Stars' Mills small but mighty
CARL PETERSON still remembers the phone call as if it were yesterday.
It was August 1982 and Peterson, who had been hired as the president and general manager of the Philadelphia Stars of the new United States Football League, was scouring the country looking for football players when he got a call from then Cleveland Browns coach Sam Rutigliano.
"Sam said they were letting a guy go that he didn't think they should be letting go, but his staff and defensive coordinator wanted to do it," Peterson recalled. "He said they didn't think he was big enough to play."
Rutligiano thought the guy would be a good fit for the new spring league, but made one request of Peterson.
"He said, 'If you sign him, don't cut him until you see him hit,' " Peterson said.
That player was Sam Mills, a 5-9, 225-pound linebacker who, with the possible exception of Reggie White, would become the best defensive player in the USFL's all-too-brief 3-year history.
When the USFL died, Mills moved to the NFL where he played 12 seasons with the New Orleans Saints and the Carolina Panthers and earned five Pro Bowl invitations.
Not bad for a guy who was cut twice by the Browns and once by the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League.
If Peterson hadn't agreed to Rutligiano's don't-cut-him-until-you-see-him-hit request, there's a good possibility he might not have made the Stars either.
After getting cut by the Browns for the second time, Mills, a Division III All-America at Montclair State, had pretty much given up his dream of playing professional football and had taken a job as a black-and-white photography teacher at East Orange (N.J.) High School. Peterson gave him a $500 signing bonus and an unguaranteed $20,000 first-year salary to play for the Stars.
Peterson's first head-coaching hire, George Perles, questioned whether Mills was big enough to play.
"He said, 'We can't play professional football with a 5-9 middle linebacker, it's not going to work. We've got to let him go," Peterson said.
Perles quit before ever coaching a game. His replacement, Jim Mora, also had serious reservations about Mills.
"He saw him in one no-pads minicamp before we left for training camp and said, 'Carl, we can't play with a 5-9 linebacker. This is professional football,' " Peterson said. "I told Jim the same thing I told George: 'We're not going to let him go until we see him hit.' "
Even after seeing Mills hit, Mora still was skeptical about going to war with such a small inside linebacker.
Every night during the Stars' first training camp at Stetson University in DeLand, Fla., Mora's coaching staff would gather in a room and he would ask his position coaches to rank each of their players.
Vince Tobin was Mora's defensive coordinator and linebackers coach. Every night, he would come in and tell Mora that Mills was his best linebacker. Every night, Mora would shake his head.
"I'd keep looking at his measurables - 5-9 and 225 pounds - and I'm thinking, he's the best linebacker we've got? Oh bleep." said Mora
Said Tobin: "I had come from Canada. Jim had been in the NFL for something like 8-9 years at that point. He would keep saying, 'Vince, we can't play with a 5-9 middle linebacker. We just can't do that.'
"I'd say, 'Well, that's fine with me. You've been around a lot longer than I have. But he's the best [defensive] player we've got. If you want to get rid of every other linebacker we've got and start over, that's fine. But as long as I'm evaluating them, he's our best player.
"This went on every week [during training camp]. And every week I would rate him No. 1 and Jim would say the same thing. Finally, they all came around to thinking he was pretty good too."
The Stars went on to have the best defense in the league during the USFL's 3 years of existence. Peterson assembled a ton of talent, including future NFL players like defensive end William Fuller and linebackers Mike Johnson and George Jamison and safety Antonio Gibson and nose tackle Pete Kugler. But Mills was the heart and soul of that group.
Mora became a believer.
"He was the best player I ever coached," said Mora, who coached some pretty good players during his career, including a guy by the name of Peyton Manning and Hall of Famers Rickey Jackson and Willie Roaf.
When the USFL folded and Mora was hired by the Saints, he brought Mills to the Big Easy with him.
"He was the ideal player to coach," Mora said of Mills, who died of cancer in 2005 at the age of 45. "He was an amazing guy.
"In football, low man wins. He could step up and get leverage on an offensive lineman coming out to block him or a back coming out to block him. And he had the strength and technique to stuff people and make the play. He was an incredible football player."
Mills was affectionately nicknamed "Field Mouse" by his Stars teammates. But he hit like a rhinoceros.
"I'll never forget the second day of practice at DeLand after KB [Kelvin Bryant] got there," fullback David "Duck" Riley said. "Sam gave him a concussion. KB hit the hole and never saw Sam. Sam came right through the gap and pow. KB was lying there saying, 'I'm done, man. I don't even know where I'm at.' "
"I don't think I ever saw anybody better at playing off a block than Sam," said safety Mike Lush, who played for the Vikings, Colts and Falcons after the USFL folded. "He just had that low center of gravity and exploded into people."
Mills had an excellent work ethic and used the early-career snubs by the NFL and CFL as motivation.
"He was one of those guys on his second or third or fourth chance, trying to prove himself because he was often called undersized or too small," said former Stars linebacker Glenn Howard. "He played with a chip on his shoulder.
"Even after that first year when he was the league's defensive player of the year, he still played like he needed to prove himself to people."
On Twitter: @Pdomo