Sam Mills – Greater New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame
New Orleans Saints
A New Jersey native who starred at Division II Montclair State, Sam Mills joined the New Orleans Saints in 1986 and would play his first nine NFL seasons (1986-94) in the Crescent City, establishing himself as one of the organization’s all-time greats as a member of the vaunted “Dome Patrol” of linebackers. Despite being considered too small to play in the NFL (he was 5-9), in 12 overall seasons in the NFL, he recorded 1,319 tackles, 20.5 sacks, 11 interceptions and four touchdowns while starting 173 of 181 games.
“I don’t worry about my size,” Mills once said. “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.”
Mills was a five-time NFL Pro Bowl selection, including four times with the Saints (1987, 1988, 1991 and 1992), as well as a three-time All-Pro. He helped the Saints to their first four playoff appearances while recording 100 or more tackles in five different seasons.
His Saints Hall of Fame bio includes his “greatest moment”: It was Dec. 26, 1992. In the midst of a playoff run, the Saints faced the New York Jets at the Meadowlands on the day after Christmas. Mills gave Saints fans a late Christmas present. In the first quarter, Browning Nagle had the Jets driving, looking to take the early lead. As he dropped back to pass, Nagle cocked his arm to release the ball. Amazingly, Mills took the ball right out of his hand and raced 76 yards for a touchdown to give the Saints a 7-0 lead en route to a 20-0 victory on the final day of the regular season to give New Orleans a 12-4 record.
He finished his career with the Carolina Panthers, starting every game in the expansion team’s first three seasons and adding another Pro-Bowl nod in 1996 at the age of 37. During his time with the Panthers, he set the NFL record as the oldest player to return a fumble for a touchdown (37 years, 174 days).
During his standout career at Montclair State, he set the school’s records for career tackles with 501, tackles in a season with 142 and tackles in a game with 22. He was named the New Jersey Collegiate Writers Defensive Player of the Year for three straight seasons (1978–1980).
After college, the under-sized linebacker joined the USFL as an undrafted free agent, playing for the Philadelphia/Baltimore Stars from 1983-85, helping them to league titles in 1983 and 1984. He was named to the All-USFL team in all three of his seasons and was selected to the USFL’s All-Time Team.
Mills played for Jim Mora with the Stars; Mora would go on to become the Saints head coach, and a member of the Greater New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame, and would welcome Mills to his defense. However, Mora struggled with Mills’ size during training camp with the Stars.
“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.”
“Day in and day out, week in and week out,” Mora continued, “the most productive player on the Stars’ team for 62 games was Sam Mills.
Born June 3, 1959, he was also inducted into the Sports Hall of Fame of New Jersey (1993), the New Orleans Saints Hall of Fame (1998), the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame (2001) and the College Football Hall of Fame (2009). He died April 18, 2005 at the age of 45 after a battle with intestinal cancer.