If 2022 Hall of Famer Sam Mills has the award on his face for being the first pro team to reveal that he was too young, Cleveland wins.
But don’t be too hard on Brown. Of the 28 teams in the NFL at the time, they were the ones that brought up Mills not once, but twice in the 1980s.
The 5-foot-9 linebacker played his senior year at Montclair State in 1980, then went unfinished in 1981. not surprisingly. Even now, only one player has been drafted in New Jersey college history by quarterback Mark Casale by the Bears at number 244 overall in 1984.
Montclair State is 17 miles west of the Empire State Building in New York City and a million miles from big-time football. In 2021, the Red Hawks opened with losses to Rensselaer Polytechnic, Delaware Valley and Salve Regina, defeating Worcester Polytechnic, then falling to Salisbury en route to a 3–7 season.
Little Sam made 501 tackles for Montclair State. The game to watch was a 7–0 victory over Central Connecticut in which he made 25 tackles and returned an interception for a touchdown.
The history of the Cleveland Browns includes some beloved kick returners who were in the 5-foot-7 range, Walter “The Flea” Roberts, Dino Hall and Gerald “Ice Cube” McNeil.
Hall played against Mills when Hall was at Glassborough State (now Rowan). Then-Browns head coach Sam Rutigliano liked a good underdog story. Brian Sipp, their 6-foot starting quarterback and a former 13th-round draft pick, was the NFL’s MVP for Cleveland in 1980.
Rutigliano of Brooklyn had abundant exposure to the East Coast, caught wind of Mills, and brought him in.
Fans of the Browns never actually learned his name, although some vaguely remember an amusing little linebacker who used to fly football in camp and at preseason games.
He was part of Brown’s final training camp at Kent State University in 1981 and his first at Lakeland Community College in 1982.
Mills was married, but his wife Melanie stayed in New Jersey, where they started a family.
“He was very disappointed when he got home,” he recently told The Canton Repository. “He was up for the challenge, and by the ninth hour, he thought he had a very good chance of making the team.
“When he came home, he received love and support from friends and family and himself. We encouraged him to keep trying, and that’s what he did.”
Current Montclair State head coach Rick Giancola, who was an assistant to Mills when he played, told Montclair magazine, “Sam was disappointed that Brown let him go. He was confident in his ability. He just wanted a shot.”
Work was underway on a new league, the USFL, in 1982 to begin play in 1983. Philadelphia Stars general manager Carl Peterson received a call from Ratigliano after the Browns cut Mills in the ’82 Preseason.
Peterson shared this story with the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2014:
“Sam told me that Brown was letting a guy go that he didn’t think he should let go. He said, ‘If you bring him in, don’t bite him until you see him hit Take it.'”
When Pietersen signed Mills, the Stars’ original head coach, George Perls, didn’t care to see him.
“George said, ‘We can’t play football with a 5-9 middle linebacker… it won’t work,'” Pietersen said.
Perls never made it to the first season of Stars. His replacement, Jim Mora, was almost as skeptical as Perls.
Pietersen stuck to Rutigliano’s advice, telling Mora, “We’re not going to bite him until we see him getting hit.”
Brown was overcrowded with linebackers.
Veterans Clay Matthews, Dick Ambrose, Robert L. Jackson and Don Good started in 1981 in a 3-4 alignment of coordinator Marty Schottenheimer, with rookie draft pick Eddie Johnson making an impression. In 1982, Bill Cowher returned from an injury, Chip Banks was drafted at No. 3 overall, and Tom Cousineau, a former No. 1 overall draft pick by Buffalo, arrived in a trade.
There was no room for mills in the inn.
Before his death in 2005, Mills often spoke about Brown.
“Sam always makes jokes about Cleveland,” said Melanie Mills. “But when you reach the NFL and are successful, you see it as a step forward.
“You can’t be mad about it. That’s how things had to be.”
Mills played for Mora in the USFL for three years, convincing the coach beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was NFL material. They spent nine years together in the NFL with the New Orleans Saints.
Reach Steve at [email protected]
on Twitter: @sdoerschukREP
This article originally appeared on The Repository: Brown Cuts Sam Mills Twice on Tour to Pro Football Hall of Fame