CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The first blow to the Carolina Panthers came late in training camp: Linebacker Mark Fields went to the hospital to find out why a cut on his finger wouldn't heal and learned he had cancer of the lymph nodes.
The next blow came hours before the preseason finale: Coach John Fox told the team that linebackers coach Sam Mills had cancer of the small intestine.
"Mark was a total surprise to begin with, and you are going along and just getting the whole gist of his situation, and then right after that it was Sam," linebacker Will Witherspoon said. "It was like, 'What else can happen to this group this year?' "
Forget the difficulty of moving past years of embarrassing off-field scandals stemming from former receiver Rae Carruth's murder-for-hire plot and Fred Lane's shooting death.
Never mind the 1-15 season in 2001 when Carolina ranked last in nearly every NFL statistic.
For a team trying to build something special, the back-to-back cancer diagnoses in August were the biggest hurdles the Panthers had to overcome in their climb to Sunday's NFC championship game against the Philadelphia Eagles.
"When they told us about Mark, you hear cancer and you just automatically think that's it," safety Mike Minter said. "Everybody was shocked and devastated at that point. Then a week later, you find out that Sam has cancer, too, and it's just unbelievable."
There was no time for Carolina to sulk, though.
The season opener was a week away and the Panthers had to move on.
"We knew they had a real special feeling for this season, they were a big part of the thing we were trying to accomplish and they had a big fight in their lives," Fox said. "It made what we had to do seem minimal, but they expected us to go out and win our fight. So it motivated our football team."
Greg Favors was moved into the starting lineup to replace Fields, and Carolina shuffled its coaching staff to allow Mills to set his own schedule.
Fields and Mills have been reluctant to talk about their illnesses. Their long-term prognosis was unclear and both are still undergoing treatment.
Fields is a popular player in the locker room and was coming off a career season. He had ended 2002 with a team-best 127 tackles, a team-record seven forced fumbles and also had 7.5 sacks.
Mills' contributions were just as large.
He had spent the final three seasons of his 12-year NFL career with the Panthers, beginning with their inaugural season in 1995. There is a statue of him outside Ericsson Stadium and he is the only player in their Hall of Honor.
All of a sudden, both were absent from the Panthers' everyday routines.
Mills initially could only come into work when he was feeling up to it, and Fields, a player struggling to come to grips with watching from the sideline, usually only came around on game days.
"We know it's been very hard for Mark to say, 'I'll be by there today,"' Witherspoon said. "When he comes out on a Sunday to see us, we're happy to see him."
The Panthers dedicated their season to Fields and Mills, and all the players wear T-shirts with their numbers on them under their uniforms.
Fields made a rare on-field appearance during the season opener when he was the final player to run through the tunnel during introductions. The Panthers mobbed him at midfield, then he retreated to the suite where he has watched every home game this season.
Although Mills has had to miss practice here and there, he has been on the sideline for every game this season. He has remained a vital part of returning the Panthers to the championship game for the second time in franchise history.
"As they were fighting their cancer, it gave us power to fight on the field," Minter said. "They came in and said, 'The only thing that's going to make us happy is winning on that football field.' I think we used that as an extra push and an extra motivation this year."
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