A Shore Conference football legend is a finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame
One of the greatest and most revered football players in Shore Conference history is one step closer to joining the legends of the sport in Canton, Ohio.
The late Sam Mills, a Long Branch icon who played 12 seasons in the National Football League with the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers, was revealed as one of the 15 modern-era player finalists for Pro Football's Hall of Fame Class of 2021 on Tuesday night.
The modern-era player finalists are determined by a vote of the Hall of Fame's selection committee, trimming a list that started as 130 nominees in September and was further narrowed to 25 semifinalists in November. The 15 finalists will be presented to the 48-member selection committee during its annual meeting on the Saturday before the Super Bowl. The 2021 Hall of Fame Class will be revealed on Feb. 6 and those honorees will be enshrined on Aug. 8, 2021.
If elected, Mills would become the first Shore Conference player inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Mills was also a finalist in 2020.
Mills had a great career at Long Branch where he was a first-team All-Shore selection as a senior in 1976. He was a ferocious hitter as a linebacker and also played tight end as a junior before the team moved him to guard out of necessity during his senior year. He helped the Green Wave rebound from a 2-6-1 season to go 9-2 and reach the Central Jersey Group 3 final.
Despite being a force in high school, Mills was not recruited because he was an undersized linebacker at just 5-foot-9. He made the football team at Montclair State as a walk-on and proceeded to set the career record for tackles with 501, which still stands today. He was a three-time New Jersey Athletic Conference First Team All-Star and was the three-time NJAC Defensive Player of the Year. Again, despite a fantastic college career, he was not given a chance in the NFL because of his size. He caught on with the Philadelphia/Baltimore Stars of the now-defunct United States Football League and continued to produce, leading the Stars to two USFL championships. He is considered among the best defensive players in the short history of the USFL.
Stars head coach Jim Mora was brought on as the head coach of the New Orleans Saints following the 1985 season and Mills followed him there, finally getting his shot at the sport's highest level. That began a 12-year NFL career where Mills was a three-time All-Pro and a five-time Pro Bowl selection. Mora called Mills "The best player I ever coached."
A free agent after the 1994 season, Mills signed with the Panthers in their expansion season of 1995. His veteran presence helped guide Carolina in its formative years, and he started every game during the team's first three seasons.
He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2009 and his jersey is retired by both the Saints and Panthers. He concluded his career with 1,139 tackles, 20.5 sacks and 11 interceptions.
In 2003 while he was the Panthers' linebackers coach, Mills was diagnosed with intestinal cancer and told he had just a few months to live. He continued to coach while undergoing treatment and was an inspiration during Carolina's road to a Super Bowl appearance. "Keep Pounding" has become a mantra for the Panthers franchise since Mills' speech to the team leading up their run to Super Bowl XXXVIII in 2004. Mills passed away in April 2005 at just 45 years old, but his legacy lives on.
Each year at the Shore Sports Network All-Shore Gridiron Classic, one player from Monmouth County and one player from Ocean County are selected to receive the Sam Mills Award, which is selected by the coaches for a player who shows the perseverance, character and determination that defined Mills' life and career.
Walk into Long Branch High School's gymnasium, turn around and look up and you will see Mills' No. 51 Carolina Panthers and Long Branch jerseys proudly displayed. They offer a reminder to keep persevering no matter the odds, just as Mills did right to the end.
"When I found out I had cancer," Mills said in his now-famous speech to the Panthers, "there were two things I could do: quit or keep pounding. I'm a fighter. I kept pounding. You're fighters, too. Keep pounding!"
Managing editor Bob Badders can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Bob_Badders. Like Shore Sports Network on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube channel for all the latest video highlights.
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