INGLEWOOD, Calif. — As long as they've existed, the Carolina Panthers have been Hall of Fame-adjacent.
Thursday night, all that changed.
The Panthers, and by extension their fans, have a Pro Football Hall of Famer now. One of their own.
That sounds different, and feels different, as it should. It offers a sense of belonging for the 1995 expansion franchise, because someone inextricably linked to the team has finally made it. Not someone who was just passing through, but someone who was of the Carolinas, if not from the Carolinas. Someone who dug in, who endured, who belonged, and whose legacy lives on back home every day.
One of ours, the best of ours, will now have a bust among the game's immortals.
With the election of the late Sam Mills, the Panthers are finally fully represented in Canton, because what Sam Mills represented is so central to what's happened in Panthers franchise history.
Now, the people of the Carolinas may have to share in the celebration with Saints fans, because Mills played his first nine NFL seasons in New Orleans. But after playing three years here, and coaching six, his career reached a delicate balance. And frankly, there's enough about Mills' legacy that gives each side plenty to celebrate.
But it's easy for Panthers fans to feel territorial about Mills, because it feels like he's been here forever. And in his own way, he has.
Mills left an imprint on this fanbase, and this community. When he died in 2005 after his battle with cancer, they had a pair of memorial services for him, one in his native New Jersey, and one back in Charlotte. At that one, friends remembered him and cried, and then everyone ate chicken in the church basement and laughed afterward because he left explicit instructions to make sure people broke bread.
He had that kind of gift for bringing people together.
Earlier this week, former teammate Brett Maxie — who played with him and coached with him — admitted he didn't know what kind of emotions he'd feel Thursday night.
"I think about Sam every day," said Maxie, who played alongside Mills in New Orleans and on the first two Panthers teams. "I know he's looking down on me, and I hope he's proud."
Maxie spoke at Mills' Charlotte memorial at University Park Baptist Church, and pointed out that day he was immediately skeptical about his friends' brief post-playing career foray into the insurance business.
"I told Sam, 'Yeah, you do look like somebody in insurance, with your little glasses, and your shirt collar sticking out of that sweater,'" Maxie recalled with a laugh. "That didn't last long."
On the back of the mass card from that service, there's a passage of scripture that's common to many Christian believers during times of struggle (Philippians 4:4-13). In part, it reads: "Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praise-worthy — think about such things."
That's why the people close to Sam Mills get choked up. He was all those things.
Maxie knew that because of the imprint Mills left on so many players, he couldn't just start selling them a homeowner's policy. He had to stay with the Panthers and coach, because it's who he was.
"Sam always did everything the right way; when nobody was watching, he did his best work," Maxie said. "I saw how he challenged men, his love of community and giving back. A lot of great players would meet Sam, and feel like they've known him for life. You only make that kind of impression by being genuine.
"That's how he was able to impact so many people, because of the way he interacted. You'd say hello, and you realize you just had an hour-long conversation with him, because you wanted to be in his presence."
Thomas Davis felt it, without even meeting the man.
Davis arrived in Charlotte five days after Mills died, the first pick in the 2005 NFL Draft, and became one of the players who perhaps embodied his on-field spirit the most.
Playing linebacker at a high level was one thing. Playing it after three torn ACLs was another. Playing in the Super Bowl with a broken arm suffered two weeks earlier, leaving it swollen and looking like the football itself after that game, proved that Davis had internalized the message Mills lived for so long.
"As soon as I got here, guys like Mike Minter and Will Witherspoon talked about him all the time," Davis said. "His son Sam III was here, and we had so many conversations about his dad. I watched his old videos. I understood the way he gave his all. The coach he was, the speech he gave, as a linebacker that resonated with me."
That's a common refrain when people talk about Sam Mills, the wanting to be like him, if you couldn't be near him. Because he was what you were supposed to be.
That's why the reaction to Thursday's news is so visceral, and why Panthers fans feel it so deeply.
To be technical about the definition, the Panthers have had Hall of Fame ties since day one.
The team's original president, Mike McCormack, earned his place in the Hall in 1984, a decade before he'd come to work for the expansion team to offer a little credibility. But that honor was for his work as a player for the Browns from 1954-62, before he coached the Eagles, Colts, and Seahawks.
The original general manager, Bill Polian, was inducted in 2015, though he's far more closely identified as the guy who built Buffalo's near-dynasty or the guy who drafted Peyton Manning and Edgerrin James in Indianapolis.
Reggie White passed through Charlotte on his way to Canton in 2006, playing the last of his 15 NFL seasons here in 2000, after he had moved to the area to retire. Whitmire, S.C.-native Donnie Shell, inducted in 2020, worked for the Panthers as director of player development for 15 years after his brilliant career with the Steelers.
The closest the team has come to a true tie was 2016 inductee Kevin Greene, who played three of his final four seasons here. Greene's third on the all-time sack list with 160.0, and collected 41.5 of them with the Panthers in 1996, 1998, and 1999. That's actually more sacks than he put on the board in Pittsburgh (35.5 in three years), but most of the highlights you'll see of him are in black and gold.
Hall of Famers Kevin Greene, Reggie White, Donnie Shell, Mike McCormack and Bill Polian all spent time in the Panthers organization in their careers.
There will be more in the future, players who clearly identify as Panthers, even though they went away for a moment, before returning to the warm embrace of home.
Defensive end Julius Peppers, who is half a sack behind Greene in fourth place on the all-time list with 159.5, will be eligible in 2024. He shouldn't have to wait long, as less-accomplished players at his position have either gone in on the first ballot or shortly thereafter. (Jason Taylor, seventh on the all-time sack list with 139.5, with no Super Bowl rings, was a first-ballot choice in 2017. Michael Strahan, sixth on the list with 141.5, was elected in his second year of eligibility, but he had a Super Bowl ring and the single-season sack record on his resume.)
Wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. was eligible for the first time this year and made the list of 26 semifinalists. The Hall has a traffic problem at his position, with three wideouts making the final 15 but not pushing through this year (Reggie Wayne, Andre Johnson, Torry Holt), and Anquan Boldin joining Smith on the list of semifinalists.
Some day, we'll have these conversations about Cam Newton, who did things no other quarterback has done. Beginning in 2025, we'll have these conversations about Luke Kuechly. The former defensive player of the year, whose career burned brightly for a short time, was a seven-time Pro Bowler and five-time All-Pro in just eight seasons.
Some day, we'll have conversations about Panthers who have yet to step foot inside Bank of America Stadium.
But all of them will follow in the footsteps of a giant, who walked into our lives in 1995 and never left.
View photos of Sam Mills during his time as a player and coach with Carolina.