There are certain stories and phrases that go above and beyond in creating heroes: Certain words, when pieced together exactly how and when they need to be said, can turn mortal men into immortal myths and into figures that teach, influence, and inspire in ways they themselves could not have anticipated or foreseen, and in times long beyond their own.
As with The Gipper at Notre Dame or Lou Gehrig declaring that he was the luckiest man in the world, a distinct mythos has come to accompany the story of legendary Carolina Panthers linebacker and assistant coach Sam Mills. At the heart of it is a speech Mills gave to the Panthers on the practice field before their 2003 Wild Card Playoff game on their way an unlikely trip to Super Bowl XXXVIII, where Mills – still serving as linebackers coach despite being diagnosed with intestinal cancer – told his team that he could have either quit when told he had just months to live, or “Keep Pounding”.
There was no recording of Mills’ speech, nor any word-for-word documentation from start to finish. But those who were there to hear it have recounted it many times since, and in such a way that it has made an entire region feel as if they were right there to hear it.
“I’m a fighter. I kept pounding,” Mills said. “You’re fighters too! Keep pounding!”
Those two words have since become the ethos at the very core of the Carolina Panthers. And this weekend, the myth will be forever enshrined when Mills takes his long-awaited, long-deserved place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Long before Mills was finally chosen to be honored in Canton, and especially since, there has been no shortage of testaments to Mills’ lasting legacy. Specifically, how many have internalized his message of “Keep Pounding”, and found meaning in it that has pushed them forward through adversity and hardship.
Indeed, there are many who have a story about how the legend of Sam Mills and Keep Pounding found and helped them. This is mine.
In the fall of 2011, I realized a dream of mine by moving to North Carolina as a newly-minted student at Elon University. As a lifelong fan of NASCAR who grew up quite separate from the sport in New York’s lower Hudson Valley, I had developed a romanticized vision of the Carolinas and came to the region as an 18-year old chasing fanciful ideas of being surrounded by and fully immersing myself into what I loved.
Granted, there was a necessary alteration of the way I perceived and adapted to my surroundings: There wasn’t a fellow race fan behind every blade of grass like I thought, but it didn’t take long for the Burlington area to become like home to me. I loved my life there, made lifelong friendships, and believed that all would continue to grow and blossom even after I graduated in May of 2015.
At that point, I was absolutely certain of my way. I had two internships to my credit – including one with NASCAR – and a treasure trove of knowledge about the sport. I thought opportunity would come calling to me because I was smart, but I had no concept of what my skills were besides my knowledge, nor did I actually understand what I was looking for or how to get it.
What I didn’t realize, however, is that, while I had been able to gain some experience in a work setting through internships, I hadn’t actually used those opportunities to get to know people in business, nor figured out how to turn that into a network of people I could rely on to help me.
And so, as I unsuccessfully interviewed for jobs in New York, I stubbornly held out thinking I was going to get a golden ticket to a racing industry job in Charlotte if I just looked hard enough, . By the end of the year, I was unemployed, directionless, and depressed living in my parents’ house – Feeling like I had blown it and squandered my opportunity to make my dreams come true.
What both helped and hurt me in this time was that I felt separate from what was going on in Uptown Charlotte while also living vicariously through it: The very Carolina Panthers team that had begun to form in my first semester at Elon, which grew into one of the NFL’s best and into a shared experience through which I could connect with others, had become an unstoppable cultural phenomenon in a golden season that brought them all the way to Super Bowl 50.
At this time, football had grown from a casual interest of mine – I saw my New York Giants win two Super Bowls when I was a teenager, so winning was all I knew – into a much greater passion which I pursued with the same fervor and attention to detail as I did racing. And through this, I discovered the story of Sam Mills.
Mills’ story instantly struck a chord with me. He was rejected by the NFL because he was thought to be too small to play linebacker. However, through sheer resolve and force of will, he became an all-time great with the New Orleans Saints and a legend with the Panthers, succeeding no matter what adversity he faced and how many times he was told he couldn’t.
After how lost I felt, I had found something I could imprint my own hopes and ambitions onto. It wasn’t just that Mills was from Montclair on the other side of the Hudson, or that he was 5’9” just like I am, but it sure did help.
As I pushed past the despair I had felt and took a normal desk job in New York, I often thought of Mills’ example. I took inspiration from watching his highlight videos, and read all I could find about his life and career as I both learned how to truly work for a living, become a professional, and pursue my hopes and dreams in ways that were tangible and not just daydream delusions of grandeur.
After about a year working in digital ad operations while sending emails, making phone calls, and building relationships with people in the NASCAR media business while also writing freelance stories, my efforts finally paid some small dividends when I was given the chance to serve as a volunteer in Charlotte Motor Speedway’s PR department during a race weekend in May. It wasn’t fancy or glamorous work – My responsibilities included driving media members around on golf carts, stocking the fridges, and serving as a human doorstop – but it was just the sort of opportunity I had wanted to prove myself right in the very epicenter of the sport.
After arriving and getting oriented at the Speedway, I drove to uptown Charlotte for the evening and stopped right outside of Bank of America Stadium. In the golden hour’s glow – A pink and orange sky I can still marvel at through my mind’s eye – I walked up to the statue of Sam Mills that stands by the stadium gates, took several photos and “hero” shots, and then took a moment to admire and reflect on a man who I never knew, but whose spirit was with me and had led me to that point.
That weekend was critical in giving me the direction I needed. About a month afterwards, I interviewed for and accepted a job as an NFL desk writer for 247Sports, moving to Nashville to do so. A year later, I was promoted to being the site’s head writer and publisher for their Carolina Panthers page, giving me a voice in the Charlotte media landscape and bringing me that much closer to all of my dreams and ideals.
Not everything has been on an uphill trajectory since then, with the COVID lockdown putting life on hold for while, but where I am now is lights and day from where I was back before that weekend in Charlotte.
On the football field, things have certainly not been all sunshine and light. Covering the 2018 team’s collapse, and the end of the Newton-Rivera teams in 2019, shattered a dream and broke my heart. I’ve built more of a distance between me and the Panthers now – I’m a little more mature, more professional, and less attached when it comes to this team. However, with every defeat and every coaching staff clear-out, it’s easy to fall back in a malaise of frustration and despair.
But when I get to that point, there’s only two words I need to hear in order to snap out of it.
Whenever I see or hear the words “Keep Pounding”, it’s a reminder to not give in to those feelings. For one, it puts the “life-and-death struggle” of a football team pales in comparison to Sam Mills’ actual battle to live.
If I Keep Pounding, I can believe that the day is going to come where I enjoy football again. Where both my faith and the faith of others – whether it’s those back home or those in the Carolinas – is rewarded. Because I kept pounding, I was able to get through a difficult time post-college and build myself up to the point where I actually have a decent career going as a writer. As long as I Keep Pounding, losing can kill my season but can’t kill my soul – Just as cancer eventually killed Sam Mills, but never had a hope of killing his everlasting spirit.
On a pleasant day in May just a few months ago, I left the tunnels of Bank of America Stadium and began to walk around the outside of the building. I was in town for NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600, and I took full advantage of the opportunity to cover a Panthers OTA practice and do some on-site coverage for a change. It was a great and productive day, and one where I was able to see the team at work with my own eyes and actually mingle with fellow reporters after being just a name and face on Zoom calls for the better part of two years.
I could have walked across the street to my rental car and hurried back to my hotel in Concord before rush hour, but there was still somewhere I wanted to go. So I walked left from West Morehead Street onto South Mint Street, looping around the stadium back to a familiar place.
Five years after my first visit, I was back at the statue of Sam Mills. And there, I gave a few thoughts to where I’d been before that weekend, remembered drawing my finger through Mills’ signature at the statue’s base – My index finger taking the same path that his likely took when his own likeness was presented to him.
Then, I gave a wry grin, looked right at the statue, and told Sam Mills something just under my breath.
“Well,” I said, “I kept pounding, and look what happened.”
(Top photo via Charlotte Observer)