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.
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 clichè, 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.
Steve Trapilo, the Saints' 6'5", 289-pound guard, knows about Mills's tackling and hitting abilities. Trapilo tells of how he tested his physical well-being during a scrimmage after returning from a sprained ankle in October. "I wanted to see what I could take, so I asked Sam to hit me as hard as he could," he says. "I've never been hit so hard in my life, not in any game, not in any practice. I can still feel it."
As an inside linebacker, Mills's chief responsibility is to guard against runs up the middle and to force sweeps inside, where they will do less damage. He is very good at containment, but he's even better on goal-line stands. On plays designed for a back to dive over a mountain of linemen and into the end zone, Mills's task is to dive the other way and meet the ballcarrier in the air, short of the goal line. Believe it or not, says Saints defensive coordinator Steve Sidwell, Mills is one of the best in the business at this. "He's usually a control player, but on goal-line plays he plays like a wild man," says Johnson. He also has great leg strength. Despite his height, Mills can leap and grab the rim of a basketball net.
As Mills talked to reporters after the Rams game, he dressed slowly, savoring the win. He looked satisfied—and sharp. He put on a monogrammed dress shirt with French cuffs, a ventless Continental suit and prescription aviator glasses with a pale yellow tint. He credits his wife, Melanie, with refining his taste in clothes. She co-owns a women's clothes shop in Rivertown, La., with Sandy Clark, the wife of Saints defensive end Bruce Clark. Sam and Mel have been married for five years. They began dating in high school. In those days he wore nothing but sweats.
Also in those days, Mills wanted to be a car mechanic. He recalls how Glazier once said to him, " 'Well, Sam, what college are you going to?' And I'd say, 'I'm not going to college. I want to be an auto mechanic' "
"So my wife and I gave Sam this car we had that needed some work," recalls Glazier. "He destroyed it. So I yanked him out of his vocational classes, put him in a college-prep program and told him he had to go to college."
"It's a good thing he did," says Mills. "I would have starved as a mechanic."
Now, instead of fixing cars, Mills sells them. In the off-season, he works as a car-dealership trainee for Tom Benson, who owns 25 dealerships, four banks and the Saints. "I was skeptical at first," says Bill Carroll, an operations manager who supervises Mills's training. "His income far exceeds mine, but I became quickly aware that his interest was sincere. He'd say, 'I'm just a knee break away from having nothing to do.' He's extremely earnest in his desire to learn."
Friends and teammates speak frequently of Mills's propensity for asking questions. Sidwell thinks he could be a terrific coach, adding, "but he's too smart for that." Finks says it is unusual to find a player who's so conscientious about plotting his postfootball career. "He's a person who thinks about life," says Finks.
Mills says his propensity for thinking stems partly from his days as a 188-pound high school wrestler. "Wrestling is a thinking man's sport," says Mills, who was one of the best scholastic wrestlers in New Jersey. "You have to understand how to do it. You have to learn how to use body leverage, which is a key to being a linebacker. In wrestling you have to look at your opponent's eyes to know where he wants to go, just like you have to look at a quarterback's eyes as a linebacker to know where he's going. And wrestling puts an unbelievable desire in you. I was always having to make weight. That's good training for preseason camp."
Grassella Oliphant, a New Jersey sports agent, was impressed by that desire. Oliphant represented Mills from the time he left college until last year, when they had a falling-out during the players' strike. Despite their differences today, Oliphant says, "You could see that he really wanted to make it. A lot of guys can say they want it, but to truly want it, inside, that's rare."
Mills is in the first year of a four-year contract worth $1,475 million. It has permitted him to buy a large house in suburban New Orleans, where he lives with Mel and their three children. Sam III, 10, is the intellectual; he can explain the difference between a bayou and a levee. Marcus is a tackle-happy five-year-old who confuses the living room carpet for the rug of the Superdome. Larissa, also five, is a pigtailed cutie whom the Millses adopted.
Sam and Mel like New Orleans, but they also miss their roots. "Someday we'll go back to New Jersey, but I'd like to play out my career in New Orleans," says Mills. "The Saints gave me a chance to prove myself in the NFL. When you're my size, you have to prove yourself in every game and in every play, which is fine by me."
And fine by the Saints, too.