When Carolina Panthers wide receivers coach Ricky Proehl strides across the field at Bank of America Stadium to wallop the six-foot ceremonial drum before Sunday’s playoff game, he’ll be carrying on a tradition that has helped define the team’s image: Keep Pounding.
Assistant coach Sam Mills urged the team to do just that as he battled cancer in early 2004. “Keep Pounding” has gradually become a household mantra in Charlotte, and the words have been harnessed to shape the maturing franchise’s brand.
Proehl, a former Panthers wide receiver, and his teammates were the ones who would advance to the first and only Super Bowl appearance in franchise history. That team was also the first to hear Mills’ now-famous words.
Several of those 2003 teammates will join Proehl on the field Sunday to bang the “Keep Pounding” drum. It has become a ritual that has brought in individuals who embody the phrase, the franchise says, including Olympic gold medalists, Boston Marathon bombing survivors, Davidson College and NBA standout Steph Curry and veteran Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis.
“If you look at the impact he had as a player and as a coach, it will forever be with this organization,” Davis said of Mills. “The amount of time, effort, blood, sweat and tears that went into making the Carolina Panthers who they are, I think it really speaks for itself.”
Mills, the player and coach
Mills was a 12-year professional football veteran and five-time Pro Bowler. He was part of the very first Panthers team, from 1995-97, and retired after that last season. He took a job as a coaching assistant with the Panthers in 1999, and in August 2003, he was diagnosed with colon cancer.
On a typical game week, Mills would undergo seven hours of chemotherapy on Monday, seven more on Tuesday and then three on Wednesday. The chemicals weakened his body, but Mills would return to work Thursday, coach through the game on Sunday, then start the process all over again.
“He would never show pain or agony,” said Panthers equipment manager Jackie Miles, who was also one of Mills’ closest friends. “He wouldn’t cave in mentally, and he fought it physically.”
On the night before a home playoff game against the Dallas Cowboys on Jan. 2, 2004, then-head coach John Fox asked Mills to address the team in a Charlotte hotel. Mills shed light on his struggle in an emotional speech, imploring the team, who would go on to beat the Cowboys and later advance to the Super Bowl, to “Keep Pounding.”
Kevin Donnalley, an offensive lineman who played under Mills, didn’t realize at the time that Mills’ words would come to help define the franchise.
“What people were kind of realizing is that he was asking us to do what he had been doing for the past three or four months in his battle,” Donnalley said. “You keep going. You keep doing. You keep working. You keep playing.”
The team started repeating Mills’ words more as his condition grew worse. Instead of “1-2-3 Win!” it was “Keep Pounding,” Donnalley said. They also put the numbers of Mills and Mark Fields, a linebacker at the time diagnosed with a more treatable form of cancer, on the T-shirts they wore under their pads.
In April 2005, Mills died at 45.
“Keep Pounding” remained with the team internally and with die-hard fans for the years that followed Mills’ death.
“We’ve always had that motto amongst ourselves,” Miles said. “It came right from Sam’s mouth. And his heart.”
But the team raised the motto’s profile even further in 2012, when the Panthers started the pre-game drum-pounding ritual and when they looped in a local marketing agency to update their image.
“The team didn’t really adopt the phrase more directly until 2012 when we worked on a refreshed logo and approach to their overall brand identity,” said Brooks Luquire, a senior vice president at Luquire George Andrews in Charlotte.
The brand refresh didn’t require any copy rewrites from LGA – “Keep Pounding” had written itself. Its organic nature was something the Panthers wanted to preserve, Luquire said: “It’s not manufactured or contrived.”
To be sure, “Keep Pounding” has provided the Panthers a merchandising opportunity. Nike caught wind of the “Keep Pounding” motto a few years ago, the Panthers’ Miles said. The words are now inscribed in the collars of replica Panthers jerseys that are ubiquitous on game day.
Embraced by fans
Former professional swimmer Ricky Berens, a Charlotte native, grew up going to Panthers games with his family.
He won a gold medal in the 2012 Summer Olympics in London a month before he came to Charlotte to pound the pre-game drum with Manteo Mitchell and Davis Tarwater, London medalists in track and swimming, respectively.
“At the beginning, I had no idea what it would come to be. But it’s really special to see how the team has gotten all around it, how the fans have,” Berens said.
Since 2012, the rise in popularity of social media sites like Twitter, Instagram and Facebook have made the Keep Pounding hashtag a constant among fans and players alike. It has been used in nearly 200,000 original Tweets since Dec. 14.
Those digital connections allow users to follow discussions about the Panthers. It also brings the team and fans together – players will sometimes retweet or “like” a tweet or post from a fan that includes #KeepPounding.
Another development also made “Keep Pounding” part of the fan experience: A chant started this season when one side of the stadium screams “Keep!” and the opposite side responds with “Pounding!”
‘We came back, and we won’
Some say the Panthers are living Mills’ directive today.
After a 3-8-1 start last season, the playoffs didn’t seem likely. But the team went on to win five straight games to capture the NFC South and then one home playoff game, too.
“I think that’s really carried over to what you’re seeing this year,” Luquire said of the current team, which boasts the best record in the NFL.
Luke Kuechly was 12 when Mills gave that speech in 2004.
But the Panthers linebacker says Mills’ mandate has carried him through in crucial moments this season, especially when the team played the Seattle Seahawks in October – a game the Panthers came from behind to win 27-23.
“You look at the situation,” Kuechly said. “We’re down in the fourth quarter by double digits, two possessions.”
Kuechly said he thought about Mills’ charge to an earlier team.
“You can hang it up at that point or keep playing, and that’s what we did,” Kuechly said. “We came back, and we won.”
Observer writer Scott Fowler contributed.