Sam Mills is one of the best 3-4 linebackers to have ever taken the field. He was part of the legendary Dome Patrol for the New Orleans Saints before moving on to become one of the first defensive stars of the Carolina Panthers. He retired from playing in 1998, becoming a linebacker coach for the Panthers. In 2003, he was diagnosed with intestinal cancer, and his battle with the disease became a rallying point for the team as the Cardiac Cats shocked their way to the team's only (at the time) Super Bowl appearance. Before the first playoff game against the Dallas Cowboys, Mills gave a speech in the team locker room about how, no matter how bleak things look, you have to always put your head down and power through to victory. You have to "Keep Pounding". Almost immediately, the team and it's fans adopted the phrase as their motto and their identity. When Mills died in 2005, his number 51 was retired by the team (to date the only number the franchise has retired) and his legacy and legend have lived on in those two simple little words as part of the core culture that the Panthers and their fans operate under.
That's not hyperbole, mind you. As cheesy as it sounds, "Keep Pounding" is something I'll tell myself for motivation when ever I need to remind myself to just keep pushing forward. I'll tell it to other people whenever it seems like they're at a low point and need a kind word (I usually have to explain what it means). To an outsider looking in, it's just a slogan for a football team. But for a guy who grew up with the team, it carries a lot of weight.
I was nine years old when the first rumblings of a professional football franchise coming to North Carolina started up. Before that, my mom and granddad were diehard Cowboys fans and I always liked the Redskins because they had an Indian logo (side note: it really pisses me off that people are trying to get rid of that). My dad took me down to Charlotte to watch them break ground on what would be Ericsson Stadium and I got to hear Jerry Richardson promise that the team would win a Super Bowl in their first 10 years in person. I got a baseball cap with a Panthers logo on it for Christmas that year. I watched them stun the Cowboys in the '96 playoffs, Rae Carruth come out of the trunk, Kerry Collins pickled his liver, lose 15 straight games in a season, X-Clown in overtime in St. Louis, Janet Jackson's non-nipple and John Kasay kicking out of bounds to lose Super Bowl 38, Steve Smith going down for the season, Steve Smith coming back and getting the Triple Crown, a war with Chicago in 2005 that destroyed the team heading into the NFCCG in Seattle, Double Trouble run rampant over the entire league only to have Jake Delhomme have five turnovers against Arizona in the playoffs, everyone getting released in the cap free year, Jimmy Clausen flopping the team along to a 2-14 record, and everyone predicting that Scam Newton would be the biggest bust in draft history.
I watched every bit of it. It's a short history compared to a Pittsburgh or a Green Bay, but I've gotten to be here for the whole thing so far. Through my own personal ups and downs, I've had "my team" to keep me company. For better or worse, me and the Panthers grew up together, and I just simply wouldn't have it any other way. And now that the Panthers are headed to Super Bowl 50 to square off against the Denver Broncos for their second shot at a Lombardi trophy, it's nice to sit back and reflect on everything that's happened up until now. As it stands, this Super Bowl run has been five years in the making, and they've been five years that have forced the team to live up to the motto Sam Mills gave us 12 years ago. As a fan, it feels good, both to see the team you cheer for succeed and to see an organization live up to it's own expectations. In case you're curious, it feels this good.
On to Santa Clara. Keep pounding.