Marcus Mills could no longer contain his disgust. Michael Jordan was fighting the flu and lighting up the Utah Jazz in Game 5 of the NBA Finals, yet there was Marcus's old man sawing logs on the sofa. Finally the 14-year-old roused his father. "Dad, Jordan is putting on this incredible performance, and you're sleeping through it," he said. "You're pitiful."
It's tough to say where Sam Mills of the Carolina Panthers gets more grief: at home or at work. Teammates of the 5'9", 228-pound, 38-year-old inside linebacker call him Field Mouse and Gramps, among other things. They ask him what it was like to play in a leather helmet, to tackle Jim Brown. A couple of years back somebody put a step stool in front of a small urinal in the locker room and hung a sign over it: FOR SAM MILLS ONLY.
He is follically challenged, vertically challenged, and unchallenged as the leader of his team. "The guys get on me for being old and short," says Mills, who has 1,202 tackles in 11 NFL seasons. "They're forgetting that I don't see very well, either."
Mills indulged in this bit of self-deprecation one morning in June while driving from his off-season house in Manalapan, N.J., to Wilkes-Barre, Pa., to play in Panthers guard Greg Skrepenak's charity golf tournament. Golf isn't a priority for Mills, who spent much of his round searching for his errant drives in fairways adjacent to the hole on which he had teed off. He prefers to spend his downtime with his wife, Melanie, and their children, Sam III (known as Little Sam), 19; Larissa, 14; and Marcus.
Mills is a good father and, at work, a good father figure. He calls Carolina's defensive signals and is an on-field proxy for Panthers coach Dom Capers, who is the emotional equivalent of the Bonneville Salt Flats. Capers speaks admiringly of the "calming influence" the veteran Mills has on his teammates. The players, likewise, value Mills's maturity: as an endless source of jokes. After a minicamp practice in June, Capers congratulated his team, which for the past 20 games has been penalized fewer yards than its opponents. "The previous record," intoned the coach, "was 16 games, held by the Chicago Cardinals from 1943 to 1945." A voice behind Mills—he suspects free safety Pat Terrell—piped up, "Hey, Sam played on that team."
Everyone cracked up, including Mills, who, it seems, is part mentor, part mascot. Some teams are galvanized by common dislike of a coach; the Panthers draw unity in taking shots at their short, bald, myopic elder statesman, who, conveniently, does not mind the abuse. Underlying the ribbing, he knows, is absolute respect.
Don't squander sympathy on him. Mills can take care of himself. If he calls a teammate and the player's wife picks up, he has been known to impersonate a woman, cheerfully explaining how "she" met so-and-so on a recent road trip. In New Orleans, Mills used to chew out players over the phone while imitating then Saints coach Jim Mora.
Mills played nine years for the Saints, the last in 1994, when he made a career-high 155 tackles. The front office expressed its gratitude by suggesting he could look elsewhere for work. A free agent, Mills did just that.
There to assuage his wounded feelings were the Panthers, who were preparing for their first season. Capers had coached Mills when they were with the Philadelphia (then Baltimore) Stars of the USFL and later in New Orleans. Capers knew what he was getting: a workaholic coachlike figure on the field and a locker-room sage who could help bring a disparate group of men together quickly. What he did not expect to get was the sawed-off destroyer who could still dominate a game.
In two seasons with Carolina, Mills made 268 tackles and dozens of big plays. While his specialty is throwing running backs for losses in short-yardage situations, Mills also forced six fumbles and made two of the biggest interceptions in the club's brief history. In the sixth game of the 1995 season he intercepted a shovel pass and returned it 36 yards for a touchdown against the New York Jets, starting the Panthers on the way to their first victory. Last season he put a fork in the Dallas Cowboys, picking off Troy Aikman late in an NFC divisional playoff game. Mills also had 11 tackles.