Sam Mills' journey to the NFL was extended by potholes and detours, but there was no doubt he was going to arrive.
Even when he was being cut twice (by the Cleveland Browns after training camp in 1981, and by Toronto in the Canadian Football League in '82), and spent three years ('83-'85) dominating in the United States Football League, the diminutive linebacker (5 feet 9, 225 pounds) harbored no doubt.
"I think he was born with the desire to be a football player," said Melanie Mills, his widow. "I've known him since he was 14, and that's all I ever heard him talk about.
"I don't think he knew anything else. He didn't have any other desire to do anything. Everything that he did that wasn't football, was just until he could do football."
He just needed an NFL team to believe, too. And once he found one – once he got a chance to do football in the NFL – Mills did it well, especially as a member of the New Orleans Saints' famed "Dome Patrol" linebacker unit that he formed with Rickey Jackson, Pat Swilling and Vaughan Johnson.
In nine years as a Saint, Mills became a three-time All-Pro and four-time Pro Bowl player who totaled 934 tackles, 10.5 sacks, 17 fumble recoveries (two for touchdowns), 16 forced fumbles and four interceptions.
And on Dec. 2, Mills, who died Aug. 3, 2005, will receive his highest honor as a Saint, when he becomes the seventh inductee into the franchise's Ring of Honor.
Mills will join late owner Tom Benson, late defensive end Will Smith, Jackson, quarterback Archie Manning, left tackle Willie Roaf and kicker Morten Andersen in the Ring of Honor.
We honor late 'Dome Patrol' legend Sam Mills who played in New Orleans from 1986-1994.
"Very excited, we're very honored," Melanie Mills said. "It was unexpected. We're really pleased."
Mills died after a battle with intestinal cancer. The 46-year-old played for Carolina from '95-'97, and was a member of the Panthers' coaching staff from 1998-2004. The Panthers franchise paid its respects to the influence Mills had on it when it was a fledgling franchise by erecting a statue in his honor while he was alive.
"(He was) overwhelmed," Melanie said. "Such an honor. He was so proud that anybody (would do that), because he was humble as well as being a good football player. So it was very humbling for him to have a statue of himself, larger than life, knowing that it will be there forever pretty much. He was very proud of that."
Mills, a member of the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame, the New Orleans Saints Hall of Fame, the Sports Hall of Fame of New Jersey and the Carolina Panthers Hall of Honor, coined the "Keep Pounding" mantra that the Panthers recite even today. He used the phrase prior to a playoff game against Dallas in 2004, after he'd been diagnosed with intestinal cancer the previous August and had undergone, and was continuing to undergo, treatment.
"I think at this point a lot of people do know about Sam the man, his integrity," Melanie said. "If they didn't, once the 'Keep Pounding' mantra started, people began to inquire about it and how that got started. That really tells his story, that he never stopped pursuing, trying, never gave up, always going for the win. That's pretty much in a nutshell who he is, and a great dad."
Mills won two USFL championships with the Philadelphia/Baltimore Stars from '83-'85, was a three-time all-league player and is a member of the USFL's all-time team.
It was there that he played for Coach Jim Mora, who then saw to it that Mills joined the Saints in '86 after Mora became head coach that season.
"Sam was as complete a player as I've ever been around," Mora said. "And not just physical ability, and that's certainly a big part of it, but I'm talking about character, leadership, being a team-oriented guy, work ethic, dependability, intelligence – everything.
"Sam exemplified, and I know this sounds crazy but I'm just telling you, I've been around a lot of good football players in my career and a bunch of them when I was coaching the Saints, and of all the people I've ever coached…it was hard to ever find anything wrong with Sam. Not just playing, but his leadership, his being a good guy, somebody that the players respected, that the coaches respected. A guy that would come out on the field every day and work hard, go into the meetings every day and work hard. It was hard to find negatives about Sam."
The biggest negative, Mora said, was Mills' height. And that was a concern he quickly allayed.
"We were in training camp already my first year, in Hammond, and I was putting these guys through some tough workouts," Mora said. "We had already been in camp for maybe a week or so, and we finally signed Sam. Now, he comes to training camp and it's his first day in training camp with the Saints, his first practice, and it's a practice with full pads and the whole thing.
"We had some really good-looking guys back there on defense. You talk about our defensive line – Jumpy Geathers, Frank Warren, Jimmy Wilks. These guys looked the part and were really good players. But they looked the part. Now it's the first practice, and I had recommended that we sign Sam. So Sam's out there, and he looks short amongst some of these guys. These guys were 6-4, 6-5.
"So we're having this drill called the 9-on-7 drill, and it's the offensive line against the defensive line and linebackers, with a back (on offense). You've got to run the ball every play, and you've got to run it inside the tight end. So it's just, come-right-at-you play. Now Sam lines up, we stick him in the drill. I'm watching the drill, because it's his first drill that he's going to be as a Saint.
"I'm standing there and here's what I'm thinking. 'Come on, Sam.' I'm thinking to myself, 'Come on, Sam. You can do it. I know you can do it. Just please, don't let me down.' That's what I'm thinking to myself.
"So he has to line up off the line right over a big guard. Sam trots in there for the play, and they run a play right at Sam. The offensive lineman comes out, Sam steps up and stuffs him, makes the tackle. First three plays: Boom! Right at Sam. Boom! Right at Sam. Boom! Right at Sam. And he makes the tackle every time, for no gain. He never, never looked short again in the huddle again for me."
His stature now looms largest as a Saint, as Mills is set to join the greatest players in franchise history with his induction into the Ring of Honor.
"People always said, 'Well he was a short guy, so he overachieved,' " Mora said. "That's not true. He did not overachieve. He was a very talented football player, and he achieved to his maximum. He was that good."