Jersey Legend Sam Mills Finally Pounds His Way Into Pro Football Hall of Fame

Overlooked as a 5-foot-9 kid from Montclair State, it took Sam Mills years to make it in the NFL. Now the late linebacker is a Hall of Famer.

Sam Mills
Sam Mills went from being a Division III star to a Hall of Fame linebacker for the Saints and Panthers. Photograph: Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

New Jersey native Sam Mills was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Thursday night. It was only fitting that he was elected in his 20th and final year of eligibility as a modern-era candidate.

Overlooked as a 5-foot-9 linebacker from Division III Montclair State, Mills found waiting to be a theme throughout his career. Mills, who was born in Neptune and grew up in Long Branch, went undrafted at the conclusion of his collegiate days. He signed with the NFL’s Cleveland Browns in 1981 but was quickly released. The same thing happened with the Canadian Football League’s Toronto Argonauts before Mills spent a few seasons in the United States Football League, where he won two championships with the Philadelphia/Baltimore Stars and head coach Jim Mora in 1984 and 1985.

Sam Mills talks to Saints head coach Jim Mora during a game in 1988. Courtesy of New Orleans Saints, via AP Photo/NFL Photos

It was not until Mora took a job with the New Orleans Saints the following year that Mills received a real shot in the NFL. And thus began a 12-year run of dominance that included five Pro Bowls, one All-Pro selection, 11 interceptions, 22 forced fumbles, 23 fumble recoveries, 20.5 sacks and 1,319 tackles.

Mills, who also played three standout seasons for the Carolina Panthers, died of cancer in 2005 after a 20-month battle with the disease. He was 45 years old.

Hall of Fame president Jim Porter notified Mills’ family of his election via phone call.

“Sam Mills is one of our team’s most decorated players in franchise history and was an important part of one of the greatest defenses in NFL history,” Saints owner Gayle Benson, referring to New Orleans’ Dome Patrol defense, said in a statement. “Sam was the heart and soul of the team, possessing leadership qualities that allowed him to make a great impact both on and off the field. Sam has been and always will be an integral part of the tradition and success of the New Orleans Saints and we would like to congratulate his widow Melanie and their family on this prestigious and well-deserved honor.”

Mills will be enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on August 6 alongside 2022 classmates Tony Boselli, Cliff Branch, LeRoy Butler, Richard Seymour, Bryant Young, Dick Vermeil and Art McNally. The ceremony will take place at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton, Ohio.

Mills’ name is no stranger to Hall of Fames across the country. He already has a place in the College Football Hall of Fame, the New Orleans Saints Hall of Fame, the MSU Hall of Fame, and the state Halls of Fame for Louisiana, New Jersey and North Carolina. He is also in the Panthers’ Hall of Honor. Not bad for a kid who was considered too small to play with the best of the best.

Sam Mills

Sam Mills during his days at Montclair State. Courtesy of MSU Athletics.

“From Montclair St. to the Pro Football HOF,” Mora tweeted Friday morning.

A captain at Montclair State, Mills had his No. 62 retired by the school in 1981, one of two numbers in university history to be removed from circulation. Mills set an MSU record with 501 tackles from 1977-1980, and he was a three-time Defensive Player of the Year pick by the New Jersey Collegiate Football Writers Association.

“We are so happy for Sam and his family and look forward to his induction in the Hall of Fame in August,” current Montclair State head coach Rick Giancola, who was an assistant coach during Mills’ collegiate career, told New Jersey Monthly. “It’s long overdue. He’s the best football player we’ve ever had here. People may have doubted him saying he was ‘too small,’ but because of his perseverance, he was able to overcome all the obstacles.”

After his playing career ended following the 1997 season, Mills became an assistant coach with the Panthers. He kept the job after his cancer diagnosis in 2003 and until his death in 2005. He inspired the team during its run to Super Bowl XXVIII, delivering his now-famous “Keep Pounding” speech.

“Long overdue,” longtime Panthers receiver Steve Smith Sr. said of Mills’ election in a Twitter video. “Congratulations, well done, keep pounding. Keep pounding forever, Sam.”

Mills’ motto can now be found inside MSU’s fitness center, and one of the school’s residence halls and dining areas bears his name.

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