From South Bend to South Africa, Jerry Tillery is ready for what's next

Notre Dame's Jerry Tillery is a potential first-round pick in this month's NFL draft, but his interests and talents extend well beyond football. Daniel Bartel/Icon Sportswire

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Jerry Tillery blinked first.

While in Indianapolis last month for a job interview that is the most unique/intense/absurd/important in pro sports, Tillery met with several NFL teams. One asked Tillery, a defensive tackle from Notre Dame, to make 48 cents with six coins of different denominations. Another quizzed him on his typical dinner attire: shirt tucked in or untucked? ("Usually, I'm a tucker.") He had casual, unscripted conversations with some teams, and dived deep into football techniques with others.

Then came the staring contest. Tillery can't recall if his opponent was a coach or a scout, but the other guy won.

"I wear contacts," he said, "so my eyes dry pretty quickly."

There were some layups for Tillery at the NFL combine. One team asked him to name the capital of Australia and then followed up with: Who is Nelson Mandela? Tillery politely answered, although he easily could have countered by asking if they wanted the 60-second response or the 60-minute one.

"I studied institutionalized racism in South Africa, the main figure being Nelson Mandela," Tillery said. "I probably told them more than they wanted to know."

Tillery knows a lot of things about a lot of things. He has traveled to many places. His curiosity about people, places and topics is one of his defining traits. He fully threw himself into the college experience at Notre Dame, and threw himself into plenty of quarterbacks along the way.

The final stats: 18 countries visited, knowledge in subjects ranging from business to psychology to Japanese, 37 games started, 13.5 sacks (a team-high eight last season), four forced fumbles (three last season), an economics degree and a possible first-round NFL draft grade (Tillery is ranked the No. 6 DT and No. 35 overall draft prospect by ESPN Scouts Inc.).

"He's the quintessential renaissance man," Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea said.

That's true, but know this about Jerry Tillery: He wanted to block for Brett Favre before he wanted to visit South African townships, spend weekends in Singapore or learn Japanese. Football came first, set a foundation and ultimately spring-boarded him toward opportunities he never expected.

He doesn't take the game for granted, especially now, weeks before the draft.

"Football's given me a different outlook on life, a new outlook, and that would have been much smaller without football," Tillery said. "Growing up in northwest Louisiana, I never really got out much. We didn't take vacations far, far away. I spent a weekend in Singapore last summer. That was so beyond the realm of possibility when I was growing up. But playing great football in high school, getting a chance to come to Notre Dame and play great football here, set up all of those opportunities."

It's necessary for Tillery to underscore his priorities, even if it's a bit unfair. Pro football isn't filled with renaissance men. Many who play and coach are football bots, working in a bubble. When NFL teams evaluate Tillery, a worldly guy with many interests, the potential concern is how much he will invest in the game.

So, to be clear ...

"I don't want to just make it to the NFL, I want to be the best at it," he told ESPN.com last month. "This is obviously a good defensive line class. I don't want to be just among them. I want to be the best one out there, the best one in this league. I want to make a Pro Bowl, I want to win a Super Bowl, I want to wear the gold jacket some day.

"I want to be great."

This isn't just talk. Tillery can point to the past two years at Notre Dame, during which he rededicated himself to football and grew up off the field.

He played the final eight games of 2018 with a torn labrum in his right shoulder, and still had his best season. The injury wasn't discovered until Tillery went home before the College Football Playoff semifinal. His mother, Mildred, a nurse at an imaging center, told Jerry to get an MRI, which revealed the tear. Mildred wanted him to sit out the semifinal game against Clemson. Not happening.

"He said it was bigger than him," Mildred said.

Tillery wanted to complete combine testing before undergoing surgery, and he recorded a sub-5 40-yard dash (4.93 seconds) as well as 23 bench-press reps in Indy. He then went to Vail, Colorado, where prominent orthopedic surgeon Peter Millett repaired his shoulder on March 6. Jerry being Jerry, he was more interested in the astronauts Millett had operated on than the famous athletes.

Right now Tillery's days are consumed with rehab and workouts. He has become more of a football bot, but with the draft nearing, it's OK.

"This is something I've always wanted to do," said Tillery, who is on track to be fully recovered from the shoulder injury by the time NFL camps open in July. "I'm close."

Tillery didn't lose his quirks and curiosity during the past two years, but adjustments were needed. The 2016 season ended with Notre Dame at 4-8 and Tillery apologizing for two dirty plays in the finale at USC. He had ended the previous season in similar disrepute, suspended for the Fiesta Bowl for violating team rules.

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly gave Tillery several requirements after his sophomore season, including anger management counseling and community service. Tillery also wouldn't go to study abroad in Jordan before his junior season.

"I had to get back in balance," Tillery said. "I was young. I didn't get it. I wasn't at my best those first years, but that all changed for sure."

He began spending time with assistant coach Mike Elston, who had shifted from linebackers to defensive line. Elston showed Tillery what to look for on film, how to better prepare for practices and games, and how to become more versatile, whether at nose guard, 3-technique or even as a situational end. Tillery considers Elston his biggest influence at Notre Dame.

"He showed me how to be a pro, to professionalize everything you do," Tillery said.

In 2017, Tillery led Notre Dame in sacks (4.5) and quarterback pressures (11), while leading Irish defensive linemen in tackles for loss (9). He was among the faces of the program's turnaround to a 10-3 record that season.

"Maturity comes in different forms," Kelly said. "There's emotional maturity, physical maturity, intellectual maturity. For him, more than anything else, it's been an emotional maturity. He carries himself in a different way."

After that season, Tillery retreated to Hawaii, his favorite state, where two notable things happened. On a Saturday morning, his phone and watch began buzzing: BALLISTIC MISSILE ALERT. Fortunately, it was a false alarm.

"The most terrifying day of my life," Mildred recalled.

The second notable event was a decision: whether to enter the NFL draft. Tillery considers Hawaii a good place to make big decisions, so he made one, opting to spend one more year immersed in all things Notre Dame.

He informed Elston via FaceTime, from a pool in Oahu.

"Typical Jerry," Kelly said. "'Where are you?' 'Oh, I'm in a pool in Oahu.' Of course you're in Hawaii, why wouldn't you be?"

Growing up in Shreveport, Louisiana, Tillery describes himself as a "super inquisitive kid." He was always reading, always asking questions. His parents, both nurses, stressed education. His three older sisters went to college and then into either nursing or teaching. His father, Jerry, called Big Jerry even though his son is taller, also played football at Northeast Louisiana, now Louisiana-Monroe.

"Always adventurous, curious about everything," Mildred said. "He was the top reader in his grade and then he was the best football player. He was friends with all the nerds and the jocks." Byron Dawson, who coached him at Evangel Christian Academy, remembers Tillery reading the business section of the newspaper in high school. On long drives, Dawson and Tillery talked stocks and investing.

"He didn't have the resources here to study abroad and do things like that, but he was really into books," Dawson said. "He was always trying to learn. He always asked questions. If you get into a conversation with Jerry, there's not going to be much awkward silence."

At 6-foot-6 -- actual height, verified at the NFL combine -- Tillery played offensive line in high school and drew interest from nearby powers like LSU and Texas A&M. But he'd always been a Notre Dame fan.

When Kelly visited Shreveport -- alongside Harry Hiestand, Notre Dame's offensive line coach at the time -- he had two goals: Tillery in a Notre Dame uniform, and playing defensive line. Kelly just hadn't told Hiestand the second part.

"Harry goes, 'Why did you f---ing take me all the way out in Louisiana to tell me I'm not going to coach him?'" Kelly said. "I go, 'Well, you're here already, so let's go in.'"

Everyone left the visit happy, thanks to Mildred. Her dinner of catfish, gumbo and crawfish étouffée made sure Hiestand didn't want to leave. She also told Jerry to show Kelly his bedroom, which had the periodic table of elements on the wall, and a Notre Dame bedspread.

"I want to make a Pro Bowl, I want to win a Super Bowl, I want to wear the gold jacket some day." Jerry Tillery

Kelly broached the move to defensive line. Tillery didn't object.

"He was fine with it, Harry was fine because he got a big meal, and I knew [Tillery] was coming to Notre Dame after seeing his bedspread," Kelly said.

Tillery enrolled at Notre Dame in January 2015. That summer, he did the study abroad program in South Africa, alongside teammate Jaylon Smith and others.

When the group traveled to Kruger National Park for a safari, their minibus broke down. A mile outside the nearest town, the bus needed to be pushed in.

"We were talking about how we were going to do it," said Anré Venter, a Notre Dame psychology professor leading the trip. "And I turn around and look, and Jerry's halfway down the road, pushing this minibus by himself."

Venter's favorite Tillery story from South Africa also involves a minibus. The group was headed to a township near Cape Town to fix basketball courts for the children who lived there. The Notre Dame contingent had bought basketballs, and Tillery was throwing one around the bus.

"Jerry," Venter said, slightly annoyed, "you're a bloody bull in a china shop."

Tillery informed those on the bus that he'd seen an episode of "MythBusters" -- a science show on Discovery Channel -- in which they placed shelves of china in a pen with real bulls to see what would happen.

Turns out, not much.

"The whole bus just cracked up," Venter said. "It was the perfect comeback. That was Jerry in a nutshell: smart, funny, quick on his feet, very socially adept, able to interact with people on all levels."

After South Africa, Tillery caught the travel bug. London. Paris. Mexico City. Singapore. He studied Japanese at Notre Dame and eventually visited his tutor's family in Tokyo.

Many were school-sponsored trips, but if Tillery had a gap in his schedule, he'd hop on a plane. Tillery's Instagram feed recently has become football-heavy but also shows pictures of him on the Zócalo in Mexico City, in the famous Marina Bay Sands pool overlooking Singapore, in front of Toyko's Imperial Palace and riding a bike near the Vancouver skyline.

"He's more well-traveled than I am," Lea admitted.

"He's just very spontaneous," Notre Dame linebacker Drue Tranquill said. "We'll get a three-day break and you'll see a picture of Jerry across the world."

If Tillery's name sounds familiar, you might remember him from the Showtime docuseries "A Season With Notre Dame Football," filmed during Tillery's freshman year in 2015. Tillery became a hit. He was affable, insightful, goofy and gullible -- teammate Sheldon Day convinced Tillery to keep his helmet on while using a port-a-potty during practice -- and had the perfect nickname, Terry Jillery, given by Day.

During one clip, Terry Jerry tells the camera, "I want to be a doctor, I want to be the president, I want to be an NFL superstar, I want to be it all."

Nearly four years later, he hasn't lost his ambition. Tillery is ready for the NFL, but he'll also be ready for whatever comes next.

"A lot of people leave schools and play football for however long and after that don't have much," he said. "Playing this game for so long, it comes to define you, at some level. Like, I'm Jerry Tillery, I'm a football player, I play football, that's, like, who I am. And if you don't have anything else, when the game is taken away from you, there's sort of an existential crisis there. It's like, who am I? Why am I here? It gets really big.

"I've had this conversation with former players who were in that situation," he continued. "People really struggle after college, into the real world, if football's not there. So I think it would be wrong to come to a university like this, with its infinite resources, and not prepare yourself for that post-grad life. I've always been a football player. That's always been who I am. But I've also been able to create another side of myself by coming here and getting to do these cool things."

Scouts have asked Dawson about Tillery's range of interests and how they impact his football drive. Dawson understands the scouts' motives, but adds, "That's a great flaw to have, someone that's smart and that loves the game and has some other interests." During media sessions at the NFL combine, Tillery's Notre Dame teammates Tranquill and linebacker Te'von Coney both vouched for his commitment to the sport.

"For people to ridicule him and question him for having other hobbies is crazy to me," Tranquill said. "Football's going to end at one point in your life. To have interests and a hobby outside of football is almost necessary. I certainly have those. ... I can't speak highly enough about the man he's developed into this past year."

Later this month, Tillery will learn where he'll be working next season. He has been to most NFL cities but looks forward to exploring his future home. When asked about becoming the next Dhani Jones, who hosted the TV show "Dhani Tackles The Globe" while still playing linebacker for the Cincinnati Bengals, Tillery joked, "Call the Travel Channel and see if they want to hook up."

Football will come first in the next few months. It always has. And Tillery is uniquely prepared to be part of the NFL.

"An NFL locker room is full of people from different backgrounds, different places, and obviously working toward the same goal," he said. "So is the world. Being able to experience that and see the world has prepared me to be in any situation, and to thrive."