CHARLOTTE, N.C. — No team in the NFL has a mantra quite as connective to its fans as the Carolina Panthers.
Keep Pounding is more than a saying, a hashtag or a chant. It's a way of life.
And for those who were there for its origin, it still floods them with emotion.
"Chills -- every single time I hear it in the stadium," Al Wallace, a former Panthers defensive end, said. "It humbles me because I was out on that practice field and I was a part of it.”
On a cold Friday in January of 2004, Sam Mills, then an assistant coach, first uttered the two words that would become synonymous with the Panthers franchise.
"I don't think anybody really knew what was coming," Charlie Dayton, the former public relations director for the Panthers, said. "How special that moment was going to be."
In training camp ahead of the 2003 season, then-assistant coach Sam Mills revealed to the team he’d been diagnosed with intestinal cancer. Around the same time, linebacker Mark Fields was also diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease. He would survive.
But Mills' prognosis was dire.
“I think they only gave him like three months to live or something like that," assistant general manager Dan Morgan, who was a linebacker on the team, said. "Which was a big-time shock to us as a linebacker room.”
The news was a hard hit to the rest of the Panthers' locker room.
“We soon found out how serious Sam Mills' situation was," offensive lineman Kevin Donnalley said. "And it really was a gut punch for the whole team.”
But Mills never left that team.
“I can't remember a time when he was not in that locker room," Wallace said. "He would get out there and do these sprints before practice every day. And I know he did chemo. I know he wasn't feeling well. But you would never know that from Sam Mills because he was just built so tough.”
Morgan, who was also a close friend and bowling partner of Mills, called him a warrior.
"He worked out in the morning," Morgan said. "He ran out to practice. He was still there in the meeting rooms with us every day ... the way he handled it was admirable.”
The 2003 team made the postseason and was set to host the Cowboys in a Wild Card game.
Normally before a big game, a team leader, usually a player, would address the locker room. Sometimes the post-practice talks are routine, a matter of figuring out final logistics ahead of kickoff.
This time, the team would hear from Mills.
“[Coach] John Fox calls us up, and then he says, 'Sam has a few words,'" Wallace said. "The hush comes over the crowd. We know it's significant.”
A practice field full of NFL players went silent.
“And everything was just quiet," Donnalley said. "And everyone's focused on Sam because we wanted to hear what he had to say.”
What he had to say wound up being the most meaningful words in Carolina Panthers history, now synonymous with the franchise.
“And he just talks about finding out that he was diagnosed and that he had two choices," Wallace said. "That he could quit, or that he can keep pounding.”
It wasn't just a life lesson.
Mills wanted to tell the team they could live up to their playoff potential.
"How we should just keep continuing to battle, no matter what happened," Donnalley said. "Just like those two words, keep pounding.”
Many who heard those two words knew they were about more than just football.
"Going into the locker room after that and it's like everybody recognized immediately that they had heard something special," Dayton said. "Players were talking about it and the coaches were talking about it.”
The team's emotions were stirred.
“Not a dry eye in the building," Wallace said. "I know I went home grabbed my kids, loved on my family, anyone who meant anything to you, you understood how fleeting life was.”
Now, "Keep Pounding" is the heartbeat of the Carolina Panthers franchise.
“A lot of franchises don't get that kind of a story," Donnalley said. "And I hate to go through what we did and what -- especially hated it for his family. But what an amazing couple of words that have made a difference in people's lives for a variety of reasons.”
Mills outlived his prognosis by a year and a half before passing away in 2005, at the age of 45.
He will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday.