(Feb. 11) By choosing the late linebacker Sam Mills for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the selection committee corrects an oversight typical with players for small-market teams and rewards one of the most admirable players imaginable.

Neither New Orleans nor Charlotte, North Carolina, were media meccas, to say the least, during the years when Mills lit up the field for the Saints and for the Panthers. Not enough people were fortunate enough to see Mills’s steady, inspirational excellence, and too few know his remarkable story. A man of consummate grit, intelligence, heart, and decency, he was called by longtime head coach Jim Mora “the greatest player I ever coached.”

Mills was an outstanding high school football player and wrestler, but because he was “only” 5-foot-9, no college team wanted him. Even at Montclair State University, part of the little-known New Jersey Athletic Conference, Mills had to make the team as a walk-on.

He had a superb collegiate career there, but again, he was only 5-9, so no NFL team drafted him. Signed as an undrafted free agent by the Cleveland Browns, he turned heads in training camp. But because he was considered too short, the Browns cut him. So did the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League. Spurned, Mills took a job teaching photography and helping the football coach at a New Jersey high school.

Then, the upstart United States Football League came along, and Mills took yet another shot at pro ball. This time, he couldn’t be stopped. He was the universally acknowledged leader of a voracious defense largely responsible for his team (coached by Mora) winning two championships in the league’s three years.

The USFL folded, but Mora moved to the NFL as the Saints’ head coach, bringing Mills with him to a team that in 20 years never had a winning record. Not once. But with Mora, Mills, and Hall of Fame linebacker Rickey Jackson leading the way, the Saints became a consistent winner and reached the playoffs four times, as Mills regularly led the team in tackles…. [The full column is at this link.]



Tags: , , , ,