Photo Source: CBSSports.com

When a football fan that doesn't root for the Carolina Panthers hears the phrase "Keep Pounding", they probably think of it as a reference to the running game. Actually, the term has deep meaning and pays tribute to former Panthers linebacker Sam Mills Jr. But what does it mean? Sam Mills Jr. battled adversity his entire life. Many times Mills was told that he was too small to play in the NFL. We all soon found out that Mills had more fight and determination in him than anyone both on the field and off the field. 

Sam didn't venture far from home for college. He had no football scholarship offers due to his lack of size and made Montclair State University's football team as a walk-on. By the time he had graduated in 1980, he was Montclair's all time leading tackler with 501 tackles - a record that still stands today. NFL scouts raved about his highlights and game tape but were turned off by his small frame. He was able to get an invite to the Cleveland Browns training camp thanks to a former coach but head coach Sam Rutigliano cut Mills because he didn't think he was big enough for the NFL. After unsuccessfully trying out for the CFL's Toronto Argonauts, Mills got into coaching high school football in East Orange, New Jersey. While a coach, he tried out for the Philadelphia Stars, a team in the United States Football League. He made it. Aside from former NFL great Reggie White, Mills was perhaps the greatest defensive player the league had ever seen. 

By the end of his third season with the Philadelphia Stars, the team's head coach, Jim Mora had also made a name for himself. The New Orleans Saints offered Mora the head coaching job in 1986 and More offered Mills a contract with the Saints almost immediately. After starring for the Saints from 1986-1994, Mills was selected to four NFL Pro Bowls. When a new contract wasn't extended to Mills in 1994 by the Saints, he joined the brand new Carolina Panthers in Charlotte, North Carolina. The Panthers were one of two of the NFL's expansion teams along with the Jacksonville Jaguars. He was a key part of the 1996 Carolina Panthers team that eventually made the NFC Championship game. During that season, he anchored the defense to a playoff victory over the Troy Aikman and Emmit Smith led Dallas Cowboys (January 5th, 1997). The victory would go down as perhaps the most exciting and memorable win in Bank of America Stadium and Carolina Panthers history.

Although he would only go on to play for the Carolina Panthers for three seasons (1995-1997) the mark he would eventually leave on the franchise would last a lifetime. He started every single game during his three seasons with the Panthers. After retiring from the NFL at the age of 38, Mills joined the Panthers as a defensive coaching assistant before becoming the team's Linebacker's coach in 1999; a job he cherished. The Panthers didn't reach the playoffs again until the 2003 season. Right as training camp concluded in August of 2003, Mills was shockingly diagnosed with colon cancer. The cancer had been present for quiet some time and his doctors gave him only a few months to live. Rather than fighting the disease quietly in the comfort of his own home, Mills continued coaching as if he was healthy. He would undergo radiation and chemotherapy treatments a few times each week which would often leave him tired and exhausted.

Photo Source: ESPN

The 2003 football season proved to be a special one for the Carolina Panthers. The team went 11-5, were the NFC South Champions and made the NFL Playoffs for the first time since 1997. The team fed off of their coach's fight and determination. The Panthers pushed onward into the NFL's Wildcard round where they would once again take on a familiar foe; the Dallas Cowboys. It was on Friday January 2nd, 2004 that Mills gave his memorable "Keep Pounding Speech" to the team in their locker room.

"When I found out I had cancer, there are two things I could have done. Quit and died or keep pounding.

I'm a fighter. I kept pounding. You're all fighters too. So keep pounding!

Keep pounding on offense! Keep pounding on defense! Keep pounding on special teams! Keep pounding on every single play!" 

 

Few players and coaches probably could have predicted how such few words could inspire an entire organization and city for years to come. The Panthers went on to defeat the Dallas Cowboys by a score of 29-10 during the NFL Wildcard round. Up next were the St. Louis Rams and then the Philadelphia Eagles whom the Panthers both beat on the road. The team made it's very first Super Bowl appearance on February 1st, 2004 at Super Bowl XXXVIII in Houston, Texas (Reliant Stadium). The team would fall short of it's first World Championship by only a 41 yard field goal - kicked by the New England Patriots' Adam Vinatieri. Although it was a heartbreaking loss, the Carolina Panthers had much to be proud of.

Sam Mills Jr. passed away a little more than a year later in his Charlotte, NC home on April 18th, 2005 after a courageous fight against Cancer. His death came almost to the hour of the birth of his grandson, Boston. At the beginning of the 2005 Carolina Panthers season, the team immediately retired number 51 in honor of Sam Mills; the first and only number retired in the team's history.

 

Today, the words "Keep Pounding" are sewn into each and every Panthers player's uniform to remind them to fight when feeling weak and defeated. The phrase adorns the walls of the locker room, weight room and the Bank of America Stadium hallways. The Mills family are still season ticket holders and commute to every home game from New Jersey. Sam's son, Sam Mills III is even a longtime employee of the Carolina Panthers. A bronze statue paying tribute to the memory of Sam Mills Jr. stands just outside of Bank of America Stadium's north entrance.  If anyone is interested in learning more about donating to the Keep Pounding Fund and other related events in the Charlotte, NC area, check out Panthers.com.

 

*A Video Tribute to Sam Mills Jr.*

 

Reference: NewsObserver.com

 

 

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