HOUSTON -- They have did not step on the field once this season, but Panthers linebacker Mark Fields and linebackers coach Sam Mills have played a big role in the team's success. Through the battles the pair has fought against cancer, Fields with Hodgkin's disease and Mills with cancer of the small intestine, Carolina's entire organization has drawn strength and inspiration that has played a role in the franchise's road to Super Bowl XXXVIII.
"I think both of them have been a huge inspiration to everybody in our organization, not just our football players, but our staff," Panthers Head Coach John Fox. Mark has been around quite a bit and Sam has continued to coach the whole way through the season. They have been around a lot."
Mills and Fields addressed the media at the Panthers team hotel on Thursday and discussed their battles that coincided with the team's roll of success.
"As for me as a player it's been somewhat difficult watching guys play as opposed to doing it and playing," Fields, a guy who had 127 tackles and 7.5 sacks for the Panthers last season, said. "As far as just being with the rest of the team. I think myself and Sam, we have been good for the team that way because it brought the team closer together as a unit and we are in the Super Bowl. It's a good thing. So we are happy about that and hopefully we can get the job done Sunday and go back to Charlotte with a win. But as a player though, coming into this it is extremely difficult because every player wants to play on Sunday. This is what we do. This is what we want to do. This is where we want to be. And when you are on the sidelines all you can do is just inspire your team in any way you can and that's what I have been able to do so far."
The Carolina players and coaches have worn t-shirts all season with the numbers 58 (Fields' number) and 51 (Mills' number as a player), a unifying measure that meant a lot to the pair. It was a very emotional experience last summer when the team found out about their ailing teammate and coach.
"There is a lot of love in that building," Mills said. "Our teammates have shown us that from day one and these guys have been behind us 100 percent. Of course it's a whole different level. It's one thing being a teammate and going out and fighting in games. It's another thing being friends and watching your friends fight for their lives. So I think it takes it to a different level in that respect. The guys, they have been so supportive."
The relationship between the player, the coach and the team has been a two-way street of support that has benefited both sides.
"Any time you win, obviously it is therapeutic for us," Mills said. "It's really been great to watch this team fight back and it basically sends a signal to us what we need to do in our lives is to keep fighting back regardless of the situation,. That's what our team has been doing. I tell you, they have really been an inspiration to us just to see the fight, the guts, the determination and that's the same type of thing we have to have. And that's what we do have. And it has been therapeutic for us."
The pair has also supported each other, sharing their common experiences through the battle with cancer in a way that reversed the roles of the relationship.
"Once in a while I give Mark a call because Mark had started his treatment before I started mine," Mills said of sharing the experiences of chemotherapy. "I would give Mark a call and Mark would basically coach me up on what was going on, what to expect because he was further along as far as into the treatment stage of it. So I was coaching Mark and then a month later Mark was basically coaching me because he was trying to help me out with what to expect. It can be tough on you. When you are pumping this stuff into your body it can be very tough on you. But you bounce back from it. You have your good and bad days. But I am just glad I am having days, whether they are good or bad."
"Sam has been an inspiration to myself because we have been going through this together," Fields said. "I mean he'll call me and I'll call him. We can talk about it and we can really understand and relate to one another exactly what's going on. So we've been getting ourselves through this."
While Fields has finished with his treatment and expects a full return to the football field next season, Mills is still in chemotherapy and actually had a treatment in Charlotte on Wednesday afternoon before flying out to join the team in Houston.
And now together once again in Houston, linked as they have been all season, Mills and Fields take the positive outlook they have maintained through their battles with cancer into the biggest game for their team.
"You have to stay positive," Mills said. "I mean there are going to be some times that you are just feeling bad. You just look in that mirror and say, 'Hey God I know you are with me and I am just going to keep on working.' Sometimes that's just part of the deal. Life is just not great every day, all day. Sometimes you are going to have some low points in life. But you just have to bounce back from them. You have to deal with them. It's part of life. Nobody wants to have this disease, but somebody does. We just so happen to be those guys with it, but we are just going to keep fighting."
And as they have done all season, the Panthers will come out fighting as a team this Sunday at Reliant Stadium, looking to finish their own uphill battle that they too have been fighting all year. Just as has been the case all year, Mills and Fields will be as focused on the importance of that contest as they have been with their own individual health battles throughout the course of the year.
"I've been in this league for quite some time, 18 years of trying to get to this weekend," Mills said. "And to finally do it and see these young guys go out and make the necessary plays to finally get it done. Keep in mind I had a chance to do it as a player and now as a coach I was finally able to get it done. That's very emotional because this is the big prize that you play for, a Super Bowl championship. We have an opportunity now to become the Super Bowl champions."
And should the Panthers end up victorious this Sunday, Mills will be able to claim just as big a part in the win as he would have in his days as a player.