Sam Mills – the legendary Carolina Panthers linebacker who later came up with the team’s motto, “Keep Pounding” – gets a full and first-rate biographical treatment on NFL Network this week.
The network’s long-running series “A Football Life” combines archival footage of Mills, who died of intestinal cancer in 2005, with numerous fresh interviews to offer a film that should entertain all Carolina fans. I watched an advance copy and – although I was covering the Panthers for Mills’ entire time in Charlotte – learned a lot.
The one-hour “Sam Mills: A Football Life” premieres Thursday night after the Carolina-Philadelphia game on NFL Network and the postgame wrapup – which means the film probably won’t start until sometime after midnight. But if you don’t want to stay up that late, NFL Network will air it again on Friday at 9 p.m.
Those who remember Mills mostly for creating the “Keep Pounding” slogan that now reverberates every game week throughout Bank of America Stadium and is stitched into the collar of every Panthers jersey may be surprised at the sheer number of highlights showing how great a player he was.
Jim Mora Sr., who coached Mills in both the USFL and with the New Orleans Saints, makes the striking statement in the film that Mills was “the best player I ever coached” – and then adds that he also coached Peyton Manning for four years in the NFL.
The Panthers will wear a No. 51 decal on their helmets during Thursday night’s game to honor Mills, who wore that number for Carolina while playing for the team from 1995-97. The team’s current players had an advance screening of the film Saturday in Charlotte.
Said Panthers coach Ron Rivera Wednesday of why he chose to show the film to the team: “It’s just understanding our history. We’re no longer a relatively new franchise. We’ve got history and Sam Mills is such an integral part of the history. … I think it made an impact. I think they hit a home run with this one.”
The Mills documentary was written, produced and directed by Paul Monusky and Bennett Viseltear for NFL Network, and they faced several unique challenges.
One of the most unusual: They thought for sure that somebody surely would have a videotape of Mills’ “Keep Pounding” speech. Mills, by then a Panthers assistant coach, delivered the talk in Charlotte at a team meeting the night before Carolina hosted the Dallas Cowboys in a playoff game during the 2003 postseason.
In fact, however, no video or audio of the speech is known to exist. The filmmakers briefly considered the idea of recreating the speech for the film, but thankfully scrapped that thought. Instead, defensive end Julius Peppers – the only current Panther who heard the speech – talks eloquently about it.
A great person -- and player
Monusky and Viseltear also had some concern that everyone they interviewed about Mills, from his college coach through all his stops in the pros, had uniformly fantastic things to say about him off the field.
“We had to pump the brakes a little bit on how much we were going to use about how great a person Sam was, or else we could have filled the film with 45 minutes of just that,” Monusky said. “We also wanted to focus on him being a great player.”
The film benefits tremendously from highlights of Mills all the way back to his college days at Division III Montclair State. Watching Mills stone Herschel Walker during the USFL section is fun. And Mills’ story – he got cut by the Cleveland Browns and a CFL team and didn’t make it to the NFL until age 27, mostly because he was 5-foot-9 – is naturally inspirational.
Interviews with Mills’ wife, Melanie, and three of his children – Sam Mills III is an assistant coach for the Panthers today and has his dad’s old office at the stadium – provide depth to his personality. Peppers, Mora, linebacker Thomas Davis and former Panthers safety Brett Maxie are all interview standouts. So is Mills’ former Panthers teammate Kevin Greene, who also has been profiled by “A Football Life” (the show is nearing its 100th episode) and once suggested to Viseltear that Mills would make an excellent subject.
It’s not a perfect film, of course. The filmmakers couldn’t arrange a time to talk with John Fox, who was the Panthers head coach in 2003 when Mills was diagnosed with cancer and who asked Mills to make the “Keep Pounding” speech in the first place.
Panthers owner Jerry Richardson also doesn’t appear and he would have been useful for many reasons, including an explanation as to why exactly he chose to place a statue of Mills outside the stadium. And, of course, there’s that elusive “Keep Pounding” speech, which no one recorded.
‘There were two things I could do’
In 2004, I sat with Mills for three hours at a local restaurant. It was one of my favorite interviews ever. It was also about a year before Mills would die at age 45, but that day he was having a good day. He noted that the speech was the first time had ever told the Panthers players in much detail about his fight against cancer.
“I really would have told them whatever they wanted to know, because people do need to be educated,” Mills told me then. “But most guys were so respectful of my privacy they really didn’t ask much. So the speech before the Dallas game was the first time I really told them in much detail what was wrong with me.”
Mills said he told the players they should never give up on the field, no matter what happened.
“When I found out I had cancer, there were two things I could do – quit or keep pounding,” Mills said he told the team that night. “I’m a fighter. I kept pounding. You’re fighters, too. Keep pounding!”
I think Mills would be proud of this film about his life and legacy. I think you will like it, too.