Even On The Sideline, Charles Tillman Is A Good Guy When The NFL Needs One Most
"I miss running out of the tunnel," he says. "I miss breaking it down."
I've asked Chicago Bears cornerback Charles "Peanut" Tillman the one thing he misses the most since landing on injured reserve with a torn right triceps. He's having trouble narrowing it down.
"I miss my pregame rituals, jogging around the field doing my ritual with Lance [Briggs]. The defensive backs, we have a ritual, we do. The team, we do a ritual. The little things, you know. The things you don't really think about, and when it's gone you're like, 'Wow, I'd give one more time to go do a 7-on-7 for pregame.'"
Tillman, who was hurt in the Bears' Week 2 win over the 49ers, has had a lot of time to think about these things. He missed the final eight games of last season because of the same injury. "Same injury," he says. "Same feeling. Same frustration. Same role. It's identical to a T."
Tillman may feel the same, but the league in which he plays has changed significantly.
The NFL is still reeling from the very public arrests and suspensions of Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson, and what many consider a gross mishandling of the cases by commissioner Roger Goodell. Never has the league been so scrutinized; never have its players been so under the microscope.
As Rice and Peterson are dominating the headlines, it's men like Tillman whom the league would like to see on front pages and websites. The 12-year veteran is a class act, beloved in Chicago for his tenacious play, his smart, sarcastic personality, and his endless charity work.
"He's one of the reasons why I came here," new Bears defensive end Jared Allen said after Tillman's injury. "He's a great guy. He's a great teammate."
"He's one of our leaders on this team and much needed," Bears receiver Brandon Marshall said after news broke that Tillman would miss the rest of the season. "It's sad for the city, it's sad for our team, it's sad for him."
Former Bear Anthony Adams, who played with Tillman from 2007 to 2011, raved about his teammate's character and compassion.
Peanut is the type of teammate that goes above and beyond to support you on and off the field. He is the prototypical person who lifts as he climbs. Easily one of the best teammates I've had, hands down.Anthony Adams, who played with Tillman from 2007 to 2011
"Peanut is the type of teammate that goes above and beyond to support you on and off the field," Adams said. "He is the prototypical person who lifts as he climbs. Easily one of the best teammates I've had, hands down. He is as selfless as they come and his [charity work] is a reflection of this. Giving families resources and hope in their time of need is amazing and shows the nature of the type of man he is."
Teammates, coaches and local fans have long known about Tillman's philanthropic efforts, but the rest of the country got a good look at his character in February, when he was named the Walter Payton Man of the Year.
The Bears have won just three of eight games since Tillman's injury. He's been at every practice, traveled to every game and will be on the sideline again on Sunday when the Bears host the Buccaneers. While their troubles go much deeper than one man, they're clearly suffering from the loss of his play and his presence. And it's not just the Bears who need him out there.
Now more than ever, the NFL needs guys like Tillman to be in the spotlight, not sidelined because of injury. Tillman says personally he hasn't noticed people treating players differently as a result of the league's recent bad publicity, but that there are a lot of curious people asking about the character of those around him.
"I've had detailed conversation with people about the league and how we conduct ourselves," he says. "But the thing I try to tell people is, 'I'm human just like you. I make mistakes just like you. ...
"I think there are a lot of great men in the NFL," he says. "I don't think the media lets the public know about all the great men in this league. We have more men of character than we have that are terrible."
Tillman doesn't feel burdened with proving that there are good guys in the NFL, but he does try to conduct himself in a way that earns him respect and, by extension, reflects positively on the Bears and the league.
"It's my responsibility to be me," he says. "I'm going to continue to be myself. If that gets spotlighted and that gets attention, so be it. If it doesn't, I'm OK with that as well."
To that point, Tillman hasn't let his injury or the ensuing surgery slow down his fundraising and charity efforts. Last month, wearing a fresh cast on his arm, he held his fifth annual Celebrity Waiter Night at a popular Chicago steakhouse. Joined by supportive teammates and fans, Tillman raised more than $200,000 for the Charles Tillman Cornerstone Foundation, which helps kids in need. Tillman was inspired to launch the charity after watching his daughter, Tiana, battle a congenital heart defect.
Amy Grieme, executive director of the Cornerstone Foundation, says Tillman's efforts never waver in this face of his own adversity.
"Charles' drive to help these families has never ceased," Grieme says. "No matter what was going on on the field, his passion for giving back was always at the forefront of his mind."
The Cornerstone Foundation's "Tiana Fund" has donated over $1 million to more than 300 families designated as at-risk or in-need. Lockers filled with toys, games, iPads and more (dubbed Charles' Lockers) are at six hospitals and two military centers to help sick children pass the time. Tillman and his wife, Jackie, have helped build a school in Cambodia, sponsored children through the UrbanPromise program in Camden, New Jersey, and participated in several military programs, including a USO tour to Iraq.
The Tillmans have held events of all kinds to raise money, from bowling tournaments to 5K races. They've delivered Thanksgiving meals to sailors, helped families provide Christmas gifts to their children and have bought and distributed more than 700 tickets to Bears games through the Bears Home Team Hand-Off program.
Grieme says that Tillman's commitment to charity is so strong because the cause is so close to his heart: "Charles and Jackie's passion for their foundation is contagious. This is something that comes so natural to them because they have lived the life of so many of the families they are helping. Charles refers to us as his 'pit crew.' He's the driver behind the foundation."
He's trying to remain a driving force for his team, as well, but he can only do so much from the sideline. The Bears are a dismal 4-6, two of those six losses blowouts at the hands of the Patriots and the Packers. Why is a team that looked built for success struggling so much? That's the "million-dollar question," Tillman says.
"We show flashes of greatness," he says. "I think overall we need to be a consistent football team. Sometimes we're up, sometimes we're down. I think when we're down, we have to find a way to come up faster."
Earlier in the season, Tillman said if this Bears team were to win it all, he could retire happy with that ring on his finger, even if he played only two games along the way. As the season spirals out of control, it's clear that if Tillman wants to end his career as a Super Bowl champion, he'll need to fight his way back onto the field for at least another season.
"I'm playing for the ring," he says. "If I get the ring, I'm good. I can retire ... A Super Bowl is the only thing missing off my bucket list."
Tillman hopes to play for a few more years, but at age 33, with two straight seasons lost to injury, he'll need to prove he deserves another chance to run through that tunnel.
"I like having fun, and football is fun," he says. "I enjoy it and I'm still good at it. People get caught up on age. The last two years with the injuries, it was just a stroke of bad luck. Other than that, I've been very consistent. I still feel like I can continue at that high level."
For now, he'll have to settle for doing his best to support the Bears from the sideline. And win or lose on Sunday, you can be assured that Tillman will be there for his Cornerstone Foundation families.