As part of the NFL Honors show in Inglewood, California, many historic names were called last Thursday, Feb. 10. However, Montclair State football fans were waiting anxiously for a particular player to finally get their long-awaited Hall Of Fame selection.
History for Montclair State athletics arrived late that same night. Rickey Young, who was alongside Sam Mills on the New Orleans Saints with the “Dome Patrol,” gave the welcome for Mills to be inducted in Canton, Ohio. And after 20 years of being eligible — three of them as a finalist — the dream has finally come to fruition.
A formal celebration for Mills’ selection into the hall of fame will happen on Aug. 6 at the Pro Football Hall Of Fame facility in Canton, Ohio.
Born in Neptune City, New Jersey, Mills has had a lot of people doubt him through his football journey, from high school in Long Branch, New Jersey, all the way up to him being considered among the greatest to ever play the game of football. But, the criticism, hate and hesitation all paid off for him in the end.
The long-standing head coach of the Red Hawks football team, Rick Giancola, is thrilled to see Mills finally make the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and bases his success on something all Montclair State players should thrive for.
“It’s long overdue,” Giancola said. “He’s the best football player we’ve ever had here. People may have doubted him saying he was ‘too small,’ but because of his perseverance, he was able to overcome all the obstacles.”
Indeed, Mills had plenty of obstacles to overcome compared to his other yellow jacket counterparts. In high school, standing at 5 feet, 9 inches as a linebacker, a lot of schools seemed skeptical about him playing the position with a height like that.
And while it is a Division III school and very unknown compared to the rest of the country, one school up in Northern New Jersey did not turn him away: Montclair State University. The four-year career he had for Montclair State is one of the best the athletic program will ever see in any sport.
The list of collegiate accolades could take up this whole article: three-time New Jersey Collegiate Football Writers Defensive Player of the Year, and four-time New Jersey Athletic Conference All-Star team member. In a game against Southern Connecticut, Montclair State winning 7-0, Mills recorded 22 tackles in a game, which is the most in a game in Montclair State history.
Mike Ramos, senior defensive back for the Red Hawks, speaks on how influential Mills is for the current team, and the traits about him that contribute to that inspiration.
“[Mills] set the standard for Montclair State football,” Ramos said. “Mills wasn’t the biggest guy on the field, but he played with no fear. He played with an attitude and put his body on the line every game.”
With such a prestigious college career, Mills should have had an easy road into the NFL.
However, the height difference led him to start his professional football career in the United States Football League with a team called the Philadelphia Stars. While his time in the league did not last long after getting cut, he led the Stars to two championships. With the head coach of the team leaving to go to the Saints, Mills eventually went along with him.
Mills’ tenure with the Saints was phenomenal, to say the least. Alongside being one of the best linebacker cores to ever grace the turf in the NFL, Mills was selected to the Pro Bowl four times and also consistently led the team in tackles. In 1994, Mills would go onto the Carolina Panthers, a newly-formed expansion team at the time, and find a new form of success in the postseason.
Mills stopped Troy Aikman and the defending Super Bowl champions of the Dallas Cowboys in 1996 and was the only Panther in the team’s first three seasons to start every game. He knew how to “Keep Pounding,” a phrase Mills coined and is also carried on with the Panthers and recently Montclair State.
Ramos spoke on the phrase and how the Red Hawks live by those two words.
“The ‘Keep Pounding’ motto is so important because it is more than football,” Ramos said. “There are struggles in life that you have to ‘Keep Pounding’ to get through. It means a lot to me, and our program and we will continue to use it every day.”
Mills eventually became an assistant coach for the Panthers and unfortunately, in 2005, passed away due to intestinal cancer. But, he left a lasting impact with the Panthers shortly after, with Nike sewing “Keep Pounding” onto the collars of the Panthers’ jerseys in his honor. Just those two words mean a lot to Carolina, Montclair State and countless other people in the country.
Mills has a dining hall named after him on campus next to Machuga Heights called “Food Hall at Sam’s Place” and also has a residence hall in that same building named after him, as Mills Hall. But for such a legendary player, players like freshman linebacker Dorian Gashi believe more should be done for the late legend.
“I think a statue of the late great [Mills] on the campus would be great to have,” Gashi said. “Not many schools can say that they have an NFL Hall of Famer as alumni. He might even be the first player that went to a New Jersey university to be inducted into the hall of fame.”
While that part is not known for sure, we do know that he is the first-ever Montclair State player to reach Canton. Regardless of him being too “small” for his position.