But don’t be too hard on the Browns. Of the 28 teams in the NFL back then, they were the ones that brought Mills in, not once, but twice in the 1980s.
The 5-foot-9 linebacker played his senior year at Montclair State in 1980, then went undrafted in 1981. Not surprising. Even now, only one player in the history of the New Jersey college has been drafted, quarterback Mark Casale by the Bears at No. 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, beat Worcester Polytechnic, then fell to Salisbury en route to a 3-7 season.
Little Sam made 501 tackles for Montclair State. The game to see was a 7-0 win over Central Connecticut in which he cranked out 25 tackles and returned an interception for a touchdown.
Cleveland Browns history includes a few 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 Glassboro State (now Rowan). Then-Browns head coach Sam Rutigliano liked a good underdog story. Brian Sipe, his 6-foot starting quarterback and a former 13th-round draft pick, was MVP of the NFL for Cleveland in 1980.
Rutigliano, from Brooklyn, had copious East Coast connections, caught wind of Mills, and brought him in.
Browns fans never really learned his name, although some vaguely recall an entertaining little linebacker who flew to the football in camp and in preseason games.
He was part of the Browns’ last training camp at Kent State University in 1981, and their first camp at Lakeland Community College in 1982.
Mills was married, but his wife, Melanie, remained in New Jersey, where they had begun a family.
“He was very disappointed when he came home,” she told The Canton Repository recently. “He was up for the challenge, and right up to the ninth hour, he thought he had a really, really good chance of making the team.
“When he did come home, he got love and support from friends and family and myself. We encouraged him keep trying, and that’s what he did.”
Current Montclair State head coach Rick Giancola, who was an assistant when Mills played, told Montclair magazine, “Sam was frustrated the Browns let him go. He had confidence in his ability. He just wanted a shot.”
A new league, the USFL, was in the works in 1982 to begin play in 1983. Carl Peterson, general manager of the Philadelphia Stars, got a call from Rutigliano after the Browns cut Mills late in the ’82 preseason.
Peterson shared this story with the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2014:
“Sam told me the Browns were letting a guy go that he didn’t think they should be letting go. He said, ‘If you bring him in, don’t cut him until you see him hit.'”
When Peterson signed Mills, the Stars’ original head coach, George Perles, didn’t care to see him.
“George said, ‘We can’t play football with a 5-9 middle linebacker … it’s not going to work,'” Peterson said
Perles never made it to the Stars’ first season. His replacement, Jim Mora, was nearly as skeptical as Perles.
Peterson stuck to Rutigliano’s advice, telling Mora, “We aren’t going to cut him until we see him hit.”
The Browns were overcrowded with linebackers.
Veterans Clay Matthews, Dick Ambrose, Robert L. Jackson and Don Goode started in coordinator Marty Schottenheimer’s 3-4 alignment in 1981, with rookie draft pick Eddie Johnson making an impression. In 1982, Bill Cowher returned from an injury, Chip Banks got 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 at the inn for Mills.
Before his death in 2005, Mills often talked about the Browns.
“Sam would always makes jokes about Cleveland,” Melanie Mills said. “But when you do get to the NFL and are successful, you just look back on it as a steppingstone.
“You can’t be mad about it. That was the way things were meant to be.”
Mills played for Mora in the USFL for three years, convincing the coach beyond a shadow of a doubt he was NFL material. They spent nine years together in the NFL with the New Orleans Saints.
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This article originally appeared on The Repository: Browns cut Sam Mills twice on journey to Pro Football Hall of Fame