We knew this was coming.
No, Charles Tillman isn’t leaving this world, nor is he even leaving the public eye, far from it. Instead, the unique workhorse is retiring from a game and livelihood that will sorely miss him.
Above the patented “peanut punch”, Tillman made football fun on the Chicago lakefront again and made sure to include us along for the ride. The amazing thing about it was that you knew it was genuine. The turnover forcing machine (44 forced fumbles and 38 interceptions in his career) poured his heart out into football and tirelessly worked off the field to use his platform to improve people’s lives, all with a grin from ear to ear. You don’t often get that mix watching sports and boy was it wonderful to actually witness.
I always say to be careful about saying an athlete is a great guy because you don't know him. @peanuttillman is an exception to that rule.
— Joe Ostrowski (@JoeO670) July 18, 2016
There was a sense of safety and calm in watching Tillman and how he carried himself. He played the game, he was great, but you knew it didn’t define him. You knew there was always a higher purpose to a man able to separate truth from fiction in a game. Among the bright lights if not the showcase for a Lovie Smith era defined by defense, you couldn’t help but notice.
Yes there was Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher, two guys who should be revered in their own right, but they just weren’t Tillman. For whatever reason, you didn’t feel like you could identify with Briggs and Urlacher the way you could with Tillman. “Peanut”, a nickname given to Tillman as a child, became a rallying cry of affection for a football city or really anyone that wanted to just appreciate the legend.
That’s why Friday’s moment, the last official moment of recognition for Tillman as a Bear, cut so deep. A triceps injury in 2014 sidelined Tillman for half of the season and when he aggravated the same muscle early in 2015, you knew it was the end of the corner in Chicago. The fact of the matter is, no one really wanted to discuss it any further until now.
It’s funny how the mind represses memories and thoughts that are painful, as if to protect you from reality you aren’t prepared to face.
That portrait of emotion and recognition from Tillman knowing deep down his time in Chicago had come to an end is something that will forever stick with me not only as a sports fan, but a human being. What we choose to involve ourselves in does matter. Who we associate with plays into that. Our level of effort and devotion factors even more into both facets. Tillman cared about everyone and everything, almost to a fault, and that’s very sobering to see from a simple game.
Maybe that’s why none of this has to be painful at all. We can remember what separated Tillman from your average NFL player and what endeared him to our hearts. It’s a testament to the humility of Tillman that he didn’t even want the official public recognition from the Bears.
“I was kind of against having the whole press conference thing. I told everybody I just literally wanted to sign the one-day contract, meet with George McCaskey and Cliff Stein and sign it and just be done. But I’m thankful that — after seeking advisement — everybody said you should do a press conference, so I’m glad.” said Tillman to ESPN and a media contingent of his conflicted emotions on Friday.
He never wanted the main spotlight. He just wanted to show he belonged. Some will bask in that individual glory but that was never the goal for Tillman. This was a man that had two championship opportunities where his teams couldn’t pull through in his career. Yet you get the sense none of that bothers him when he discusses that failure. He was simply happy to be along for the ride.
“The 2006 season, I think that was a very special season. The coaches, the players, the building, everyone that worked in the building, from equipment to trainers to media to community relations to tickets to everybody. I think someone said it best: It was lightning in a bottle. We had everything from top to bottom. And more importantly, the culture of the team … the players, we had this camaraderie with each other. There wasn’t a lot of talking. We joked all the time. All types of games, having fun. Yeah, very special season. Very similar to what we had in Charlotte this year in the 2015 season.” continued Tillman to ESPN.
Instead of looking back on what could have been with Super Bowl glory, Tillman speaks of how special those seasons were to him, glowing over his teammates and the bond built with the Bears and Panthers. While fans of both respective teams lived and died with each loss, Tillman is the literal embodiment of “winning isn’t everything” as he maintained perspective and appreciated the joy he experienced. A rare rationale.
Now, the former Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year gets to continue with other true passions like his Cornerstone Foundation that provides opportunities and resources to millions of children in need. Football was merely an outlet of passion for the retired 35-year-old.
For this fan’s sake, even though it likely won’t matter to Tillman at all, here’s hoping he’s recognized for rising above all odds and eventually making the Hall of Fame. There aren’t many people in sports like Tillman where it would mean nearly as much. If he doesn’t receive that honor, he will at least be known as the greatest Bears cornerback ever, which still speaks volumes.
A man who came onto the scene stealing a touchdown from the future Hall of Famer Randy Moss and in turn stealing Bears’ fans hearts forever leaves at peace.
Little did everyone know that outworking Moss on the famous play was just a taste of the special player and person Tillman was. Meaning, a man who gave it all in football and continually pushes for more for others in every endeavor.
What a novel and endearing concept.
Robert Zeglinski covers the Bears for the Rock River Times, and is an editor and writer for Second City Hockey of SB Nation as well as No Coast Bias. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.