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The 10 most important men in Panthers history are....

As the Carolina Panthers author one of the best seasons in team history, it’s worth a look back to see exactly what got them here.

The Panthers have now played exactly 300 regular-season games since their inception in 1995. Players and coaches have come and gone. But a few have made a lasting impact.

The Panthers aren’t kids anymore, you know. If the Panthers were a person, at age 19 they would be old enough to vote but not old enough to buy a beer.

In a new book I have written about the Panthers called “100 Things Panthers Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die,” I researched the team’s most important players and moments.

Here is how I ultimately ranked the 10 most significant figures in Panthers history, counting them down from No.10 to No.1.

No. 10: Dom Capers. The first coach in team history was Dom Capers, a man so meticulous that he used to edge his family’s small-town Ohio lawn with a fork.

Capers’ greatest hits at Carolina all came in his first two years. His first team was 7-9, far better than expected for an expansion squad. In 1996, Capers’ second Panthers team went 12-4 in the regular season, won a home playoff game against Dallas and advanced to the NFC title game, which it lost to Green Bay. Because it was the first time any of that happened to the Panthers, it was seared into memory.

No. 9: John Fox. In nine years as the most successful head coach in Panthers history, Fox got the Panthers to the playoffs three times and to the Super Bowl once. Although his tenure ended badly with the 2-14 season of 2010, he had five playoff wins as Carolina’s head coach. Once he lost his job in Carolina, it took him basically no time to find another, and he could win the Super Bowl ring that has always eluded him this year in Denver.

No. 8: Julius Peppers. The best pure athlete the Carolina Panthers have ever employed is Julius Frazier Peppers. Named jointly for basketball legend Julius Erving and boxing star Joe Frazier, Peppers became a two-sport star himself at North Carolina.

He played his first eight NFL seasons with the Panthers, from 2002 to 2009, and made the Pro Bowl five times during that stretch. Peppers remains Carolina’s all-time sack leader with 81. Carolina would have liked to have made him a Panther for life, but Peppers wanted out by the end of his career in Carolina and signed with Chicago.

No. 7: John Kasay. A kicker at No.7? Most NFL teams wouldn’t have one in their top 20, but Kasay was unusual in many respects.

For many years Kasay was “The Last Original Panther,” as he kicked for the Panthers’ expansion team in 1995 and for the next 15 years after that. Kasay also was one of the most gracious, humble men ever to wear a Panthers uniform and banked a lot of goodwill in the Charlotte community by becoming the team’s leading scorer by a mile while also coaching youth baseball teams, speaking to churches about his Christian faith and signing autographs for hours.

No. 6: Cam Newton. You know this guy. One day, Newton will undoubtedly be higher on this list. But at age 24, Newton has already burst into the top 10.

With his dazzling charisma and athleticism, Newton has become the first NFL player in history to throw 50 or more touchdown passes and run for 25 or more TDs in a three-year span. And now he’s winning, too.

No. 5: Muhsin Muhammad. Long before there were “L-U-U-U-K-E” chants in Bank of America Stadium, the stadium echoed with “M-O-O-S-E” calls. Muhammad played 11 of his 14 NFL years in Carolina, caught an 85-yard TD pass in the Super Bowl and blasted countless cornerbacks with punishing blocks. When he retired in 2009, his old quarterback Jake Delhomme said: “When I think of what a picture of a pro football player would look like, I think of Muhsin Muhammad.”

No. 4: Jake Delhomme. He started eight of the Panthers’ 10 playoff games at quarterback. He threw for 211 yards in a single quarter in the Super Bowl. He was one of the downright nicest players Carolina has ever employed. It’s not surprising that Delhomme remains one of the most popular players in Panthers history. The team’s Carolina Cajun, a Louisiana native, is a fiery reminder of the best – and, occasionally, the worst – of the 2000s.

No. 3: Jerry Richardson. You could make a good case for the only owner in Panthers history as No.1. After all, the team wouldn’t exist without him. But I placed Richardson, 77, at No.3 in part because that’s the way he has preferred it for many years. Richardson likes to stay in the shadows and for other Panthers to receive credit for the good times of the franchise that he dreamed up.

No. 2: Steve Smith. The best and most electrifying player the Panthers have ever employed, Smith has been in Charlotte since the Panthers took him in the third round of the 2001 draft. No one has mesmerized Panthers fans more often. His 69-yard touchdown catch from Delhomme in the 2003 playoffs at St. Louis remains the best play in team history. His career will ultimately merit hall of fame consideration.

No. 1: Sam Mills. When you think of the best the Panthers have been able to offer their fans, one man and one motto come to mind first.

The man is Sam Mills.

The motto is “Keep Pounding” – a phrase Mills first used in 2004 in a speech to the team before a big home playoff win against Dallas. “Keep Pounding” has been widely adopted as the team’s theme. The words are now sewn inside the collar in every Panthers jersey.

Mills was many things to the Panthers: a gentlemanly Pro Bowl linebacker who will always be the first player ever honored with his own statue outside of the team’s home stadium. Then a valued assistant coach. Then a cancer victim who fought the disease hard, continuing to coach even as cancer wracked his body.

Mills’ No.51 is the only Panthers jersey to have ever been retired. He died of colon cancer in 2005, at age 45, but not until he established a legacy that will always endure.