SAN JOSE, Calif. — “Keep pounding.”
The words have become synonymous with the NFC champion Carolina Panthers.
They’re on the walls of the stadium’s weight room, on the tunnel leading to the field and even stitched into the collar of every Panthers jersey.
“It’s a way of life around here,” said Panthers assistant defensive line coach Sam Mills III.
Mills’ father Sam, a Panthers linebacker from 1995-97 and then an assistant coach, uttered the phrase “keep pounding” at a downtown Charlotte hotel on Jan. 2, 2004, the night before the Panthers started a run to their first Super Bowl. It has been become the team’s rallying call.
Mills, the team’s linebackers coach at the time, was dying of intestinal cancer when he gathered players together in a meeting room before they would beat the Dallas Cowboys in a wild-card playoff game.
There, Mills delivered an emotional message akin to Jim Valvano’s “Don’t Give Up” speech, say those in attendance. There were no microphones on hand to record the words, no TV cameras to capture the moment. But the message was clear: No matter how hard things get, no matter how bleak things look — keep pounding.
Mills talked about how he could have given up on fighting in the face of terminal cancer, but refused.
Ricky Proehl, a Panthers wide receiver at the time, said the speech was so powerful that grown men were weeping.
“Just keep pounding — that’s where it all started,” Proehl said. “Keep pounding, don’t quit. No matter what the situation or the odds are, just keep pounding.”
Said former Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme, “Everybody had goose bumps. It gave you chills. The speech, it was much bigger than football — it was about life. It was like something out of a Hollywood movie.”
Added Proehl, “Unbelievable. The hair on the back of your neck stood up.”
Mills was one of Carolina’s toughest players.
When Mills revealed he had intestinal cancer in the summer of 2003, it sent shockwaves throughout the organization. Mills continued to coach the Panthers, and far exceeded the three months doctors had given him to live. He died on April 18, 2005, at 45.
The speech, his son said, was years in the making.
His father never gave up.
An undrafted rookie out of Montclair State, Mills tried time and time again to make a career out of football, but nobody would sign him.
He went to work as a high school teacher, but kept working out in his free time, chasing a dream.
Eventually he got a tryout with the USFL’s Baltimore/Philadelphia Stars and quickly became one of the team’s best players under coach Jim Mora. When Mora joined the New Orleans Saints in 1986, he took Mills with him. Mills became the team’s rock at middle linebacker, and would become a four-time Pro-Bowler in New Orleans. He also made the Pro Bowl once with Carolina.
The Panthers continue to keep Mills’ legacy alive.
There is a statue of him outside of the team’s downtown Charlotte stadium. Before every home game, someone is selected to bang a giant black drum on the field with the words “keep pounding” on it.
Stephen Curry has hit it. So has 8-year-old cancer survivor Braylon Beam.
Nobody on the current roster played with or was coached by Mills. Yet rookies and new free agents all know his story. They’re told of his legacy by longtime employees like equipment manager Jackie Miles, head athletic trainer Ryan Vermillion or Proehl, now the team’s wide receivers coach.
Ask anyone, they know the story.
“Regardless of the things that are going on in your life on the football field or off, you never give up — you just keep pounding,” fullback Mike Tolbert said.
Second-year wide receiver Philly Brown said, “No matter what the circumstance is, no matter what the situation is, no matter what the score is, you continue to just keep working and keep pounding. You don’t give up.”
The message has been carried over to the fan base as well.
“I can walk through the streets and people yell, ‘Keep Pounding,’” safety Kurt Coleman said.
A way of life.
“It takes time for some to learn the Panther way and (team owner) Mr. (Jerry) Richardson’s expectations of the Panther characteristics he expects,” the younger Mills said. “Once you learn that, you start to understand his impact that my father had on this team.”