Patients' battles spark Panthers


CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers had just won their fourth consecutive game -- eighth straight, actually, if you count a perfect preseason -- and linebacker Mark Fields broke it down right there in the locker room at Ericsson Stadium.

He spoke of the emotion the Panthers were feeling after that 19-13 victory over the Saints and the inevitable sense of momentum that seemed to be developing.

"And it is pushing us," Fields told Ted Sorensen of the Charlotte Observer. "It's pushing us. How long it will push us, I don't know.

"Hopefully, all the way to Houston."

And now, 14 games later, here are the Panthers, a game away from Houston and Super Bowl XXXVIII.

Placekicker John Kasay, the only original Panther (circa 1995) still on the roster, said Thursday that Fields' words provided a defining moment.

"To hear someone like Mark with the battle that he has had lay out a goal like that, to lay the gauntlet down a little bit, Mark's never been afraid to do that," Kasay said. "He's never been afraid to raise the bar and push people around him as he pushes himself."

The Panthers have won 13 of 18 games and play on the road against the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday in the NFC championship game. Considering the length and breadth of their bitter journey, this is nothing short of remarkable.

In mid-August, Fields, a nine-year player who came to Carolina as a free agent in 2002, was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease. Twelve days later, linebackers coach Sam Mills -- perhaps the most important player in the franchise's brief history -- learned that he had cancer of the small intestine.

"I couldn't believe it was happening again," said Mike Trgovac, the Panthers defensive coordinator. "If you know Sam, if you know Mark, their bodies are so similar because they look so healthy. You think they're invincible and nothing can happen to them."

Linebacker Will Witherspoon, a third-round draft choice in 2002, was shocked like everybody else.

"At that point, it was like 'What else can happen to the linebacker group,"' Witherspoon said. "We were all like, 'Well, nothing else can go wrong for us the rest of the year."'

And so, while the Panthers went on about the business of winning, Mills, 44, and Fields, now 31, tried to rid themselves of cancer. After Mills spent a year teaching Fields about the intricacies of linebacker, it was Fields, with a 12-day head start, who returned the favor by schooling Mills on the vagaries of cancer.

Hodgkin's disease, despite its ominous-sounding name, has a cure rate well over 90 percent. When it is identified early in a young, otherwise healthy person, it can be defeated with chemotherapy. The prognosis for Fields, who had completed 12 of 14 chemotherapy sessions in early January, is good. He has said he expects to return to the field next season.

It hasn't been easy for Fields to watch the Panthers. Last year he was their leading tackler with 103 tackles and 7 sacks.

Viewing the Dec. 21 game against Detroit from a guest suite at Ericsson, he got so excited he lost his binoculars out of the window.

Recently, he gathered up his children, Mark II (6), Tyus (3) and Milan (1) at home. Fields pulled on his football helmet, suited up the boys in their uniforms. With Milan leading the cheers, they ran out of the garage and onto the front lawn, where they played tackle football.

"Daddy," Fields told the Observer's Sorensen, "needed contact."

While Fields has suffered largely in silence -- his appearances at the team's training facility and at games have been few -- Mills has been a fixture. Although Mills and the Panthers have declined to discuss his prognosis, it is acknowledged that he is fighting for his life. His chemotherapy sessions are scheduled every other week, from Monday-Wednesday, and yet, more often than not, Mills has been back in his office on Thursday. Ken Flajole, a defensive assistant coach, has helped Mills with his responsibilities but Mills still puts in an occasional 15-, 16-hour day.

The Panthers believe that Mills, who overcame numerous obstacles in his 12-year NFL career, is built to handle his enormous load. He wasn't drafted, he stood only 5-foot-9, but he was selected to five Pro Bowls, four with New Orleans and the last one in 1996 with the Panthers. He played only three seasons in Charlotte, but the exquisitely chiseled bronze statue in front of Ericsson Stadium underlines the impact he had.

"He was our leader for three years and had a lot to do with the success and legitimacy of this organization through the way he led," Kasay said.

It was typical of Mills that he didn't want people to make a fuss about his condition.

"He said he didn't want to be a distraction to the team," Kasay said. "When I saw him, I came up and gave him a big hug and said, 'Sam, we're glad you're here. We want you to be here. This does so much for us."'

Said Trgovac, "This is his life. I mean, this is what he does. When he's here coaching, teaching, game-planning, his mind is off it. I'm sure when he goes home at night he might think about the 'what-if' possibilities, but when he's here we never discuss it."

On Saturdays before games, head coach John Fox asks one of his players to address the team after the morning walkthrough. On Jan. 2, the day before the Saturday wild-card game against Dallas, Fox chose Mills. It took Mills a long time to gather his composure when he addressed his team.

"All of us have been in this for a long time," Fox explained. "And you've heard it as coach-speak or player-speak as it relates to football. But there's something a little bit more real about it when it's life.

"It was quite inspirational."

"He told us to just keep pounding," said linebacker Dan Morgan. "There's going to be negative things that happen in a game, but keep pounding and keep pounding, just like he is with chemotherapy. He says he keeps pounding, keeps pounding and we really took that into the game. We kept pounding and pounding and we came out victorious."

The Panthers pounded the Cowboys 29-10, then outlasted St. Louis 29-23 in double overtime.

When, in the wake of the death of his father, Irv, Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre lifted the Packers into the playoffs in improbable fashion, there was a lot of talk about destiny. The story made headlines across the country, but the Packers' luck ran out last week in Philadelphia.

The Panthers and their story of inspiration have been flying under national media radar and, frankly, they don't seem to mind. On Thursday, players and coaches talked quietly about the impact Mark Fields and Sam Mills have had on this team. Is it a coincidence that Carolina tied an NFL record with seven wins by three points or less and equaled the league record of three overtime wins?

Maybe. Maybe not.

All season long, the players have been wearing lycra t-shirts with the Nos. 58 and 51 as a tribute to Fields and Mills. In the divisional playoff game at St. Louis last week, in the sweat and tension and energy of a game headed toward overtime, you could actually see the numbers coming through the Panthers' white road uniforms.

"It's kind of a neat picture, a neat reminder that these guys are still battling," Kasay said. "It becomes a subtle inspiration, I think.

"It's a reminder to all of us that we're not promised tomorrow. We have plans and we have aspirations and there are things we want to accomplish, but we don't know when those days are numbered."

As a linebacker, Witherspoon feels it more than most of his teammates.

"To have Mark say, 'Hey, if we play like this, if we play with this type of emotion, we know what you can do. We're here to back you up. Why not have us push you along and keep going?'

"Now, we're on the verge of that. And the words might be true.

"Actually, they are true."

Greg Garber is a senior staff writer for ESPN.com