NEW ORLEANS - Sam Mills would have cherished this week. Not because he was being inducted into the New Orleans Saints’ Ring of Honor, although he certainly would be humbled by the prestigious recognition.
No, Mills, the former Saints star, would have loved the Ring of Honor ceremony because it would provide him a chance to return to New Orleans, his second home, and reunite with his buddies on the famed Dome Patrol defense.
“He would have loved it, hanging out with those guys and reminiscing about the times they ran the city and pretty much ran the league,” said Marcus Mills, Sam’s youngest son. “He would be greatly honored, especially to represent those guys he played with.”
That was Sam Mills. Selfless. Modest. Team-first -- always team-first.
Mills, who died April 18, 2005, will join Morten Andersen, Tom Benson, Archie Manning, Willie Roaf, Will Smith and fellow Dome Patrol linebacker Rickey Jackson in the Saints’ Ring of Honor on Thursday night. The club will honor him with a ceremony at halftime of the Saints’ game against the Dallas Cowboys.
Representing Mills will be his wife, Melanie, and son, Marcus, along with a host of other friends, family members and former teammates from the great Saints teams he starred on from 1986 to 1994. Among the players and coaches expected to attend: Dome Patrol running mates Rickey Jackson and Pat Swilling; former coach Jim Mora; Brett Maxie; and Antonio Gibson. Shirley Johnson, the wife of the late Vaughan Johnson, the fourth member of the Dome Patrol, is also expected to be in attendance.
Mills’ oldest son, Sam III, cannot attend the ceremony because of his coaching responsibilities as an assistant for the Washington Football Team, which plays the Las Vegas Raiders on Sunday.
“Sam Mills loved New Orleans,” said Marcus Mills from his home in Walnut Creek, Calif., where he works in business solutions management. “The city of New Orleans and Jim Mora gave him a chance when no one else would. He and his teammates became larger than life figures with the Dome Patrol. It’s where the legacy of Sam Mills started.”
Mills, who was affectionately known as “The Field Mouse” because of his undersized 5-9, 225-pound frame, was a leader and star wherever he played during his 15-year professional career. He was a team captain and all-star selection at each of his three pro stops in Philadelphia, New Orleans and Carolina.
But Mills became a legend during his nine-year tenure with the New Orleans Saints.
When he joined the Saints in 1986, he spearheaded a defense that helped turn the fortunes of the franchise. The Saints, led by the dominant Dome Patrol defense, made the playoffs four times in Mills’ nine seasons after failing to earn a single postseason berth in the two decades before Mora and Mills arrived.
In nine years as a Saint, Mills became a three-time All-Pro and four-time Pro Bowl player, and he led the team in tackles five times.
“Sam epitomized everything you would want in a middle linebacker,” said Brett Maxie, a former teammate of Mills with the Saints and Panthers who later served on the Panthers coaching staff with him. “He was the centerpiece of our defense, the signal-caller, the emotional leader that everybody listened to. Sam didn’t fit the stature of what a Mike linebacker was supposed to look like. But you couldn’t tell him that. He played way beyond his physical talent.”
Mora, who coached three Pro Football Hall of Famers during his 15-year NFL head coaching career, has repeatedly called Mills the best player he has ever coached.
“I’m super excited to see that happen,” Saints head coach Sean Payton said of Mills' recognition in the ring of honor. I just know from talking to Jim (Mora) how much he felt from a talent standpoint that Sam Mills belonged in (the ring of honor).
"When we started (the Saints Ring of Honor), we said if you have to spend half an hour discussing (if a player qualifies for the ring of honor), then probably not. I'm sure there will be some future tough decisions. I don't think (Mills) was one that we would have to spend half an hour discussing. It was just about finding out which year (to honor him)."
Mills was recently named a semifinalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2022. He has been a semifinalist three other times (2016, 2019-2020) and was a finalist in 2020 and 2021. He was elected to the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame (2001), the Greater New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame (2002), the Sports Hall of Fame of New Jersey (2003) and the New Orleans Saints Hall of Fame (1998). He was inducted into the Carolina Panthers Hall of Honor in 1998 and had his No. 51 jersey retired by the club in 2005.
The Saints Ring of Honor, though, will hold a special place in the hearts of the Mills family, said Marcus Mills, who, along with his siblings, attended Ridgewood Prep School in Metairie during Sam Mills’ tenure with the Saints.
“He’s had a lot of great honors up until this point, but to be a part of the rich history of the Saints organization is special,” Marcus Mills said of his father. “We’ve lived all over the place but knowing how much Saints fans love their team and how much the team means to the city, it just means more than some of the other places."