The Carolina Panthers are celebrating their 20th NFL season in 2014. For the next 20 weeks, Panthers.com will look back at a special play, player, game or moment from each of the team's 20 seasons.
The Carolina Panthers' inaugural season was off to an inauspicious start when linebacker Sam Mills, as yet still relatively unknown to Panthers fans, changed everything in the blink of an eye.
Well, not quite that quickly. In fact, it was more like Mills changed everything on a single play that unfolded like it was in slow motion - and would prove well worthy of many slow-motion replays in the years to come.
Carolina was 0-5 when it hosted the New York Jets at Clemson's Memorial Stadium (the stadium the Panthers currently play in was still under construction) on a fine fall day on Oct. 15, 1995. For much of the first half, the play on both sides of the ball was sloppy, with the Panthers ahead 3-2 for a while before the Jets kicked a field goal that kept the score stuck at 5-3 for another stretch.
The Jets led 12-6 with 22 seconds left in the first half when the memorable play occurred.
On second-and-10 from the New York 40-yard-line, Jets head coach Rich Kotite called for his quarterback, Bubby Brister, to execute a difficult, risky shovel pass to a running back. (Some would later refer to it as a "shuffle" pass or "shuttle" pass - or simply an utterly stupid pass).
By whatever name it would come to be called, Brister, under heavy pressure, flipped the ball right to Mills, then 36 years young and eager to find a path to the end zone. As he grasped the interception, Mills began lumbering toward the end zone with fellow linebacker Darion Conner serving as his lead blocker. Mills cut back twice to avoid would-be tacklers, but he eventually rumbled 36 yards for a touchdown, the third of his 10-year NFL career.
"I was really surprised when the ball came at me," Mills said after the game. "The first thing I thought was to catch it and then start moving. Thank God I was able to hold onto the ball and head down the field.
"I give a lot of credit to Darion Conner on that play, too. He did a good job of blocking for me, because there was a guy who could have caught me. But with Darion out there, I was able to zigzag a little bit and make it to the end zone."
Mills' zigs and zags took quite some time to develop, teammates later noted. But considering his age, Mills surprised everyone with his agility.
"I was trying to catch up to him," Panthers safety Bubba McDowell said, "and he was kind of bobbing and weaving in front of me. It was a very good run. I was very surprised."
Panthers defensive end Gerald Williams wasn't quite so generous in his praise, chuckling as he added: "I've never seen a 35-year-old make a run like that. Or is he 36? I think I'm being too kind.
"I saw what was in front of him and what was behind him, though, and I thought he could make it. He had Darion in front blocking for him, and all he had chasing him were offensive linemen. I didn't think he would let them catch him, even at his age."
Even usually stoic Panthers head coach Dom Capers was amused, although he cautioned not to be too critical of the old guy.
"Sam doesn't get to practice his open-field running too much," Capers said. "I told him he looked like he was 25 again out there on that run."
Brister and the rest of the Jets were stunned. The extra point by John Kasay split the uprights to give the Panthers a 13-12 advantage at halftime, and the Jets never recovered.
Mills' touchdown did far more than merely give the Panthers a halftime lead, however.
It gave the team a whole new outlook on their season as they sprinted off the field for intermission. The Panthers were euphoric inside the locker room, one player after another slapping Mills on the back or exchanging a high-five with him as he sat, grinning, at his locker.
The play permitted the Panthers to believe they could win - not only that game, but subsequent ones when it seemed they might be in serious trouble. And it established Mills, already a leader of the first Carolina defense, as something more than an aging linebacker who still could rock opposing ball carriers with fierce hits. In that instant, that one play, he solidified his role as the one player who personified the team's never-give-up, never-back-down mentality on the field.
In doing so, he forever earned the respect and adulation of Panthers fans - and it all arguably started with that one play against the Jets. The Panthers went on to win the game, the first in franchise history, by a score of 26-15. They won their next three games as well and seven of their last 11 to finish the season with a record of 7-9 - the best for any expansion team in NFL history.
It was a joyous Carolina locker room that day at Clemson. As the hero of the day stood in front of a throng of media describing for the umpteenth time his interception and return for the game-changing, season-altering touchdown, Mills' 17-year-old son, Sam III, stood dutifully nearby, shaking his head.
"I didn't know Dad could run that fast," he said.