CHARLOTTE — The fire Sam Mills played with was obvious. You don't make the Pro Football Hall of Fame without that kind of passion for your work.
But he was also a gentle man when he was off the field, with a compassion that led him to serve, and serve as an example to others.
Capturing both sides is challenging for any artist, especially when the job is more complicated than usual since he's not available to model.
Sculptor Ben Hammond has been creating busts for the Hall of Fame from his Utah studio since 2007, and Mills is one of his latest creations. It's still being cast as we speak, but the end result will get to Canton, Ohio by the end of July so that it can be enshrined in the Hall forever.
"He always has a kind expression, but I think we also have some intensity there," Hammond said of the end result of Mills' bust.
Hammond is one of three sculptors the Hall of Fame employs to create the bronzes that are the centerpiece of the Hall's exhibits. He apprenticed under their head sculptor, Blair Buswell, and each year, they have what amounts to a draft, in which the legends of the game are divvied up among the three. Hammond's first bust was legendary Browns blocker Gene Hickerson in 2007, and he's continued each year (he also did former Panthers front office member and Steelers safety Donnie Shell).
"Sometimes we fight over the guys who have the most interesting heads," Hammond said with a laugh. "And by interesting heads I mean interesting artistically."
This year, Hammond drew offensive tackle Tony Boselli and defensive lineman Richard Seymour as well. He admits a fondness for linemen — "I like the big guys," he said — and while Mills might not have had the same physical stature as those two, he was also a fascinating subject.
Boselli and Seymour were able to sit for Hammond, so he could measure their heads and faces to make sure the proportions were correct and precise. With Mills, who died in 2005, he had to rely on photographs from the past. There were measurements taken when Todd Andrews sculpted the statue of Mills that sits outside Bank of America Stadium in 1997, but as each artist has their own method, Hammond wanted to go into this process with a fresh perspective. (Andrews also created the large Panthers statues on either side of the stadium, along with Mike McCormack's Hall of Honor statue.)
Hammond acknowledged that creating a bust of a posthumous enshrinee was more complicated, but he studied photographs, measured the spaces with calipers, and then met with Melanie Mills to discuss the family's preferences.
View photos of Sam Mills during his time as a player and coach with Carolina.
He knew Mills would be a different challenge, and started the process in early March. By the time he had done some initial work on the Mills model, Boselli arrived for his modeling session, and was impressed with how realistic it was, having seen that face up close when the Jaguars played the Panthers in the 1995 Hall of Fame Game.
Hammond also got some feedback from former Saints kicker Morten Anderson.
"Morten said the biggest thing was to get the thin little mustache right," Hammond said. "He said that was important, and he liked the way it turned out."
Still, Mills was complicated, and not just because he wasn't there.
Hammond compared it to the bust he carved of former Eagles safety Brian Dawkins.
"Dawkins was a psycho on the field, but he was one of the most sweet and kind human beings I've ever met, so he had to go to a different zone when he was out there," Hammond said. "We try to capture these subjects as football players, and hopefully you can still see the kindness there.
"An experienced sculptor can breathe life into a subject that way."
While Hammond can create the model for a bust in as few as 25 to 30 hours, he estimated he spent closer to 80 getting Mills' just right.
Making the clay mold (which Hammond finished in early May) is just the first step in an eight-to-twelve-week process. After it's cast in wax, it's checked again, before the final bronze is poured at the Baer Bronze foundry in Springville, Utah.
When it's finished, a final check at Hammond's studio and a few professional photos later, he'll have the bust overnighted to the Hall, where it won't be unveiled until the Aug. 6 enshrinement ceremony. Even Mills' son, Sam III, hasn't seen the models yet, he said this week, and Hammond was unable to provide photographs of his work on this one. But he did allow that he was pleased with the end result, and believes fans will be as well.
"Nobody is harder to please than the artist himself sometimes," Hammond said. "It's important to me that the final product represents the careers these men had."
The fact it took longer than normal to create the Mills bust also creates a parallel to the legendary linebacker's own journey to Canton — since he was elected in his 20th and final year of eligibility as a modern-era candidate.
So when he's unveiled in August, the hope is that it will create a moment that's worth the wait — for the artist, for the family, and for so many fans across the Carolinas and beyond.
View photos of the bronze busts of former Panthers Kevin Greene, Reggie White, Donnie Shell, Bill Polian and Mike McCormack at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.