Every expansion franchise has that sudden star. I remember when the Charlotte Hornets came into the league. Kelly Tripuka was the man!!! Scott Skiles became a legend as a member of the Orlando Magic. How about Dante Bichette for the Colorado Rockies?
For the Carolina Panthers, it was Sam Mills. Mills died today of intestinal cancer. He was 45.
Sam Mills came to the Panthers from the New Orleans Saints, where he was established for nine years. He was a five time Pro Bowler. He also played a few seasons in the USFL. He played his final three seasons in Carolina...and has been the Panthers linebackers coach.
He came from tiny Montclair State...and couldn’t catch on anywhere. He even had a job teaching in New Jersey. He tried out for and made the USFL’s Philadelphia Stars. When the USFL folded, Stars’ coach Jim Mora took Mills with him to the NFL’s New Orleans Saints where he made the Pro Bowl four times. He came to the expansion Panthers in 1995 and went to another Pro Bowl and the NFC Championship game in 1996. He retired after the 1997 season and began his coaching career....serving under all three Panthers coaches [Dom Capers, George Seifert and John Fox].
To the Panthers and the people of Charlotte...Mills is a legend. There is a statue of him outside Bank Of America Stadium. He’s in the team’s "ring of honor". The only member of that ring. He was the heart of the Panthers stingy defense....and the heart of the team. As long as there has been a Carolina Panthers...there has been a Sam Mills on the field. Whether it was knocking down a running back or motivating his players in practice....he was always in the black and blue.
In 2003, he discovered he had cancer, yet still kept some of his coaching duties despite being told he may only have a few months to live. Players wore t-shirts under their jerseys with Mills’ #51 [and fellow cancer victim Mark Fields #58] on it. That team went on to the Super Bowl. In a news conference in Houston for the Super Bowl, Mills said "You have your good days and your bad days."
"I’m just glad I am having days."
Rest in peace, Sam. The first football star in Charlotte.