would think a five-foot-nine-inch linebacker would make it to the National Football League (NFL), let alone have the enormous impact he had on teammates, coaches and to their regret, those he tackled. Most players at his position are considerably taller. For Mills, however, that would serve as motivation to become one of most feared defenders in the history of the game.
Born June 3, 1959 to Sam Sr. and Juanita Mills, Mills was the ninth of 11 children growing up in a housing project in Long Branch, New Jersey. Money was tight in the Mills home so he played football on a parking lot with broken glass. However, the family survived by remaining close-knit and very liberal with love. He moved away from the projects when one of his half-sisters bought a nearby house. His parents would later buy a modest house close to his sister. Mills excelled in football and wrestling at Long Branch High School and later attended Montclair State University, earning a bachelors of science in industrial technology and setting school records on the football field as a fearless linebacker.
The fact that he made it that far on the football field was impressive in its own right. Being shorter than other football players would put most at a serious disadvantage, not only in the eyes of the opponent, but in those of the coaches as well. After his final game at Montclair Mills was signed as a free agent with the Cleveland Browns in 1981, but was cut after the coach found some bigger players at his position. He joined the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League, and during training camp, became their leading tackler. Again, he was cut due to lack of height. “It’s like this,” said Frank Glazier, Mill’s high school coach, in a 1988 Sports Illustrated article. “No scout, no coach at a big college or in the pros wants to take a chance on a linebacker who is five-nine. If the kid doesn’t pan out, the guy’s job is on the line. Somebody above him is going to say ‘Who got me this five-nine linebacker?’ Or the head coach will look at some film where his team gets beat on a pass and say ‘What, we couldn’t find a six-two linebacker?’ The kid’s gone, and the guy who found him is gone too.”
In 1983 someone took a chance and Mills landed a spot on the Philadelphia/Baltimore Stars of the now-defunct United States Football League. Mills wasted no time commanding the defense and stunting opposing offenses. Linebacking is not easy. It requires strength, amazing speed, the ability to hit very hard, and a keen sense of offensive schemes, designs and plays. Seconds before a play starts, the linebacker can view formations and call to his teammates to switch positions accordingly. The linebacker usually has the first chance to stop a runner or tackle a receiver on short- to mid-range passes. Mills, despite his lack of height, did so extremely well. In his first three seasons he was a three-time All-USFL selection and helped the Stars win league titles in 1983 and 1984. He made 592 tackles and recovered 10 fumbles, never missing a game and
Born June 3, 1959 in Long Branch, NJ; Married Melanie; children: Sam III, Marcus, Larissa and Sierra (adopted.) Education: Montciair State, bachelor’s of science in industrial technology, 1980.
Career: Professional linebacker, Philadelphia/Baltimore Stars, USFL, 1983-85; New Orleans Saints, 1986-94; Carolina Panthers, 1995-97, pro scout/defensive assistant, 1998-.
Awards: Named Kodak All-American his senior year at Montciair State, 1980; holds school records in career tackles (501), single-season tackles (142) and single-game tackles (22);three-time defensive player of the year by the New Jersey Collegiate Football Writers Association; member, Panthers Hall of Honor, New Orleans Saints Hall of Fame, Louisiana Hall of Fame; named to five Pro Bowls.
Addresses: c/o The Carolina Panthers, 800 S. Mint St, Charlotte, NC 28202.
played every defensive down. More importantly, the USFL experience provided him with a chance to prove himself in the NFL. Mills told Sport Magazine, “I was so psyched to make good plays. I was afraid that if the Denver team ran through me, I would be released Monday morning. I was trying to wind down because I was the signal caller. I wound up having a great game. Playing that game was like running for the elevator and no one shut the door on me.”
Sports Illustrated writer Michael Bamberger assessed the diminutive defender’s size. “Football people talk about Mills’ lack of height—he is all of an inch or so shorter than average American adult male—as if it were a physical handicap. Mills is built along the lines of Mike Tyson….He weighs 230 pounds, which is average for an NFL linebacker. He can bench-press 400 pounds, after having been stuck for years at 395.” “He has extraordinary strength and drive, and extraordinary humanity,” Jim Finks, general manager of the Saints, told Sports Illustrated.
In 1986 the USFL folded. Head coach Jim Mora took the top job for the New Orleans Saints in the NFL and brought Mills with him. Mills played nine seasons for the Saints and would start a trend where, with age and experience, he would only get better. In his first season, he finished with 92 tackles, earning the respect of his teammates. In his final season with the Saints in 1994 he finished with a career-high 115 tackles. He was 37, which, by NFL standards, is a rarity. During his Saints’ tenure he was named to four Pro Bowls, an all-star-type exhibition game featuring the NFL’s best positional players. He signed a two-year contract with the Carolina Panthers in 1996. He was named to his fifth Pro Bowl that season. When he retired from playing in 1997, Mills’ stats were staggering: 12 NFL seasons, 1, 319 tackles, 20.5 quarterback sacks, 11 interceptions and four touchdowns in 181 games with 173 starts. He also had not missed a start in 50 games.
And while Mill’s ability to tackle and defend are what brought him success and notoriety, those around him marvel at his attitude. He also served as a mentor to younger players while with the Saints and Panthers. His tireless work ethic glowed among his teammates.
Mills is painted as a man of severe humility. He was twice cut in the pros. And even before he had the chance to endure that, he was making $13, 500 per year as a high school wood shop and photography teacher in New Jersey. He was born hairless, impoverished and with poor eyesight. Yet, through years of hard work, extreme physical training, drive and determination, Mills turned a less-than-encouraging start into a prominent professional football career, one where he earned the admiration of fans, and the respect of teammates and opponents.
In 1999 Mills accepted an assistant coaching/scouting position with the Panthers. Having secured a viable career option after his playing days was something he started while in New Orleans. There, in the offseason, he worked as a trainee at a car dealership owned by the team’s owner. Even then, as he pointed out in Sport Magazine, he had the foresight to realize what was truly important. “I know what it’s like not to make much money. I have to prepare for my family’s future. If I don’t prepare, the blame is on me.”
Sports Illustrated, August 11, 1997, pg. 64; December 12, 1988, pg. 66.
Sport Magazine, February 1992, pg. 20.
The Sporting News, August 7, 1995, pg. 40.
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