Sam Mills III was driving and didn’t want to run off the road, so he tried to keep it together when his cellphone rang and he saw “Canton, Ohio” light up the screen.
It was late January, and Mills, the defensive line coach for the Washington Commanders, had been through a similar ordeal each of the past two years, waiting around for a call or a knock on a hotel door for news.
But this year, the anticipation was heightened. His late father, former NFL linebacker Sam Mills, was again a finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and this was his last year of eligibility to be inducted as a modern-era player.
“Thank goodness it was great news,” the younger Mills said.
Shortly after the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s selection committee convened virtually for more than seven hours Jan. 18, Mills got the news he wanted: Hall President Jim Porter informed him that his father made it as part of the Class of 2022.
Sam Mills was one of eight selections this year, joining fellow modern-era players Tony Boselli, LeRoy Butler, Richard Seymour and Bryant Young; senior inductee Cliff Branch; contributor Art McNally; and coach Dick Vermeil.
“Once you start getting nominated for this, you’re one step closer and you really want to get in. I think he’d be slightly relieved,” Mills said of his father, who died in 2005. “I also feel that he’d be honored to be with these other greats. When you start looking at the names and you see the accomplishments of these guys, it really stands out and it shows you how wonderful this game is and how much of an honor it is to be in that small group.”
Only 5-foot-9 and with a Division III résumé out of Montclair State, the older Mills enjoyed a 12-year NFL career, earning all-pro honors in 1996 as well as five Pro Bowl selections. He went undrafted in 1981 and was cut by the Cleveland Browns and the Canadian Football League’s Toronto Argonauts before latching on with the Philadelphia Stars of the United States Football League in 1983, when he earned a reputation as one of the league’s best defensive players.
“One of the things they always joke about was his height,” the younger Mills said. “But as a coach, we’re always talking about pad level. So he played at an actual pad level that people sometimes didn’t realize.”
Mills went on to star with the New Orleans Saints’ famed “Dome Patrol” linebacking corps in the late 1980s and early 1990s, then signed with the expansion Carolina Panthers in 1995 to lead a young team. He retired after the 1997 season and soon turned to coaching as a defensive assistant and linebackers coach for the Panthers.
He was diagnosed with intestinal cancer in 2003 but continued to coach, inspiring the team slogan of “Keep Pounding” and the Panthers’ run to Super Bowl XXXVIII, where they lost to the New England Patriots. Mills died a year later at 45.
Mills never got to experience the Hall of Fame process; it wasn’t until 2016 that he was a semifinalist and then 2020 that he was a finalist. But his family has on his behalf.
“That was a little nerve-racking there,” Mills said of his father’s first time as a finalist.
Mills said he felt more confident going into this year. Upon hearing the news from Porter, he quickly set up another call with his family and the few who could keep the secret.
Because the Hall of Fame selection committee met earlier than in previous years, those who made it were informed weeks before flying out to Los Angeles to witness everyone else hear the news during the NFL Honors event.
“My mother [Melanie] and I, when we met there [in L.A.], just kind of seeing her and taking it all in with the other Hall of Famers, it was really a special moment,” Mills said. “As the week went along and the different events you go to, it kind of ramps up and it makes you realize the special group that he has now joined.”
Mills stayed to watch Super Bowl LVI, where the Class of 2022 was honored again. His years watching his father play and coach left a lasting imprint. Now a coach himself, Mills said he tries to instill much of what he learned.
“His first message would be: ‘Don’t let anyone define your career. Keep working,’ ” he said. “In our league right now, we have 32 teams, and if one team tells you you can’t play, it doesn’t mean you can’t play. It just means you’re not going to be playing there right then.”
The Class of 2022 will be enshrined Aug. 6. Mills will have a bronze bust reside permanently in the Hall, but posthumous inductees typically don’t receive gold jackets and Rings of Excellence, largely to avoid family disputes. Mills’s enshrinement will feature a prerecorded video with his family, who will receive the Hall of Fame crest. Melanie Mills will receive a necklace and a pendant from the Hall.
“For us, it’s just the honor of being mentioned among that group now,” Mills III said.
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