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Former Football: Former UL cornerback Charles Tillman voted into La. Sports Hall of Fame

Dan McDonald, Special to the Advocate, Sept. 17, 2019

Anyone who knew Charles Tillman understood that “Peanut” wasn’t one to be defined just as a football player, and that he would have no trouble making his post-football life just as meaningful as his days in the secondary for UL’s Ragin’ Cajuns, the Chicago Bears and the Carolina Panthers.

Tillman now spends most waking hours in community service and philanthropy, much of it through the Charles Tillman Cornerstone Foundation, along with working with law enforcement groups in his Chicago hometown and with a multitude of charitable organizations in helping those less fortunate.

As an example, two weeks ago on Labor Day, he rowed 65 miles across Lake Michigan – a 25-hour trip – to raise nearly $200,000 and awareness for neuroblastoma, a cancer that mostly strikes children under age 5, as well as his foundation that helps chronically and critically ill children.

“I like challenges,” he said. “Challenges are good.”

It’s that kind of selflessness that was recognized by the NFL in February 2014 when he was honored with the Walter Payton “Man of the Year” Award, acknowledging his charitable efforts and community outreach programs. To date, he is the only product of a Louisiana university to win the league’s most prestigious off-the-field award.

Some days, though, the challenge for he and wife Jackie involves getting their four children – from 13-year-old Talya through Tiana and Tysen and down to 6-year-old Tessa – to the right place at the right time.

“Life’s pretty good,” Tillman said. “I have an exciting job, I’m involved in a lot of activities and I’m a soccer dad shuffling my kids around. They’re in sports now and they’re competing and I love watching them compete.

“Of course, they don’t listen to me, they know everything. I tell them I was a professional athlete and I know what I’m talking about and they say, ‘Yeah, Dad, OK.’”

Perhaps they should listen, because when “Peanut” was patrolling Cajun Field from his cornerback slot, and then doing the same for 13 years on NFL fields, few ever did it any better.

That’s the main reason why the former Ragin’ Cajun standout will be honored next June with induction into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame. Tillman, part of the Hall’s 2020 class announced Tuesday, will be inducted along with football coach Nick Saban, fellow multi-time Pro Bowl selection Joe Horn, outdoorsman Phil Robertson, world bodybuilding champion Ronnie Coleman, international basketball icon “Sweet” Lou Dunbar, and basketball standouts Kerry Kittles and Angela Turner.

In typical “Peanut” fashion, Tillman was both humbled and appreciative of the honor, one he said didn’t really sink in immediately.

“It was a couple of days after I got the call, I woke up and said, ‘I’m in the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame,’” Tillman said. “Ed Reed, Peyton Manning, they’ve been inducted the last two years. I’m getting inducted with people like Nick Saban and all these amazing people. I woke up and thought about how unreal this is, thinking about what an amazing honor this is and how grateful I am for this opportunity.”

Tillman had plenty of opportunities to show his talents in the NFL. He started 164 of the 168 games he played in his career, and finished with 38 career interceptions and nine touchdowns. In the storied history of the Chicago Bears, a franchise that embodies defense maybe more than any other, Tillman is the club’s all-time leader in interception return yards (675), interceptions returned for touchdowns (eight) and forced fumbles (42) while ranking second all-time with 36 pass thefts. His teams went 28-8 in games in which he had an interception.

The forced-fumble statistic is the most impressive, and became Tillman’s trademark. The “Peanut Punch,” the act of stripping or punching the ball away from ball carriers and receivers, became a standard reference across the NFL. His career 44 forced fumbles (two with the Panthers in his final season) are tied for sixth all-time in NFL history with Chris Doleman (the record is 54), and 25 of those were recovered by his team – five of them himself. In one 2012 game against the Tennessee Titans, Tillman forced four fumbles in a 51-20 win, setting an NFL single-game record.

He also forced and recovered a fumble in Super Bowl XLI along with recording 11 tackles when the Bears lost to the Indianapolis Colts. But the “Punch” started a long time before that … during his freshman year with the Cajuns in 1999 when he was fresh out of Copperas Cove (Texas) High.

“Ricky Calais (a former UL linebacker) said one time he saw me running after a tailback and he just stopped,” Tillman said. “He saw that I was taking a bad pursuit angle and I was going to be behind the runner, and he knew what was coming. I’d always secure the tackle first, and then punch from the back. I did it all the time in college.”

Tillman was a two-time All-Sun Belt Conference performer, finishing his career with 12 interceptions and 284 tackles, the second-most ever by a Cajun defensive back. Even though he never played for a collegiate team that won more than three games in a season, the Bears made him their second-round pick and the 35th overall selection in the 2003 draft. He started 13 games, made 83 tackles and had four interceptions as a rookie and never looked back.

“I was fortunate to play 13 years in the NFL with great players and great coaches, and great people in the league,” he said. “Guys like Chris Ballard, my scout, who fought tooth and nail to get the Bears to take me. Dwayne Joseph was the player development director, and he showed me what the league was all about. He’s the guy that sat me down and told me you’re a professional now, you’re your brand and what do you want that brand to be. He turned me on to a grown-man mindset, and I really responded to that.”

The only major regret Tillman had during that career was how it ended. He had signed a one-year contract with the Panthers early in 2015 and had an idea that club was the vehicle to his second Super Bowl appearance. But in the regular-season finale against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he tore an ACL and limped off the field. He never got back, and a month later he watched the Panthers fall 24-10 to the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50.

“It was difficult in the fact that I didn’t get to choose when I wanted to retire,” he said. “I was a 35-year-old corner with a torn ACL … what team is going to pick you? My last play in the NFL I got injured. I would have loved to have been Jerome Bettis, Ray Lewis, Mike Strahan, Peyton, guys who won a Super Bowl and then retired. I wish I could have gone out with a bang like that, but it’s probably, what, .001 percent ever get to do that?”

That certainly didn’t affect his Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame choice.

“This is making memories for my kids,” Tillman said Monday night, fittingly while watching one of his daughters at soccer practice. “I just want them to know I was a normal dude that worked hard, I was coachable and I did it the right way. I played at a great school and graduated early, I played for a great NFL team, I was a guy who came to work, gave it everything I had, left it on the field, played for my teammates and cared about other people.”