SportsProf

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Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Sam Mills, R.I.P.

I remember all of the hullabaloo surrounding the USFL, how some maverick owner in New Jersey, some real estate developer named Trump, coaxed Herschel Walker out of the University of Georgia and into the Meadowlands, and I remember watching the New Jersey Generals play the Philadelphia Stars in a packed house in the heat of the summer. As start-up leagues went, that league was a good one.

Philadelphia had been starved for winners for a while, but not from about 1974-1983. During that time, the Phillies went to two World Series and won one (as well as to many playoff series), the Flyers won two Stanley Cups, the 76ers won the title, and the Eagles went to a Super Bowl.

That's a great record for any city; for Philadelphia, well, it's an all-timer, and it may never be replicated.

So out comes this new league and this new team, and, well, they could play. They contended every year during the fledgling league's short lifespan, and the league itself gave birth to some great careers.

Among the most notable was that of Sam Mills. Outside linebacker, Philadelphia Stars, and better than anyone the NFL team in the City of Brotherly Love had playing that position at that time.

Mills was an undersized outside LB from Montclair State who was football's version of "The Little Engine That Could," or, as one of his former teammates put it, a big man in a small body. He was only 5'9", but he hit like a Mack Truck. After his USFL career, he went to the NFL, where he starred at LB for the Saints and made it to 4 Pro Bowls. Not bad for a 5'9", 215-pound linebacker, huh? Actually, it was pretty special. (Somehow, the Eagles missed him, but after Dick Vermeil left they missed out on a lot of talent until Buddy Ryan got into town).

After his career ended, Mills became an assistant coach, most recently with the Carolina Panthers, for whom he was working when he died of intestinal cancer at the age of 45.

Sam Mills was a terrific guy on many levels, and he leaves a rich legacy.

A legacy of a guy who focused on a goal and never quit. He didn't go to a college that regularly turned out pro players, and he didn't have the size that coaches looked for in their linebackers. But what he did have was a great sense of the game, a huge heart and a great work ethic.

Many GMs will look at game films, measurements, combine workout statistics and Wonderlic tests and come up with a view as to where a college player should be drafted. That's all well and good, because those metrics have helped some outstanding player personnel people develop championship teams.

But there also should be a measurement that captures what those tests don't -- the qualities that gave the NFL Sam Mills. I'm sure that some math genius at MIT or Cal Tech could come up with some algorithm to find players like Sam Mills, and, when they do, they should call it the Sam Mills Test.

Because while there isn't any wonder in the Wonderlic, there was tons of wonder and wonderful in Sam Mills. Sure, it's great to have smart guys who ace the SATs and the Wonderlic and who can conjugate Italian verbs and decline Latin nouns, but you win games with the guys who simply outwork everyone and will not be denied.

Sam Mills, thank you for all of your achievements, and for all of the lessons we learned from you.

You will be sorely missed.

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