CANTON, Ohio — The story of Sam Mills is so good, and so inspirational, that sometimes it’s easy to overlook how great at football he actually was.
That isn’t the case here, in the group of men Mills (Class of 2022) is now peers with at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“His story, to the public is obviously one of the greatest in football history,” former Panthers general manager Bill Polian (Class of 2015). “I mean, he’s the defensive equivalent of Kurt Warner (Class of 2017), coming from nowhere; no one believed in him until it was time to perform.
“And then he did perform and also had the same kind of inspirational effect on everyone around him.”
And like Warner, Mills accomplished things on the field that made his Hall case, rather than just a Hollywood story (though as a twice-cut shop teacher at a New Jersey high school to make it to the Hall of Fame, it’s a really good story).
A five-time Pro Bowler and two-time All-Pro, Mills had the kind of respect among his fellow legends in the game that stands out.
Giants legend Lawrence Taylor (Class of 1999) remembered Mills’ leadership of the Saints’ Dome Patrol defense — which helped that franchise to its first winning seasons and playoff berths — as well as his work in Carolina.
“The guy who ran it all was Mills,” Taylor said. “He should have been in a long time ago. Great player. I hate that he left us so early, but he deserves to be here, this place, his second home.
“He’s an amazing guy to be, I’m not going to say short, but he had a lot of heart. That’s what it takes.”
Mills’ Hall classmate, former Jaguars left tackle Tony Boselli, understands the history. But he also watched the film and remembers what it was like to game-plan against the former Panthers linebacker, including in the first game in both franchise’s history, the 1995 Hall of Fame Game.
So if anyone overlooks Mills’ talent, Boselli said that shouldn’t be the case.
“Not anymore. He’s in the Hall of Fame. He’s one of the greatest of all time,” Boselli said. “People knew that, the guys who played with him, the guys who played against him. I think the story of how he got there being undersized, that shouldn’t be a story anymore because he was truly just a great football player. There was no one smarter on the field.
“Had an opportunity to play against him a couple of times with the Jaguars, and we made sure to know where Sam Mills was. . . . It’s an honor to call him a teammate on the greatest team of all time.”
Former Colts and Buccaneers coach Tony Dungy (Class of 2016), who is also a member of the selection committee, is as impressed as anyone with Mills’ intangibles. But he saw so many tangibles as well.
“I think you have to look at the play, and that can get overlooked,” Dungy said. “Great tackler, great instincts, hustled to the ball sideline to sidelines. He was a tremendous football player on top of being a great leader and a great person.”
Dungy said if you typically went up against an undersized linebacker, the strategy was to out-muscle him, to overwhelm him. That didn’t work with Mills.
“But you had to fool Sam Mills,” Dungy said. “You couldn’t just say we’re going to attack him and blow him out of there. You got to take advantage; he knows this, so we’ll get him to overreact. You had to beat him in other ways, not just out-physical him, no way.”
Polian, who signed Mills to become the cornerstone of the expansion Panthers in 1995, said as a linebacker, Mills was so technically sound that a lack of height became an advantage at times, because of the laws of physics.
“He had incredible balance and ballast,” Polian said. “He was able to take on any blocker. You know how they say in football, the low man wins? He could do that, and he understood how to use leverage to make it an advantage.”
Former Cardinals safety Aeneas Williams (Class of 2014) grew up in New Orleans, so he was well-versed in the Dome Patrol days, and remembers being inspired when he watched him play.
“He never really realized his size. We saw it, but he didn’t,” Williams said. “So how Sam carried himself, how he led, how he played the game, you’d have thought he was 6-5.
“That’s what I remember. Being tenacious, being a leader of a defense, and being the main cog in that defense that I watched growing up.”
Wide receiver Cris Carter (Class of 2013) said Mills’ talent was clear, and being 5-foot-9 just made it that much more impressive.
“One thing, my friends, when they come to the Hall, they’re always amazed by the size of the guys, starting with people like Mel Blount, Bob Lilly, and Deacon Jones. I mean, monstrous people,” Carter said. “There’s not a lot of small people in the Hall. Each one of them has a story to themselves.
Sam Mills, and Darrell Green are unique in their skill set, but dynamic leaders, game-changers whenever they come into a room.
“Sam Mills, well deserved, his place in football heaven here in Canton.”
Former Bills quarterback Jim Kelly (Class of 2002) played against Mills in the USFL when he was with the Houston Gamblers, and Mills was getting his start with the Philadelphia Stars. There were other great defensive players in that league, notably defensive end Reggie White (Class of 2006), and Kelly said deciding between them was difficult.
“Those guys were on the same plane,” Kelly said. “Everybody in the league knew who they were, and they were what you want on your team. Great players, great leaders, Sam and Reggie, Sam was probably one and Reggie was one-A on that list.”
Now, they’ll be in the same room, members of the same exclusive club, among the greatest to ever play the game.
Here, Sam Mills isn’t defined by overachieving.
Here, he’s defined by his achievements.
And he belongs.