(EDITOR’S NOTE: To listen to the Bill Kuharich interview, click on the following link: Ep 117: Former Chiefs VP of Player Personnel Bill Kuharich Joins The Show (spreaker.com)
If there’s an outlier to Saturday’s induction for the Pro Football Hall-of-Fame’s Class of 2022, it’s linebacker Sam Mills. It’s not that he wasn’t supposed to make it to Canton. It’s that he wasn’t supposed to make in pro football, period.
The reason was simple. Size. Coaches and GMs considered him to small to play his position.
He was 5-feet-9, 232 pounds, and maybe that cuts it for a running back but not a middle linebacker. So Mills had to make the Montclair State College football team as a walk-on, flunked tryouts with the Cleveland Browns and CFL Toronto Argonauts and took up high-school coaching in New Jersey before the USFL was formed in 1982.
The rest you know.
He not only made the Philadelphia Stars; he started for them and quickly became a premier linebacker for the league’s two-time champions. He was a three-time all-league choice, a member of the All-Time USFL team and so accomplished that Jim Mora, then the Stars’ head coach and later head coach of the New Orleans Saints, called him “the best player I ever coached.”
“That’s high accolades from Jim,” said former NFL general manager Bill Kuharich on the latest “Eye Test for Two” podcast. “Jim is very thoughtful in what he says.”
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So is Kuharich. He was the Stars’ assistant GM and director of player personnel, and he followed Mora – and Sam Mills — to New Orleans after the USFL folded. He was in on the ground floor when Mills’ pro career began and was there when Mills evolved into a three-time All-Pro and five-time Pro Bowl linebacker in the NFL.
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That makes him qualified to address what made Sam Mills Hall-of-Fame worthy.
“Having been around Sam since 1982,” Kuharich said, “and through the USFL … through the Saints … and then when he left to go to Carolina to finish his career … and then started his coaching career … if you take a step back — to me — he’s comparable to … and this is high praise … Mike Singletary.”
“He’s just one of those outside-the-box players,” Kuharich said, “that maybe doesn’t fit all the dimensions (of) height, weight (and) speed, but he plays the game as well as anybody who’s ever played that position.”
High praise indeed.
Singletary is considered one of the greatest middle linebackers of all time. He was an eight-time All-Pro, a 10-time Pro Bowler, a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, a first-team all-decade choice, Super Bowl champion and a member of one of the most dominant defenses (the 1985 Chicago Bears) in NFL history.
Like Mills, he was relentless, a sure tackler who covered the field sideline to sideline. Like Mills, he was a team leader, considered the heart and soul of Buddy Ryan’s “46” defense. And, like Mills, he was considered by some as undersized to play his position.
He was 6 feet, 230 pounds.
“I compared (Mills) to Singletary from stature,” Kuharich said. .”But they played the game the same way. They were very aggressive. They were both in a tackling position. You hear a lot of coaches say, ‘ Well, he can’t bend his knees. He can’t play the position. He plays too tall. He plays too stiff.’
“These two guys were in natural breakdown positions. Sam was so instinctive and so prepared for blocking schemes, formations, where the backs were, how close the tight end was split, if he had to get a little depth to get down the seam in coverage … and the styles, to me, were the same.
“It’s almost like (we thought) Singletary played when he played, and we might not see another guy like Singletary. And now here comes Sam right behind him.”
Singletary was a first-ballot choice to the Pro Football Hall in 1998. Sam Mills was elected this year in his 20th year of eligibility, his last as a modern-era candidate. In the end, none of that matters. Each made pro football history and wound up in Canton.
“Don’t get me wrong,” said Kuharich. “I’m not saying that Sam is better than Mike Singletary. But he is on the same street, in my opinion, (as far as) those kinds of styles of play.
“I can remember him playing the (USFL New Jersey) Generals, and Herschel Walker came barreling through. And he stood him right up and put him right on his back. He did that in the NFL, as well. Some of the hits Sam would put on players reminded me of what Singletary did in his hey-day.”
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