By Arnie Leshin
You get what you deserve, the credit that is due, and for Sam Mills it’s a little late, but will still be an honor this weekend when he is inducted to the Professional Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
The short but successful linebacker was all New Jersey, born and raised in Neptune, and an All-State football player at Long Branch High. So when his prep days were over, he had very limited college offers because scouts thought at 5-foot-9 he was just too small to tackle for a Division I school or Division 2, but Division 3 then-College of Montclair State in Upper Montclair, N.J., offered no benefits but accepted him as a walk-on.
That was all the then-210-pound Mills needed. He just wanted to graduate to a different level and play the sport he grew up with, that he loved, and Montclair State was giving him the chance.
Three years later, it had nothing but praise for him, calling him the finest
to play football there. From 1977 to 1980, he was a fan favorite, played all but two games, came away with school and also NJAC records … 1,319 tackles, 20.5 sacks, 11 interceptions, and four touchdowns.
That was impressive, but despite all these feats that included 3-time NJAC First Teams and 3-time Player of the Year, he was known to college scouts as an inside linebacker who could also play outside, but just a little too short.
So Mills had a tryout with the Toronto Argonauts of the Candian Football League and was released before their opening game. Then he had a tryout with the NFL Cleveland Browns and was released because the franchise said it needed more size on defense there.
Enter the Philadelphia Stars of the United States Football League. They offered him a tryout and liked what they saw. Head coach at the time was Jim Mora and he nicknamed him “Field Mouse,” and when asked for a description, Mora said “Well, he’s like a mouse running around a field of elephants, but elephants wanted nothing to do with him.”
Mills played three seasons with the Stars, who relocated to Baltimore when the league folded before returning in 2019 and even played a third-straight championship game this year. But back in Mills’ time in Philly and Baltomore, he was All-League and won a pair of championships.
He was named to the all-time USFL team and arguably was the best defensive player along with the late Reggie White.
Mora then moved on the NFL to coach the New Orleans Saints and Mills came along to play in four Pro Bowls, lead the league in three defensive statistics, and then became a free agent in 1994.
Next stop was the new Carolina Panthers and Mills fit in quite well as a veteran now and known around the league for both his intensity on the field and leadership off it. He starred there for five seasons and in season one, he intercepted a New York Giants shovel pass and took it 47 yards for the team’s first touchdown.
He was chosen for three Pro Bowls, was the Carolina MVP in back-to-back seasons, and after retiring, he became a defense coach for the team, and later named linebackers coach.
In 2003, he was diagnosed with intestinal cancer, and despite that remained as a coach and tried to keep going with chemo and radiation.
“When I found out I had cancer,” he said, “there were two things I could do; quit or keep pounding, and I’m a fighter so I keep pounding.”
Mills was just 45 when he died in 2005, and keep pounding remains the Panthers’ tag line. He was a credit to now-Montclair State, the Philadelphia Stars, the New Orleans Saints and the Carolina Panthers, and it took some time before he will finally be deservingly honored.
With all this, his enshrinement in the prestigious HOF makes it all the more remarkable.
The nickname “Field Mouse” made him an inspiration to facing long odds in many aspects of life, whether they were undersized football prospects or cancer patients. Not only was Mills a bit short than the average guy on the street, he wore prescription glasses and had an air of politeness and approachability.
He was hailed as a straight-and-narrow great person, just down to earth, but he was also into Bible studies with the Saints, and not only a leader, like X’s and O’s, but also a spiritual leader, as tough as they come on the field and a perfect gentleman off.
He will be inducted into the HOF this weekend with others, but he sure had difficulty making it, and for that, he can credit himself and the wisdom of others who realized it and who felt it.