Former Montclair State University linebacker Sam Mills will be inducted into the 2022 Pro Football Hall of Fame on Aug. 6 after being nominated earlier this year. If you’re not familiar with campus sports or football in general, you may not know his name. Except you do — Sam’s Place is named in his honor, as is Mills Hall.
To be frank, Sam Mills deserves much more than that for the outstanding breadth of his achievements on the field. In his relatively short 45 years of life, Mills built a legacy most people never even dream of having.
Throughout his career, Mills had doubt cast on him at every turn. College football scouts had no interest in him because of his 5’9″ frame, which is unusually small for a linebacker. His prospects post-Montclair State were similarly limited, with professional scouts losing interest once they learned of his height, despite glowing testimonies of his ability from his coaches.
But Montclair State saw Mills’ potential, and his stunning performance set a standard for the sport that still stands to this day. With 22 tackles in a single game, 501 tackles in his entire college career and multiple collegiate athletic awards to his name, Mills’ accomplishments at Montclair State over three years are no less impressive and inspiring 42 years after he last set foot on the field.
Nonetheless, after a brief stint in the now-defunct United States Football League, Mills successfully made his way onto two professional teams. He first played with the New Orleans Saints, during which he was selected to the Pro Bowl four times, and quickly earned a reputation as part of the Saint’s intimidating defense. Mills then joined the Carolina Panthers and had similar success there, eventually retiring and becoming an assistant coach for the Panthers until his death in 2005.
Mills’ posthumous election and induction into the hall of fame come over a decade after his death. He was only 45 and passed away from intestinal cancer after a two-year-long battle with the disease.
But until the end, Mills didn’t let his diagnosis stop him. In his famous 2004 pre-game speech to the Panthers, he told his team, “When I found out I had cancer, there were two things I could do: quit or keep pounding. I’m a fighter. I kept pounding.” To this day, the Panthers have lived and played by that mantra, inscribing it into their jersey collars and starting every home game at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina with their “Keep Pounding” drum.
As one would expect, Mills has made every institution lucky enough to have him extremely proud. Long Branch High School, where Mills first made his tenacity known, has his Long Branch jersey and his Panthers jersey on display in the gym. There is a statue of him outside the Bank of America Stadium and his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame will be commemorated with a bronze bust.
Montclair State has a lovely bronze statue, too — of a bird. In 2015, the 12-foot high Red Hawk statue was installed on campus. At $210,000, the hawk statue was no small price to pay in the name of building school pride.
What might actually help build school pride is a commemorative statue of a real person who achieved incredible things at Montclair State and beyond. Rocky is, of course, an inspiration and an icon, but he is a mascot and that is his job. Mills had no obligation to be great, he simply was.
Besides, his current on-campus dedication is lacking, to say the least. Having a dining hall that students show a begrudging affection for at best named after you seems more like a punishment than an honor.
The Montclarion is calling on Montclair State to show some appreciation and Red Hawk Pride on behalf of Sam Mills, a man who gave his all to the university that believed in him when no one else did. People like Mills don’t come along every day, and it’s only fair that he be recognized for the legend he was.