Every summer, when we get down to just 51 days before the Panthers kick off the next regular season, we here at Cat Scratch Reader pay homage to the man who donned the No. 51 and coined the team’s “Keep Pounding” slogan — HALL OF FAME linebacker Sam Mills.
Decades before coining the chant that echoes throughout Bank of America Stadium, Sam Mills lived a life that epitomized Keep Pounding. At just 5’9 and 232 pounds, Mills played football at Montclair State college, where he had to walk on just to make the team originally. He is still the all time leader for Montclair State football in career tackles (501), single season tackles (142), and single game tackles (22). He was named the New Jersey Collegiate Writers Defensive Player of the Year THREE STRAIGHT SEASONS.
But apparently that wasn’t good enough for the NFL. Sam Mills signed with the Cleveland Browns (the original Browns, who are now the Baltimore Ravens) in 1981 as an undrafted free agent. He was released at the end of the preseason. The next year, he signed with the CFL’s Toronto Argonauts, but again he was released before the regular season began. Despite Mills jumping off the tape, his 5’9 stature was a deal breaker for professional football teams. Instead of giving up on his dream, he kept pounding.
Finally, Mills got his chance at a professional football career when the Philadelphia Stars of the USFL agreed to a tryout in 1983. He blew away the coaches and general manager in the tryout and, later, in training camp. Mills helped lead the Stars to two USFL championships in three seasons and was named to the All-USFL team each of the three years he played. The Stars won their final championship in 1985, when their coach, Jim Mora, got his big break to go coach the New Orleans Saints. Mora had to take Mills with him to the Big Easy, especially given quotes he made about Mills like this, courtesy of the Panthers website:
His coach in the USFL, Jim Mora, would call Mills “the greatest player I ever coached.” Mora also coached Peyton Manning.
After working so hard to prove everyone wrong in the USFL, he went to a doomed franchise and just kept pounding. For the next nine years, Mills led the “Dome Patrol” defense, turning a historically terrible football team into one that finally earned some respect. For context, the Saints had never, not once, made the playoffs before Sam Mills donned the black and gold.
In 1995, the NFL’s newest expansion team opened up for business in Charlotte, N.C. The Carolina Panthers offered Sam Mills a multi-year deal despite his age. After turning around a terrible franchise, he signed on with a brand new one. And led that one to the NFC Championship game in just its second year of existence. Because he just kept pounding.
Following the 1997 season, Mills retired from playing football, but he joined the team as an assistant coach. It was in 2003 that he coined that hallowed phrase. After a cancer diagnosis in August of that year, he was given only a few months to live. He continued to coach while receiving chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Before the wildcard game in Charlotte against the Cowboys, Mills spoke to the team. The crescendo of his impassioned speech was where the team’s motto was born.
The Panthers went on to stun the NFL world that day, pounding the Cowboys 29-10. The game wasn’t even as close as that score, to be honest. The Panthers rode that wave all the way to the Super Bowl that season. Mills continued to coach the team that season and beyond, until he finally died from complications related to his cancer in April of 2005. Despite being told he only had months to live in August 2003, he lived for almost another two full years. The man just kept pounding.
With a life story like that, its no wonder that the team adopted the Keep Pounding mantra and embraced Mills wholeheartedly. Mills’ 51 was retired by the Panthers before the 2005 season. A statue of the man who embodied the team’s motto stands outside Bank of America stadium. Nike even has “Keep Pounding” sewn into the collars of the Panthers uniforms. A fan bangs the Keep Pounding drum before every home game. And finally, in 2022, Sam Mills was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. If there was ever a football player who deserved to be memorialized forever, it was Sam Mills.
No matter what happens in life, Panthers fans, never forget Mills’ words. You’re fighters, too. Keep pounding!