EDITOR’S NOTE: Last in a series of stories about the eight inductees to be enshrined in the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame Saturday in Natchitoches.
There are worse things in life than a crackback block.
Charles “Peanut” Tillman learned how fragile life can be in 2008 when head coach Lovie Smith called him aside during Chicago Bears training camp activities and told him he needed to go home.
Three-month-old daughter Tiana Rene was being rushed to the hospital with cardiomyopathy — an enlarged heart — and was in desperate need of a new organ. In the days that followed, Tillman and his wife Jackie battled the knowledge that someone else’s child would have to die for their second-born to have a life.
A Berlin heart — a small pump controlled by a laptop — kept Tiana alive. Eventually a donor was located, the organ was rushed to Chicago and Tiana had a new lease on life.
Today, Tiana is 13 years old, one of five athletic kids in an extended household full of activity.
“Tiana is one of the toughest kids I know,” Tillman said. “She’s wrestling now, one of two girls on the team. I told her you can do anything you put your mind to. I support you. It’s been a joy. Such fun.
“At one meet, I got real emotional thinking about it. She almost died, twice. She’s not supposed to be here. Now she’s 13 years old and gives me such joy. I tell her ‘Let me listen to your heart.’
“It reminds you of what a blessing she is.”
Daughter Talia, 15, is the oldest offspring, a budding Amateur Athletic Union basketball hopeful also skilled in soccer and volleyball. Elevenyear-old Tyson “is my track guy,” Tillman said. Tess, 8, is into soccer and gymnastics.
Nephew Micah, 17, rounds out the picture as a basketball/ track athlete.
The Tillman family will be in full force when Tillman is inducted into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame Saturday in Natchitoches.
A former Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns star, Tillman played 13 years in the NFL as a ball-hawking defensive back, 12 with the Bears and a season in Carolina with the Panthers.
“I was blown away when I got the news,” Tillman said of his selection. “Louisiana has had a lot of great athletes. I didn’t think I was that good. It’s a huge honor. I’m truly honored.
“I’m definitely bringing the family down. I‘m excited for my kids. A couple of them are old enough to remember a little that I played. Now they can say, ‘Hey, you were pretty good.’ That’s the cool part of this.
“I try to teach them the things I’ve learned — work ethic, how to work hard at something. I get a lot of joy out of that.”
Tillman was one of the most disruptive defensive backs in the NFL from 2003-15, finishing with 38 interceptions for 675 yards and eight touchdown returns as well as forcing 44 fumbles and claiming 12 of them.
A two-time Pro Bowl pick and 2012 All-NFL choice, Tillman totaled 930 tackles (790 solo).
He helped lead the Bears to Super Bowl XLI, losing 29-17 to the Indianapolis Colts, and the 2015 Panthers who lost 24-10, to the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50, again losing to Hall of Famer Peyton Manning.
Tillman missed that game with a career-ending injury.
A product of Copperas Cove, Texas, the Chicago native pilfered 12 passes as a Ragin’ Cajun from 1999-2002 — three times leading the team — and his 284 tackles are No. 2 in school history to Orlando Thomas among defensive backs.
Tillman was the No. 35 pick in the 2003 NFL draft, the highest in ULL history.
But he has been much more than a star defender. Spurred by Tiana’ condition, Tillman established the Charles Locker program, now at seven Chicago hospitals, to provide iPads, DVDs, notebook computers, PlayStations and other useful diversions for children and their parents to use while in the hospital.
He also created the Tiana Fund, providing items such as wheelchair ramps and mortgage payments for families strapped by medical bills. Some $250,000 was paid out in 2019 through that fund.
“We provide microgrants for families,” Tillman said. “What is the greater good? You’ll have both parents working, then one of the kids get really sick and one of them will have to quit work to care for the kid.
“We help them make ends meet.”
Tillman’s philanthropy was rewarded in 2013 when he was presented the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award.
“That was probably the biggest honor I’ve had off the field,” he said. “I started the funds to help people, to give back, after my daughter got sick. The award makes you want to do more.
“It was named after a Bears legend. It was a great night at Radio City Music Hall. I got a standing ovation, and my speech was pretty emotional. I remember looking out in the audience and seeing Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin, Franco Harris. It blew me away.
“To think there I am, from Copperas Cove, six (nine) wins in college, receiving that honor. I was so grateful.”
Tillman moved with his family to Copperas Cove when he was 7 and sports provided the way to fit in quickly.
He was rapidly outgrowing the “Peanut” nickname laid on him for being “not much more than a peanut” as a baby, but the nickname did stick.
“Basketball was my first love,” he said. “We would hoop all day. Eventually we got pretty good at it. There was a park where we’d play that had 8½-foot goals, so we would all dunk the ball. There were lights, too, so we played all night.”
But Tillman knew football would be his ticket.
“I was natural at it,” he said. “I was smart, worked on technique. I liked the physicality of it — tackling, coverage. I understood the plays. I was just better at it than basketball.”
Copperas Cove finished 10-3, losing deep into the playoffs, in Tillman’s senior year. Scholarship offers came quickly, and he elected to attend ULL and join new head coach Jerry Baldwin.
“I was well prepared. I knew what to expect,” Tillman said. “I wanted to go someplace that played bigger teams, because that’s how you get noticed.”
What he found was a program in disrepair that did not progress markedly while he was there — three years under Baldwin, one under Rickey Bustle.
“It was different for me, coming from a winning program,” Tillman said. “The players were used to losing. Some guys didn’t buy in to the program.”
ULL played Oklahoma State, Texas, Texas Tech, Houston, Washington State, LSU, Arizona State, Texas A&M and Arkansas during that time, with little success.
“I was excited to play those teams,” Tillman said. “You got recognition if you played well against them. There was no denying the fact that I could play.”
Tillman was good enough to be drafted in the second round by Chicago.
“Chris Ballard was my scout for the Bears,” he said. “I was so thankful that he begged the Bears to draft me. He had an eye for talent and saw something in me.
“I was thrown into the fire right away. Dick Jauron was our coach my first year and I spent the summer on special teams, playing nickel back and making plays on third downs.
“Before the fourth game of the season, (position coach) Vance Ballard told me I was starting — against Jerry Rice and Tim Brown — and I did a combine vertical (leap), I was so excited.
“I was ready to become a starter for life I liked it so much.”
That’s how it worked out, too.
“Every year I would set goals — number of forced fumbles, interceptions, passes broken up — and keep track of them,” he said. “I covered 85 percent of those goals. After each year I’d learn a lot about myself, attack my weaknesses.
“If you want to stay in the game you never stop learning and growing. I was very grateful to make the Pro Bowl and All-Pro.”
Tillman excelled at creating takeaways, especially fumbles, as his trademark.
“You had to think outside the box,” he said. “I developed a way against pitch plays to punch the ball out after securing the tackle. In college I could take a bad angle and then punch it out, but I couldn’t do that in the league.
“First game, I punched the ball out against San Francisco.”
That skill led to 13 years at a high level of play.
“I wanted to play 10 years,” Tillman said. “Past 10 is a bonus. I was super blessed to make it to 13.”
Injuries cut into his playing time, costing eight games in 2004, eight in 2013, 14 in 2014 and four more at the end of his one season in Carolina, but he relished the opportunity.
“I’d do it again in a heartbeat,” Tillman said. “The Super Bowl is everything that you dream of. It’s the biggest stage in all of sports. I was excited, but more than anything I was calm (with the Bears). I purposefully downplayed the Super Bowl and that worked for me.
“I felt like I had a really good game. To this day I have not watched the full game. Brian Urlacher said ‘We’ll be back. Remember this feeling.’ But we never got back.”
Not to worry. Charles Tillman has his Super Bowl ring — every time he asks Tiana Rene to listen to her heartbeat.