The Pro Football Hall of Fame's latest class will be enshrined this weekend, and the Carolina Panthers are represented by a former executive and were nearly represented by a former player.
Former general manager Bill Polian is being inducted, and the list of finalists included defensive end Kevin Greene, who was one of 13 players on the list but not among the six selected. Greene, who played three of his 15 seasons with the Panthers, ranks third in NFL history with 160 sacks.
In 2004, Greene and another player who spent three seasons with the Panthers became the first Carolina players included in the preliminary list of nominees, a list that typically goes about 100 players deep. The duo showed up on that same list every year until 2011, when Greene ascended to semifinalist for the first of three years before climbing to finalist status.
Linebacker Sam Mills has landed on the preliminary list for 11 consecutive years but has never been a semifinalist, let alone a finalist.
One of the 46 Hall of Fame selectors says that's overdue to change.
"He deserves better," writes Clark Judge, who has started the Talk of Fame Sports Network with two other Hall of Fame voters. "The guy was a complete player – an inspiration to teammates on and off the field and, later, as an assistant coach…and compiled a resume that demands closer inspection."
Mills will always hold a special place in Panthers lore, a legacy he created well before his untimely death at the age of 45.
Following nine seasons with the New Orleans Saints, Mills spent his final three seasons leading the Panthers through their first three NFL seasons, keying the first victory in franchise history in 1995 with a memorable interception return for a touchdown. His second season produced his fifth Pro Bowl appearance and his third All-Pro honor. He was among the most decorated linebackers of his era.
One year after his retirement, Mills became the first (and still the only) player inducted into the Carolina Panthers Hall of Honor – the same year he joined the coaching staff. Early in his sixth season on the sideline, in 2003, he was diagnosed with cancer. Despite a dire diagnosis, Mills remained on the staff the entire season and became an inspirational leader – capped by his "Keep Pounding" speech – for a team that advanced all the way to the Super Bowl.
Mills died in April of 2005.
Each year, there are players who have more eye-popping numbers than Mills on the preliminary ballot for the Hall of Fame, but the number of players who were better than Mills is a small list and the number who made a bigger impact is smaller still.
It would be nice to see Mills move toward still smaller lists – as a semifinalist, a finalist, and perhaps someday an inductee. The further he advances, the more people will discover or revisit his truly remarkable career.