In the beginning, it’s about making the show. Then, you get the bag. But it’s all about the ring in the twilight of a professional sports career.
So it takes a special veteran to sign with an expansion team. That’s what Sam Mills, a long-time star with the New Orleans Saints, did back in 1995. That year, Sam Mills signed a two-year deal with the newly-minted Carolina Panthers.
The following year, Sam Mills got named to the Pro Bowl for the fifth time in his career at 37. He then retired, capping off an NFL career that spanned 12 seasons.
Cancer, Meet Sam Mills
But the most dramatic (and sadly, final) chapter of Mills’ life came after his playing days were over.
After hanging up his cleats for good, Sam Mills joined the Panthers coaching staff as a linebacker coach. But in 2003, Mills was diagnosed with intestinal cancer. He was given months to live, but opted to keep coaching.
The Carolina Panthers rallied around Mills, making it to the Super Bowl for the first time. Those few months turned into a few years, but on April 18, 2005, cancer finally took down Mills.
After 17 years since his passing, he was finally inducted to the Hall of Fame on 6 August as part of the Class of 2022.
Who Will Follow in the Footsteps of the Legend Sam Mills?
Mills was the third Panther to achieve this honor, leaving fans speculating who could be the next one to join the legends. With more than 25 seasons in the books, the Carolina Panthers have loads of alumni. The NFL has yet to announce its modern-era finalists (post-1996) for the Class of 2023, so could the fourth Panther be closer to the Hall of Fame than expected?
You can check the latest odds at DraftKings (don’t forget to view the full website review to get your bonus codes). But before you make your selection, here’s who we think has a realistic shot of making it to Canton next.
Julius Peppers, Defensive Lineman
Among Panthers alumni, Peppers is a clear favorite to be the next inductee to the Hall of Fame. The nine-time Pro Bowler announced his retirement in 2019 after 17 NFL seasons – ten of them spent with the Cats.
He’s the Panthers’ all-time sacks leader, and has the fourth most sacks in NFL history. But that’s far from his only accomplishment. Peppers is second in NFL history in forced fumbles, blocked kicks, and interceptions by a defensive lineman. So when people say he’s among the most dominant defensive lineman of his generation, it’s not hyperbole. If you’re looking for a smart wager, put some cash on Peppers.
Steve Smith, Wide Receiver
If Peppers doesn’t make it to the Hall of Fame soon, Carolina legend Sam Mills may be joined by Smith. Over his 16-year career, Smith was named to the Pro Bowl five times and established club records in total touchdowns, receiving yards, and receptions.
League-wide, his stats put him among the best of all-time at his position. In 2011, he joined the 10,000 receiving yards club. And when he retired, he was seventh in all-purpose and receiving yards. Needless to say, he was a consistent threat each time he stepped on the gridiron.
Given all that he has accomplished, it’s hard to argue against Smith being inducted into the Football Hall of Fame. There’s no question he’s one of the greatest players in Panthers history, and his resume speaks for itself. But is he good enough to convince Hall of Fame voters?
Luke Kuechly, Linebacker
It’s tough enough to crack a professional lineup, as there’s no shortage of talented athletes out there. And then, there’s the physical aspect of football that cuts many careers short.
The latter convinced star linebacker Kuechly to retire at the age of 28. But while chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a brain condition caused by repeated blows to the head, abruptly ended Kuechly’s career, he accomplished much in his eight seasons with the Panthers. Before devastating injuries sidelined him permanently, Kuechly was on pace to become one of the most dominant linebackers in NFL history.
During his rookie season, he took the NFL by storm, leading it in tackles (!) and winning the Associated Press 2012 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year award. The following year, his torrid pace continued, becoming the youngest ever recipient of the AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award.
When he was forced to retire, Kuechly had notched seven Pro Bowl, five First-Team All-Pro, and two Second-Team All-Pro selections – all in eight brief seasons. His short career may work against him, but his impressive resume will make him a Hall of Fame contender for years to come.
Cam Newton, Quarterback
Now, Newton is still playing. But if the others on this list (somehow) don’t get selected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame soon, he will be a shoo-in.
He began his career by re-writing the rookie record books for passing and rushing. And since his first year, he has become one of the most dominant quarterbacks in the league. With a league MVP, four playoff appearances (including one Super Bowl appearance), and three division titles in Carolina, Newton is among the top QBs in recent memory.
Championship Habits Breed Hall of Famers
It’s tough to win in the NFL. There are 32 teams in the league, the weather gets crummier as the season progresses, and the sports itself is physically gruelling.
But Sam Mills, as a player and as a coach, bred an infectious work ethic through his motto, “keep pounding”. That mentality got him through 12 seasons in the NFL, and it also inspired Mills’ teammates to give their all on every single down. So while Mills may be one of only three Panthers in the Hall of Fame right now, he won’t be lonely for long. Because when you have a winning culture, top-tier talent usually follows.