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FILE In this Nov. The Panthers motto is everywhere, on stadium walls, plaques and even the team jerseys: “Keep Pounding.” The advice comes from Mills, a Panthers linebacker who died of intestinal cancer and is honored with a statue outside the team’s stadium. (AP Photo/Rick Havner, File)Mills’ father Sam, a Panthers linebacker from 1995 97 and then an assistant coach, uttered the phrase “keep pounding” at a downtown Charlotte hotel on Jan. 2, 2004, the night before the Panthers started a run to their first Super Bowl. It has been become the team’s rallying call.

Mills, the team’s linebacker coach at the time, was dying of intestinal cancer when he gathered players together in a meeting room before they would beat the Dallas Cowboys in a wild card playoff game.

There, Mills delivered an emotional message akin to Jim Valvano’s “Don’t Give Up” speech, say those in attendance. There were no microphones on hand to record the words, no TV cameras to capture the moment. But the message was clear: No matter how hard things get, no matter how bleak things look keep pounding.

Mills talked about how he could have given up on fighting in the face of terminal cancer, but refused.

Ricky Proehl, a Panthers wide receiver at the time, said the speech was so powerful that grown men were weeping.”Just keep pounding that’s where it all started,” Proehl said. “Keep pounding,
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don’t quit. No matter what the situation or the odds are just keep pounding.”

Said former Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme: “Everybody had goose bumps. It gave you chills. The speech, it was much bigger than football it was about life. It was like something out of a Hollywood movie.”

Added Proehl: “Unbelievable. The hair on the back of your neck stood up.”

Mills was one of Carolina’s toughest players.

When Mills revealed he had intestinal cancer in the summer of 2003, it sent shockwaves throughout the organization. Mills continued to coach the Panthers and far exceeded the three months doctors had given him to live. He died on April 18, 2005, at 45.

The speech, his son said, was years in the making.

His father never gave up.

An undrafted rookie out of Montclair State, Mills tried time and time again to make a career out of football but nobody would sign him. He went to work as a high school teacher, but kept working out in his free time chasing a dream.

Eventually he got a tryout with the USFL’s Baltimore/Philadelphia Stars and quickly became one of the team’s best players under coach Jim Mora. When Mora joined the New Orleans Saints in 1986, he took Mills with him. Mills became the team’s rock at middle linebacker and would become a four time All Pro.

The Panthers continue to keep Mills’ legacy alive.

There is a statue of him outside of the team’s downtown Charlotte stadium.

Before every home game, someone is selected to bang a giant black drum on the field with the words “keep pounding” on it.

Stephen Curry has hit it. So has 8 year old cancer survivor Braylon Beam.

Nobody on the current roster played with or was coached by Mills. Yet, rookies and new free agents all know his story. They’re told of his legacy by longtime employees like equipment manager Jackie Miles, head athletic trainer Ryan Vermillion or Proehl, now the team’s wide receivers coach.

Ask anyone, they know the story.

“Regardless of the things that are going on in your life on the football field or off, you never give up you just keep pounding,” fullback Mike Tolbert said.

Second year wide receiver Philly Brown: “No matter what the circumstance is, no matter what the situation is, no matter what the score is,
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you continue to just keep working and keep pounding. You don’t give up.”