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Little Big Linebacker
Michael Bamberger
December 12, 1988
Sam Mills, the Saints' 5'9" fireplug, is often the shortest man on the field—until he cuts opposing players down to size
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December 12, 1988

Little Big Linebacker

Sam Mills, the Saints' 5'9" fireplug, is often the shortest man on the field—until he cuts opposing players down to size

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The television provided the crowded room's only light. On the other side of the room, Juanita napped on a couch in preparation for her eight-hour lobster shift, which would begin at 11 p.m. She is 62 years old and still works 50-hour weeks. "Not because she has to—Sam Jr. sees to that," said Sam Sr. While the videotape rolled silently, the men talked with pride about the player who's known among his teammates as the Field Mouse.

"You know why they call him that?" said Shaw. "Because he moves around the field like a little mouse in a herd of elephants."

"And elephants are afraid of mice," said Sam Sr.

The family doesn't use that nickname. Their name for Sam is Clean, because he was born hairless and various siblings put an earring on the infant to make him look like Mr. Clean. "You know why Clean made it?" said Shaw. "He plays from here." He pointed to his heart. "You can't regulate that. He loves football, loves it to death."

The TV showed a Saints' defensive huddle, with Mills at the head of it. His oversized teammates looked down at him, but only physically. Though he comes out of the game in some passing situations to avoid a height mismatch with a receiver, Mills plays on 75% of the Saints' defensive downs and calls the defensive signals. He is the leader of the unit. "But he's not the rah-rah type," says Johnson. "He leads by getting the job done."

It takes some effort to get Mora to acknowledge that Mills is anything less than an ideal linebacker. "About the only time his lack of height hurts him," says Mora, "is if a truly huge lineman just smothers him and throws him. But that seldom happens, because Sam gets himself in such good position."

According to New Orleans guard Brad Edelman, Mills treats every play "as if it's his last. I know that's a cliché, but that's the way he really plays."

That became immediately apparent in the Rams game. By halftime, Mills's uniform was streaked with grass stains and blood, and his neck was dripping with sweat. When he was on the sideline, he watched the action with his feet practically inbounds, and he caught almost every replay on the stadium's scoreboard screen, standing on his toes to see over his teammates, almost half of whom are at least six inches taller.

When he's in the game, it sometimes seems that offensive players don't know what has hit them. "Coaches are always telling tacklers to get low, but he's low already," says Rams fullback Tim Tyrrell. "When he hits you, it's like an explosion. He uses that leverage—hits you up in the face guard, and bam!"

"You watch him, and you learn how to make tackles," says Rams running back Charles White.

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