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On day of chaos, Mills' absence speaks loudest

There is noise. Or maybe the word is clatter. All around, people shouting, moving, jostling, laughing. This is media day at the Super Bowl. A time when people talk of everything and, ultimately, nothing.

In the middle of the crowd, a young man stands alone. Sam Mills III does not have to speak to be heard. He is wearing his statement. A replica of his father's jersey from the 1997 Pro Bowl.

"I wore it for him. I just felt like I had to do something since he couldn't be here today," Mills said. "You know, he played so long and waited his whole life for a Super Bowl.

"Today is a pretty rough one."

Sam Mills II is a linebackers coach for the Panthers. His absence Tuesday was excused, but not enjoyed. Chemotherapy can be that way.

It has been more than four months since Mills, 44, was diagnosed with cancer of the small intestine. No one likes to speak of the prognosis, and their reluctance is sobering enough.

Mills is due to arrive later tonight, which is in keeping with his now-normal schedule. Every two weeks, he misses a few days of work for the chemo treatments. By Thursday, he's back in meetings and at practice.

He hasn't missed a game. He hasn't offered a complaint.

"Man, what an inspiration," linebacker Greg Favors said. "He has a tough fight on his hands. He's going through things now that a lot of us will never know. And he still comes out fighting every week. You know, we get tired and sore. Our bodies get beat up. Then I look at Sam Mills and what he's going through. I think, "I'm sorry, man. I've got nothing to complain about.' "

In Carolina, there is not much history to speak of. Before this season, there was one playoff appearance. Before this month, there were few moments of note. When people talked of Carolina, it was always about the future. When they talked of the past, it was always about Sam Mills.

He was too short to be a football player and too stubborn to realize it. Mills was a 5-foot-9 linebacker from a Division III school. The NFL had no interest, so he knocked around Canada, the USFL and day jobs.

Mills was 27 before he finally found a spot on the roster of the Saints. The next 12 seasons, he earned five Pro Bowls and a lifetime of good will. Mills was 36 by the time he joined the Panthers and played only three seasons in Carolina. Yet his impact was so profound, the team commissioned a bronze statue that rests today outside the stadium. The inscription is brief:

"Sam Mills, Leader and Gentleman."

This is the man who addressed players just before the end of preseason. He had been feeling sluggish and unable to complete his normal workout routine. A day's worth of tests detected the cancer.

Two weeks earlier, Carolina learned linebacker Mark Fields had Hodgkin's disease, another form of cancer. Fields is expected to make a full recovery.

"We had just gotten over the shock of Mark when Sam came in and talked to us," linebacker Will Witherspoon said. "He didn't know what the doctors were going to let him do, but he said he wanted to make himself available to us and be as much a part of the team as he could. We told him, "Don't sit home by yourself. Come be with us, lean on us. We'll carry some of that load.' "

It wasn't quite so easy at home. Not in a household that had come to expect he would always be there. Always supportive, always grinning.

Mills is a father of four. His oldest, Sam III, is 25 and an assistant to the Carolina equipment manager. His youngest, Sierra, is 6.

"It devastated us when we found out. He's the heart and soul of our family. I can't imagine doing anything without him being around," Sam III said. "You look at him, and he looks the same. He's still bigger, stronger than me. He eats well, doesn't drink. It didn't make sense.

"It's completely changed the way I look at life. I've known him all my life as a father, but lately I'm getting to know him better as a friend."

Mills has said little about his condition. He talked publicly for the first time days before Christmas, saying he felt compelled to say something after hearing from so many people.

He talked of being a part of two teams: the football players he spent weekends with, and the cancer patients he joined every other Monday.

It was difficult, he said, to look beyond the next round of chemo.

"Long term now is probably two weeks," Mills said. "That's kind of how we deal with it."

They have had to learn to deal with it in the Carolina locker room, as well. Mills spoke to the team before the Dallas playoff game and Fields spoke before another. Until then, it had been understood but rarely aired.

Instead, the Panthers have saved their tributes for the field. That's where an underdog team has won as many close games as any team in league history.

That's where a group of players has taken to wearing T-shirts under its jerseys with Nos. 51 and 58, for Mills and Fields.

"When they wear the white uniforms, you can see through the material," Sam III said. "Late in the game, when they're all sweaty, you can look at them and see that number underneath. That's when it hits me.

"That's when I get emotional."