Sam Mills Hall of Fame is tied to the Shore Conference’s past

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WEST LONG BRANCH — The words were tinged with equal parts pride, joy and reverence as Bill Hill stood outside Kessler Stadium and spoke of his friend Sam Mills, posthumously inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday.

They played against each other, including as a sophomore in 1974, when Hill caught a 65-yard TD pass for Howell in a win over Long Branch. But 46 summers ago, the pair struck up a lifelong friendship while working together, before joining as Asbury Park All-Shore first-team selections this fall.

“It was 1976, a camp program with kids from Long Branch, Red Bank, Freehold and Howell,” Hill said. “We were counselors and every Friday we had a counselor football game, and Sam and I were on the same team. That’s when we really got close.

Hill, now entering his second season as head coach of his alma mater, is a tie to a golden era of Shore Conference football that produced an all-time great, culminating in Canton, Ohio , where Mills’ wife Melanie and Jim Mora, Mills’ head coach with the New Orleans Saints and Philadelphia Stars of the USFL, presented Mills for enshrinement and unveiled his bust.

Melanie Mills, widow of former NFL player Sam Mills, right, and Jim Mora pose with his bust during an induction ceremony into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio on Saturday August 6, 2022. (AP Photo/David Dermar)

Mills lost his battle with colon cancer on April 18, 2005 at the age of 45.

“Just so happy for his family. Long overdue,” Hill said Tuesday at Monmouth University as part of the Shore Conference football media day.

Lasting bond

And though their career paths diverged after high school, the bond forged on the Jersey Shore playgrounds remained strong.

“We were friends, Sam introduced me to Coach Garrett,” Hill said.

Jim Garrett, who coached in college and in the NFL, where he also served as a scout, was a tireless advocate for the region’s players, with Mills and Hill among the players who would practice in Garrett’s backyard in Monmouth Beach alongside his children, including future NFL quarterback and Dallas Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett.

Howell head football coach Bill Hill walks into Kessler Stadium in West Long Branch on Tuesday, August 9, 2022, during the first Shore Conference football media day.

And it was Garrett who convinced Mills to try out for Philadelphia’s upstart USFL team before taking up a teaching job after a stellar career at Montclair State. Mills ended up winning a pair of USFL championships. And when head coach Jim Mora got the New Orleans Saints job, he took Mills with him, and four Pro Bowl seasons followed.

And after Mills capped his career with three seasons (1995-97) with the expansion Carolina Panthers, he returned to the Pro Bowl in 1996 at age 37, as before joining the Panthers coaching staff.

When the Panthers unveiled a statue of Mills outside Bank of America Stadium in 1998, Hill was part of the group Mills flew to Charlotte to be part of the festivities.

“I remember one time when they lost a playoff game on New Years Eve,” Hill said. “They had just lost a 1 p.m. game, my wife and I were sitting at home and calling and asking what we were doing. He said we were going to be in town around 9, so let’s get together for New Year’s Eve. That’s the kind of cat he was.

“You don’t expect that. I didn’t expect to get a phone call after a playoff game, but it was an easy friendship.

“Finally Got His Due”

Hill’s athletic odyssey began when he was injured playing football in Virginia, before returning to Brookdale Community College to focus on baseball. He played one season of minor league baseball after being drafted by the Mets in 1979, but returned to football a year later, walking to Rutgers and making 37 tackles and one interception as a cornerback, while averaging 22.1 yards on kickoff returns.

Hill was in training camp with the Cleveland Browns in 1981 when Garrett was on their coaching staff. He played for the New Jersey Generals of the USFL in 1985 and played three games with the Dallas Cowboys in 1987.

And it was several weeks before Mills died that Hill traveled to North Carolina to spend time with him for the last time.

Carolina linebacker Sam Mills (51) drives 41 yards to the end zone for a touchdown after catching Steve McNair's fumble in a 1996 game.

“We actually talked about the Hall of Famer and he said, ‘I might not have a chance,'” Hill said. “Well, he finally got his due.”

A lot has changed over the decades, with offensive and defensive patterns changing, artificial turf becoming the norm, and New Jersey teams finally playing the group champions this season.

But what happened at the Hall of Fame induction ceremony last weekend was a tribute to the sporting community that Hill was a part of, and Mills has never forgotten.

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