Sam Mills III, a Panthers' assistant coach, poses in front of a mural of his father -- former Panther linebacker and assistant Sam Mills Jr. (Photo by Jeff Siner/Charlotte Observer)
I have been fortunate to cover the Carolina Panthers since they played their first season in 1995, so I was there for the late Sam Mills’ great run as a player and assistant coach with the team. My story about the starring role Mills played for the team in two home Dallas playoff victories – as well as the legacy he has firmly in place with the “Keep Pounding” slogan and his son, Sam Mills III, as an assistant coach – can be found here.
While I interviewed Mills many times over the years, my favorite moments came with Sam on March 31, 2004, at a Jillian’s restaurant in Charlotte. We met there for lunch and ended up staying three hours. He was fighting cancer, as he had been for almost a year at that time. The date was roughly three months after Mills gave the famous “Keep Pounding” speech before the Dallas game and a little more than a year before he would die in April 2005 at age 45.
I know there is a tendency sometimes to over-dramatize the attributes of those who die at a young age, but believe me when I tell you that everything good you have heard about Sam Mills was true. He really was kind, funny and a gentleman off the field and an explosive hitter with great smarts on it.
Mills said during that interview that when doctors originally diagnosed him with colon cancer in August 2003 that he started to cry. They told him then it was possible he had only three to four months to live.
“The doctors told me, ‘Let’s just see if we can get you to 2004,” Mills said.
Later, when talking about his battle, Mills said: “I just made the decision after I got diagnosed that I was going to fight it all the way. That’s the way I was built: to fight.”
At the time of the interview, Mills was feeling relatively good but admitted he only looked at life in two-week segments -- he rarely planned anything more than two weeks out anymore. It was a poignant afternoon for me, for Mills was long one of my favorite men to cover and it was hard to hear some of his stories. Yet he made it far easier, because he was so relaxed and self-deprecating, as always.
Mills and his wife Melanie had four children, and Sierra, the youngest daughter, is significantly younger than the others. He told me a story that day about a time he and seven-year-old Sierra had gone to Concord Mills and parked far from the entrance, which began a discussion about the benefits of exercise.
Mills recounted the conversation like this:
"Daddy," Sierra said, "you always told me you work out so you can live a long time and be around for me."
"That's true," Sam said.
"Well, how come they're saying you won't live a long time now?" Sierra asked.
"Oh, baby," he said. "Dad's going to be around."
Sierra is a freshman in high school now – she lives with her mother in New Jersey -- and it is truly sad that her father isn’t physically around.
But spiritually, everyone in Mills’ family and in the Panthers organization knows he’s there. His statue is outside the stadium. His No.51 is retired. His “Keep Pounding” slogan is embroidered in the collar of the Panther jerseys, and his son Sam III keeps pounding even now as an assistant defensive line coach for the Panthers.
So when I think of that day with Sam, like all the fans who met him during his time with the Panthers and the New Orleans Saints, I’m more glad that we had those three hours than anything else.
It’s rare that Dr. Seuss makes his way into a football story, but I’ll quote him here, because I think of this Dr. Seuss quote when I think of that interview eight years ago with Sam and in a larger sense in the decade that the Panthers employed him:
“Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.”