BALTIMORE -- Sam Mills and Mark Fields of the Carolina
Panthers share a bond unlike most coaches and players.
Both have battled cancer over the past 18 months. Mills has
remained on the job as the Carolina linebackers coach while Fields
made the Pro Bowl in 2004 at outside linebacker after sitting out
the previous year.
They were among several in the NFL honored at the 27th Annual Ed
Block Courage Awards on Tuesday night. One player from every team
is chosen by his teammates for courage and sportsmanship.
Mills was presented the first Johnny Unitas Tops in Courage
Award. Doctors discovered he had colon cancer during training camp
in 2003, but Mills kept working. He inspired the team during its
surprise run to the Super Bowl that season against the New England
Fields sat out that season after a diagnosis of Hodgkin's
disease. He admitted it was painful to be sidelined while the
Panthers advanced to the Super Bowl.
"You don't know about cancer, so they just kind of let me work
my way through it," Fields said. "The bottom line is, can you
still play football? You have to go out and prove people wrong, and
that's what I did."
Mills, married with four children, was told he had as little as
three months to live. He took off a few days every two weeks for
Mills, who played 12 years in the NFL, addressed the Panthers
before the 2003 playoffs and emphasized that they "keep pounding"
no matter what. The players adopted the slogan, wearing bracelets
bearing the words.
"When you're dealing with cancer, it's more than just a game,"
Mills said. "You're dealing with life. They told me I had three
months to a year to live, and when you're told that, you have no
choice but to keep pounding, and I'm still pounding."
Tampa Bay fullback Mike Alstott returned after surgery for a
herniated disc that compressed spinal cord. He missed the final 12
games in 2003, but returned to play 14 games this season and regain
his starting job.
"It was a scary situation," Alstott said. "It was a situation
where it was, hey, football game or life after football. But in my
mind, I was coming back."