Panthers to honor Mills who lost battle with cancer

Updated: July 31, 2005, 3:45 PM ET
Associated Press

SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- The Carolina Panthers will honor the late Sam Mills by retiring his No. 51 at halftime of their Aug. 13 preseason game.

Mills continued to coach the Panthers linebackers between chemotherapy treatments after being diagnosed with cancer in 2003.

Mills died April 18 after a nearly two-year battle with cancer.

Mills, a five-time Pro Bowler with the New Orleans Saints and the Panthers, played three seasons in Carolina. He joined the coaching staff upon his retirement following the 1997 season. He is the only player in Carolina's Hall of Honor and is the first Panther to have his number retired.

There is also a statue of him outside of the Panthers' stadium.

"He's somebody that is a part of all of us, everybody that was here with him from ownership on down to his teammates," coach John Fox said Sunday. "He still has a presence here. He is not here physically but spiritually he is. It is not like he is gone for most everybody that had a close relationship with him."

The Panthers will also wear Mills' number on a decal on their helmets, and he will be featured on the game ticket when Carolina plays the Saints.

"Sam will always have a special place in the history of the Panthers," team president Mark Richardson said. "His contributions as a player and coach are unique in our team's short history, but I expect they will be just as meaningful and significant many years in the future. He was an extraordinary man who is the model for all those who follow him with the Panthers."

An undersized linebacker out of Montclair (N.J.) State who failed several times to catch on with NFL and Canadian Football League teams, Mills gave professional football one last shot when the USFL debuted in 1983. After starring in that league for the Philadelphia Stars for three years, coach Jim Mora brought Mills along to the Saints in 1986.

Mills spent nine NFL seasons with the Saints, then joined the expansion Panthers. He finished his career with 1,319 tackles while starting 173 of 181 games.

Mills was elected to Louisiana's Sports Hall of Fame. He is also a member of New Jersey's Sports Hall of Fame.

Mills was diagnosed with cancer in 2003, hours before he showed up at the stadium to coach the linebackers in their preseason finale. It was a devastating blow to the team, which learned two weeks earlier that linebacker Mark Fields also had cancer.

Carolina restructured its coaching duties to take some of the responsibilities off Mills during his treatment.

Originally given just a few months to live, Mills didn't miss a game that season. He scheduled treatment for off days, and he often coached from the press box that year to preserve his strength.

He was an inspiration to the team as Carolina went on to the Super Bowl. Players wore his No. 51, along with Fields' 58, under their jerseys that season, and Mills gave an emotional pregame speech during their playoff run.

He flew to Houston on the Thursday before the Super Bowl, one day after a round of chemotherapy, and joined Fields for a news conference. Sweating and holding on to the podium for balance, he said, "You have your good days and your bad days. I am just glad I am having days, you know?"

Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press