Mills, Fields help Panthers keep things in perspective

Seeing them fight cancer inspires NFC champions

Super Bowl

Panthers -- Patriots

January 30, 2004|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

HOUSTON - Real life intervened on Super Bowl merriment yesterday when Sam Mills and Mark Fields put new faces on cancer.

Theirs.

Under the white-hot klieg lights of TV, the two members of the Carolina Panthers told their harsh story of chemotherapy treatments and dogged determination to the national media for the first time since their sobering saga began.

"When they are pumping this stuff into your body, it can be very tough on you," said Mills, the team's linebackers coach and a five-time Pro Bowl player in the NFL. "You have your good days and your bad days. I am just glad I am having days, you know, whether they are good or bad."

Mills, 44, the father of four children, has cancer of the lower intestines. He had his last chemotherapy treatment on Wednesday. As soon as he finished, he and Fields boarded a plane and rejoined the team in Houston.

Fields, 31, a linebacker and father of three children, has Hodgkin's disease. Also done with chemotherapy treatment, he expects to resume his career next season.

Their illnesses were diagnosed just one week apart last August in an extraordinary turn of events that left the team heartbroken, and Mills and Fields have alternated between hospital stays and team visits for the past five months. Mills continues to work at his job, albeit on a part-time basis.

"The club basically gave me an option as to how much I wanted to be around," he said. "Hey, I am a football coach. That is what I am. As long as I have the power in me to go ahead and continue to coach, I'd like to continue to coach and I enjoy it."

The plight of coach and linebacker first rocked and later inspired the Panthers in a 14-5 season as NFC champions. Once the Panthers' family wiped away its tears last summer, it began trying to find ways to ease the burden on Mills and Fields.

Left tackle Mark Steussie came up with the idea of hiring a catering service he used to provide meals for the two men's families. Everyone chipped in for a year's worth of service.

"We know that nutrition is very important for what they're going through, and it's just one less thing for their families to have to worry about," Steussie said. "A card or flowers only goes so far, but we wanted to do something more lasting and helpful."

There were other gestures, too, like players wearing the numbers of both men - Mills wore 51 and Fields 58 - on T-shirts under their jerseys when they played.

And then there was the story defensive coordinator Mike Trgovac told yesterday of how quickly the Panthers rallied around another expression of support.

"I went to our players a couple of days before Christmas," Trgovac said, "and told our players I wanted to send Sam Mills to the Pro Bowl and I needed some money to do it, around five or six grand.

"Within three hours, I had $6,000 in my hand. I gave it to Sam, [and] he cried."

Said Mills: "You know, there is a lot of love in that building. Our teammates have shown us that from Day One. These guys have been behind us 100 percent."

The jolt of reality that struck the Panthers last summer served as a rallying point all season. In its brief nine-year history, the franchise already had watched one player, Rae Carruth, sent to prison for conspiring to murder his pregnant girlfriend, and a former player, Fred Lane, shot to death by his wife.

When coach John Fox first told the team about Fields' cancer, "it hit like a ton of bricks," said defensive end Al Wallace. A week later came the news of Mills' illness, and the Panthers were floored again.

"It put the whole football thing in perspective," Wallace said. "Life is a gift.

"The things they're doing are an inspiration for us. We feed off them. They're fighting for their lives, we're fighting for the Super Bowl. The inspiration they've given us has gotten us to this point."

Although Fields reached the Super Bowl with the St. Louis Rams in 2001, Mills never made it in 12 years with the New Orleans Saints and Panthers. As a linebacker with the Philadelphia and Baltimore Stars, he helped win two U.S. Football League championships.

"Everything that Sam and Mark have been going through has been a big part of what's going on here," center Jeff Mitchell said. "I think the defense has felt it more than the team as a whole. Everybody's rallied with a sense of urgency, and this may be Sam's last chance to go to a Super Bowl."

Mills already has a tribute in front of Ericsson Stadium, a life-sized bronze statue of him as a linebacker, next to one of Mike McCormack, who helped owner Jerry Richardson lay the original foundation for the team.

"You have your [bad] moments, but you have to keep fighting," Fields said. "There is no question about it that you are going to keep fighting, and you have to stay upbeat about it and that is what Sam and I do, and we do that very well.

"Guys see that. They don't see us walking around moping."

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