(every Friday during the NFL season, OOB will run a nostalgic feature about the Lions’ upcoming opponents)

Sam Mills was a runt. A midget on the football field. But his heart was the size of the Earth, a planet that he only graced for 45 years.

Mills was no ordinary football player. There was his career history, for one. He was a rarity — a player in both the old USFL and for the expansion Carolina Panthers. In between, he was one of a quartet of linebackers for the New Orleans Saints that could have been considered one of the best LB units in modern NFL history. Then he coached linebackers. Then he got cancer and died.

That’s the thumbnail version.

Mills, not even 5’10” tall, was told he was too small to play in the NFL when he graduated from tiny Montclair State University. But thankfully for him, the United States Football League was around, and the USFL took him in. He played for Philadelphia, then Baltimore when the franchise moved. His coach was Jim Mora, and that would be important in short order, because when Mora became head coach of the New Orleans Saints, he took Mills with him. Suddenly, Sam Mills wasn’t too short anymore to play in the NFL.

It was in New Orleans that Mills teamed with Pat Swilling, Rickey Jackson, and Vaughan Johnson to form “The Dome Patrol”, a wonderful blend of speed, ferociousness, and guts who combined for 18 Pro Bowl appearances among them between the mid-1980s and the first half of the 1990s. When you watched the Saints play on TV, it was both easy and difficult to find Mills on the field. It was difficult because he was so short, but it was also easy — because he was so short.

“Who’s that little guy wearing #51 wreaking all that havoc?”

Mills had built such a reputation that the Panthers immediately snatched him up when he became a free agent after the 1994 season. The Panthers wanted Mills to lend veteran leadership and give the team some instant credibility. He did that, along with starting all 48 games of the Panthers’ first three seasons. In their second-ever season in 1996, the Panthers made it to the NFC Championship, and Mills made yet another Pro Bowl team — at age 37. He retired after the ’97 season and coached the team’s linebackers.

This would be a nice place for a paragraph telling of how Mills went on to a head coaching job, or that he’s still coaching LBs in the NFL, or that he’s doing TV analyst work. Or anything else that people who are still living do.

But Mills was diagnosed with intestinal cancer in August 2003. Told he had only a few months to live, he underwent chemotherapy and radiation and continued to coach. He was an inspirational force in the Panthers’ post-season run to Super Bowl XXXVIII. His plea to “Keep Pounding” in an emotional speech before the Panthers’ victory over the Dallas Cowboys later became the name of a fund to sponsor cancer research programs.

Mills died at his home in Charlotte, NC on the morning of April 18, 2005. He was 45.

Those weren’t the paragraphs that anyone was looking for when it came to Sam Mills, but they’re true. Sadly so.

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