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Mills family welcomed to Pro Football Hall of Fame

Mills family

CANTON, Ohio — Melanie Mills remembered the last time she drove up to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and it wasn't like this.

Nothing was quite like this.

That last time, in 1995, she had a carload of kids piled into the family's gray Acura. It was a surprisingly quiet trip on Interstate 77 from Charlotte, since the children read her stories while she drove. She was used to long drives, as her late husband's football career had them traveling from New Jersey to Cleveland to Toronto to Philadelphia to New Orleans, before he finally signed as a free agent with the Panthers in 1995.

That meant his first game with the Panthers would be here in Ohio, with his expansion team playing the expansion Jaguars in the Hall of Fame Game. Back then, everything was so new, it was hard to process, and no one knew how the story would end.

On Monday, the next chapter began with a standing ovation.

The Mills family was welcomed to the Pro Football Hall of Fame for their orientation this week, in advance of Sam Mills' induction to the Hall this August. As they walked into football's shrine, the staff and visitors gathered at the entrance, greeting them with applause and cheers, a small taste of what will come later this summer.

The quick trip was spent with plenty of meetings and planning, but they also got to tour the museum, to see the spot where his Mills' bust will be installed this summer.

"I looked over at the spot, and I said, that's a nice space, that's a nice home for that," Melanie Mills said. "It's...I don't want to say eerie, because that's not the right word. But you can feel the spirit of the players in that room. When you glance in, it's almost a sense of mystery.

"You've heard the stories about those busts talking to each other at night. I kind of believe that's true. And I think that Sam's going to have a few stories to contribute to that conversation when his bust gets in there."

The busts are arranged on the wall by class, in alphabetical order, three, two, and three. That means Mills should occupy the space at the bottom of the second column for the Class of 2022, a little bit under eye level. That seems fitting for a 5-foot-9 linebacker who was never supposed to be big enough to make it in football at all, much less make it to the Hall of Fame.

But in the class of 2021, it's the spot occupied by Peyton Manning's.

That will put Mills in a position to have some fun with the legendary quarterback when those busts have their after-hours conversations, when the lights go off and the visitors leave. Mills' old coach in the USFL, Jim Mora, has called him "the greatest player I ever coached." Mora also coached Manning in Indianapolis, so he's seen some good ones.

This week, the Mills family got to see the museum and grounds, and to find out more details about the August enshrinement.

But they also got to learn about the family they're joining.

Melanie and Marcus Mills — who lives in Charlotte with his family — were there along with 2022 inductees LeRoy Butler and Richard Seymour as part of this wave of orientation.

And at a private luncheon Monday, they shared the stories of coming here.

Seymour spoke of losing his father. Butler talked about overcoming his early obstacles, from being born into poverty in Jacksonville, Fla., to the braces he wore on his legs as a child. The Mills family talked about losing a husband and a father to cancer, and the inspiration he has become to so many.

Marcus put his hand on his mother's back as she spoke,

"We're here to carry on his legacy, and it's our legacy too," she said, recounting the many ways the message of Keep Pounding has resonated over the years, since his death in 2005.

This summer, he'll find a new home, with a new family.

"It's a shame he couldn't be here, he can't be here with his peers," Marcus Mills said of peeking around the corner at the busts. "But when you see it, you know, it does feel right. He does belong here. He really does."

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