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THE SAM MILLS STORY, SHORT VERSION: In the fall of 1976 there was a truly great high school linebacker named Sam Mills Jr. But no big-time college football teams wanted him, because he was only 5'9". Four years later Mills was a truly great small-college linebacker. But no NFL team wanted him, because he was only 5'9". He couldn't find work in the Canadian Football League, either. You know why. So Mills found a job teaching photography and assisting the football coach at East Orange (N.J.) High School.
In January 1983, two years after Mills had played his final college game, the USFL was born, and he earned a spot on the Philadelphia Stars. By season's close, Mills led the Stars in tackles. He led the Stars in tackles the next year, too, and the next (by which time the team was playing in Baltimore). When the USFL disbanded after the 1985 season, the New Orleans Saints hired Jim Mora, who had coached the Stars, as their coach. Mora, in turn, hired our little hero.
Mills, 29, is in his third year as a starting inside linebacker for the Saints. Last year he went to the Pro Bowl. This season, going into Sunday's game, he was New Orleans's second-leading tackier and was tied for its lead in fumble recoveries. The Saints, who occupied first place in the NFC West, have one of the best defenses in football. Herschel Walker considers Mills one of the four best linebackers in the NFL, along with Lawrence Taylor and Carl Banks of the New York Giants and Mike Singletary of the Chicago Bears. If he had cut Mills from the Stars almost six years ago, says Mora, it would have been the biggest mistake of his professional life.
End of short version.
"It's like this," says Frank Glazier, who coached Mills at Long Branch (N.J.) High, "no scout, no coach at a big college or in the pros wants to take a chance on a linebacker who is five-nine. If the kid doesn't pan out, the guy's job is on the line. Somebody above him is going to say, 'Who got me this five-nine linebacker?' Or the head coach will look at some film where his team gets beat on a pass and say, 'What, we couldn't find a six-two linebacker?' The kid's gone, and the guy who found him is gone too."
"There is a computer element to football," says Fred Hill, who coached Mills at Montclair (N.J.) State College, a Division III school. "The scouts loved his tape, but when they heard he was five-nine, they lost interest. Even though he weighed 225, the height number didn't compute."
"You know what scares the hell out of me?" says Mora. "You wonder, How many Sam Mills types are out there that you've never heard of just because they aren't the right height or something? The average linebacker in the NFL is six-one-and-a-half. Sam is a little over five-nine. You're talking about, what, four inches? And because of four inches, you almost never heard of him." Mora holds his right hand in the air and moves his index finger away from his thumb. He looks at the resulting four-inch gap as if he were examining the distance for the first time. "You're talking about a great player," says Mora.
Football people talk about Mills's lack of height—he is all of an inch or so shorter than the average American adult male—as if it were a physical handicap. Mills is built along the lines of Mike Tyson. He has 36-inch-long arms but short legs. His chest is massive—he wears a size 48 coat. His 18-inch neck looks like a telephone pole. He weighs 230 pounds, which is average for an NFL linebacker. He can bench-press 400 pounds, after having been stuck for years at 395. "He has extraordinary strength and drive," says Jim Finks, general manager of the Saints, "and extraordinary humanity."
The world that Mills was born into is not usually known for its humanity. The ninth of 11 children, Mills spent his first 12 years living with his mother, Juanita, and father, Sam Sr., in a government-run housing project with the euphemistic name of Seaview Manor, in Long Branch, N.J. He did not lack for love—his family has always been close—but money was another matter. Manor kids played tackle football on glass-strewn parking lots.
Sam moved out of the Manor when one of his half sisters, Caroline Bennett, a registered nurse, bought a modest frame house nearby. Soon after, his parents—Juanita is a private-duty nurse who had been married once before; Sam Sr. is a driver for the Long Branch school district—bought an even more modest house five blocks from Caroline's, and it was there that Wallace Shaw, one of Sam's half brothers, and Sam Sr. sat three weeks ago and watched a videotape of the Saints' victory three days earlier over the Los Angeles Rams. Tacked to a wall behind Shaw was a framed poster of Mills with his linebacking colleagues, Pat Swilling, Vaughan Johnson and Rickey Jackson. The foursome is known in New Orleans as the Dome Patrol.