CHARLOTTE - Last weekend, Panthers players and coaching staff watched an advance copy of "A Football Life: Sam Mills."
The NFL Films documentary, which will first air after Thursday Night Football against the Eagles and again Friday at 9 p.m. on NFL Network, tells the story of a man whose fighting spirit in the face of intestinal cancer continues to inspire so many within the Panthers organization and around the NFL.
Mills' fight against cancer was forever encapsulated in a speech the linebacker turned assistant coach gave prior to the team's playoff game against the Dallas Cowboys in January of 2004. Mills' words, now chronicled on a wall of the team weight room, ended with the following:
"When I found out I had cancer, there were two things could do: quit or keep pounding. I'm a fighter. I kept pounding. You're fighters, too. Keep pounding!"
While reminders of Mills are everywhere, from the weight room wall to the words "Keep Pounding" in the uniform collar to the drum that is pounded four times before home games, watching the documentary helped bring the story alive even more for Panthers veterans and newcomers alike.
"You come into this organization and you learn about it, but not to the same extent after seeing the show," linebacker Luke Kuechly said. "You hear stories about Sam from when he was here, and you know (assistant defensive backs coach) Sam Mills III and you see the plaque on the wall and the 'Keep Pounding' on the jerseys, but you don't realize all that he did and the impact that he had on people until you watch that show."
The NFL has long designated the month of October as a time when the league and its clubs raise money and awareness for breast cancer. This year, the League expanded the Crucial Catch initiative this year, where players and teams have the option to focus efforts on fighting a specific cancer that is meaningful to them. For the Panthers players and staff that are reminded on a daily basis what that fight really means, this was an opportunity to Keep Pounding for Sam Mills.
"My dad had breast and prostate cancer, my stepmom had non-smoking lung cancer, so I understand it," safety Kurt Coleman said. "I visit with a lot of families that are going through this with their kids and themselves, and I understand the fight that they have, each and every day. The one thing that I know is that their spirit is strong. When you look at Sam Mills and you look at countless other people that have battled that disease, it helps you gain a greater perspective and appreciation for every day. Every day is special, and you should treat it like a gift.
"That was one of the things that Sam reiterated: 'I have my good days and my bad days, but at least I have days.' When more people take that perspective, you have a greater sense of who you are and what you can do in this world."
The Panthers will take the field for Thursday Night Football in the now-famous all-blue color rush jerseys. Carolina has won primetime games against Dallas and New Orleans in them over the last two seasons.
But a more subtle uniform change will be on the back of the Panthers' helmets. They will all be sporting a patch with the number 51, in memory of Mills.
"It was important for us to introduce Mills' story to our players, especially our young players," head coach Ron Rivera said. "Keep Pounding is stitched into everyone's collar. When they see that, it has a little more relevance now."
For players new to the organization like wide receiver Russell Shepard, watching the documentary definitely made an emotional imprint.
"I've played in another organization with players who had long Hall of Fame careers, and Mills is more respected here than in any place I've ever seen," wide receiver Russell Shepard said. "He wasn't a loud guy or had a loud personality, but he still left a loud effect on this organization and the NFL.
"He showed us that this game isn't about the winning and so many other things, but the most important thing about playing this game is the relationships you create and the model to be a professional that you set for others. It's an honor to wear his number on my helmet."