Induction Year: 2001
By Sheldon Mickles
As head coach of the Philadelphia-Baltimore Stars, Jim Mora didn’t make many mistakes in leading his team to two USFL titles and a 48- 13-1 record in the three years of the league’s existence.
Mora, however, almost made his biggest mistake before the Stars ever played a game back in 1983.
As the story goes, Mora was close to waiving Sam Mills, a bespectacled inside linebacker who barely stood 5 feet, 9 inches tall and looked more like a college professor than a football player.
The NFL’s Cleveland Browns and Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League had already cut Mills, a product of tiny Montclair State University in New Jersey. So it wouldn’t have been a big deal if the Stars had cut him, right?
“It would have been the worst mistake I made in three years with the USFL if I would have cut the guy … the worst by far,” Mora said years later. “I didn’t think we could win with a 5-9 linebacker, and I was 100 percent dead wrong.”
Mills went on to be a consensus All-USFL selection each of his three years while leading the Stars to three straight appearances in the league’s title game.
When the USFL folded in the spring of 1986 after losing a lawsuit against the NFL, Mills was out of a job again. But in this case, NFL meant “not for long.”
Remembering how Mills had been the spark plug and heart and soul of the Stars’ defense, Mora, who had been named head coach of the New Orleans Saints in January 1986, lured the free agent to his new team.
“Day in and day out, week in and week out,” Mora said, “the most productive player on the Stars’ team for 62 games was Sam Mills.
“I’m not saying he was more talented than (running back) Kelvin Bryant or any of the other guys on the team,” Mora said in qualifying his statement, “I’m saying production. The most productive player we had over a 62-game span was Sam Mills.
Stars linebackers coach Vince Tobin, however, recognized Mills’ potential early on.
With 110 players in training camp, Mora didn’t know every one of them. So after each practice, he would ask his assistants to rate their players.
“Every day, Vince would come in and put the name ‘Sam Mills’ on top of the list of linebackers,” recalled Mora. “And every day, I’d say, ‘Vince, we can’t win with a 5-foot, 9 1/4-inch linebacker … he can’t make our team.’ And every day, Vince would say, ‘Sam Mills is the best we’ve got.’
“Eventually, that was a good enough endorsement for Mora, who watched Mills quickly ascend from the third team to the starter’s role by the time the season began.
“I guess I wouldn’t have blamed coach Mora if he had cut me,” Mills said. “I was a 5-foot-9 1/4 linebacker. If you’re going to be wrong, get a big guy to be wrong with.”While the 225-pound Mills couldn’t measure up to the prototype linebacker at the time (6-3 and 240 pounds), he wasn’t short on humor.
Whenever a reporter would talk about him being 5-9, Mills – one of the friendliest and most cooperative players the Saints have ever had – would politely stop him and say, “Don’t forget the one-quarter (inch).”Like he did with the Stars, Mills quickly became a hit with the Saints. Once again, he was a third-string linebacker when training camp started. But again, he earned a spot in the starting lineup and rewarded Mora for having faith in him.
“I felt like he wouldn’t have called me if he didn’t think I could help out,” Mills said in a 1986 training camp interview. “I know that a lot of people, when they notice me, they notice my height. But I feel like a lot of small players can blossom when given the right opportunity.”Nicknamed “Field Mouse” by teammates because of his size and ability to make plays all over the field – particularly from sideline to sideline – Mills soon became one of the Saints’ most popular players.
Putting his aggressiveness, quickness and intelligence to work, he made four Pro Bowl appearances in nine seasons with the Saints.
After leaving the Saints in 1995 as an unrestricted free agent, Mills played three more seasons with the expansion Carolina Panthers and was chosen to play in another Pro Bowl.
“I don’t worry about my size,” Mills once said when asked about his remarkable success on the field. “In fact, the only time I realize it is when I’m in line with the guys at the cafeteria. I totally forget about it when I’m on the field.”The statistics certainly prove that. After averaging nearly 200 tackles a season with the Stars, Mills added 934 tackles with the Saints in 133 games (including 125 starts).
He concluded his 12-year NFL career with 173 starts in 181 games, 1,319 tackles, 20 1/2 sacks, 11 interceptions and four TD returns.
Mills, who now serves as the Panthers’ linebackers coach, also recorded 100 tackles or more in eight of his 12 NFL seasons. He racked up a career-high 155 tackles at the age of 35 in 1994, which turned out to be his final season in New Orleans.
While with the Saints, Mills was part of the famed “Dome Patrol,” the linebacking corps that helped the Saints lead the league in fewest points allowed in 1991 and ’92. The team also ranked second in the NFL in fewest yards allowed both seasons as they compiled a 23-9 record – the best back-to-back campaigns in the club’s 34-year history.
In 1992, Mills also helped make NFL history when he and fellow linebackers Vaughan Johnson, Rickey Jackson and Pat Swilling were all chosen to the Pro Bowl. It marked the first time a team had sent all four of its linebackers to Hawaii for the all-star game.
Mills, who enjoyed three solid seasons with the Panthers, retired following the 1997 season.
To show how much he meant to that team, Mills was the first player inducted into the Panthers’ Hall of Honor, and a life-sized bronze statue of him was erected outside Ericsson Stadium in Charlotte, N.C.
Mora, who worked with Mills for 12 seasons, calls him the best player he’s ever coached. He certainly won’t get much of an argument from Houston Texans coach Dom Capers, who was a Saints’ assistant under Mora and the Panthers’ first head coach.
“Sam is an amazing guy,” Capers said. “He was a tremendous influence on our football team. Guys like Sam don’t come around very often.”