Charles Tillman truly has led a double life worth emulating. One life is characterized by a fierce competitiveness on the field, and another life is characterized by a generous heart of compassion when he steps off the field.
A Pro Bowler for the Chicago Bears whose reputation in the NFL is as a throwback cornerback who can cover and tackle, Tillman has become the best ball-stripper among defensive backs with his famed “Peanut Punch,” which has resulted in 39 forced fumbles—the most in the NFL since he entered the league in 2003.
Not only does Tillman hold the record for most forced fumbles by a cornerback, he ranks 9th all time among all players. While this statistic is impressive on its own, it is important to realize that no one else in the top 10 is from the secondary. The majority of forced fumbles occur near the line of scrimmage. After the play unfolds and the field opens up, the likelihood of being in the right place at the right time reduces significantly, suggesting that Charles Tillman makes the most of the opportunities that come his way.
Growing up in a military family taught Tillman the discipline needed to excel at a high level in the NFL. It also taught him a lifelong respect for the men and women who wear the uniform of our nation’s military services and gave him a burning desire to give something back to those who sacrifice to protect our freedoms. In recognition of his service to our military and their families, Tillman was awarded the Salute to Service Award by the NFL.
While Tillman has become an elite cornerback for the Bears, the biggest challenge he faced was not on the gridiron. Charles and his wife Jackie confronted a much bigger challenge that no parent would ever want to face. Their daughter Tiana was born with a congenital heart defect that threatened her life, and as parents, they faced the unthinkable: Tiana needed a heart transplant to survive.
Tillman stared down fate like he has so many opposing quarterbacks to defend his daughter’s right to live and came away with the interception of his life. After Tillman’s daughter received a new heart, Tillman opened his heart to the many families facing the emotional and financial challenges of a sick child by forming the Cornerstone Foundation and Charles’ Locker.
Graciously, Tillman took the time to talk about his unlikely journey from growing up in a military family all over the world to becoming a shutdown corner in the NFL.
LR: When was it in your life that you first realized that were a really good football player?
I’d probably have to say when I was in the fourth grade. I was in the fourth grade and we were playing with my friends in the backyard. My older brother and his friend, Warren, ran a play. I remember blocking both of them. Note, they’re older than me—Peanut, hence the name —I was real small. I’m little, they’re bigger. I blocked these two guys and I pancaked both of them. They both got up and it was, like, “Oh my god, what?” I think that was my light; That was my moment.
Which one of your former or current teammates taught you the most about the game of football at the NFL level?
I don’t think it’s one. I would say Brian Urlacher. He taught me a lot being the leader of our defense. He taught me about the game itself: about the defense, what the corner does and what the D-line does. And about formations—how they help you to become a better player. I’d probably say Holden Cruze from the standpoint of leadership. He did a great job of leading our team from a player’s perspective and calling guys out when needed or when a reason came up. He was the guy that said, “Look, we don’t do this. This is a team.”
How is it different playing in the NFL compared to college?
The biggest difference from college to the NFL is speed, in my opinion. For one, you don’t have to worry about writing papers and traveling, and then playing football. Now, it’s just football all day long—6 months on, 6 months off. The speed of the game is a lot faster.
Which NFL team or opposing player provides you the toughest challenge as a cornerback?
Off the top of my head, I’d probably have to say Green Bay. We haven’t beaten them in three years—we’re 0 and 6 against them. They’ve given us a challenge the last three years.
Is there a significant reason why you wear the number 33?
I Never liked the number. Still don’t really care for the number. It was one of the only numbers left. The equipment manager called me and said, “Hey, what number do you want? We’ve got 31, 32, 40, 47, 37. What do you want?” None were appealing to me at the time so I just said, “Just give me 33.” I almost switched it after my rookie year because I wasn’t overly sold on the number 33. It took me about 10 years to make the number popular and I’m glad I stuck with it.
Greatest NFL moment is the Arizona game of 2006. For me, that was what football was about. That was what team was about. I remember going into halftime—we were losing 21 zip, something like that.
Holden Cruze gave this great speech about—”We’re going to win this game.” He was calm. The coaches didn’t say anything. They just let the players hit the reset button. It was something special to be a part of and to be there on that field. Brian had a monster game and I had the fumble recovery for a touchdown. Mike Brown had a nice game too. The D-line did a hell of a job of getting to that quarterback and creating havoc. Then, Devin Hester ran another touchdown back. It was something special because everyone thought we lost this game, and I’m sure there were a ton of people who changed the channel. Then they probably went to work the next day or turned on Sports Center and realized, “Oh my god, they won. They what?” Yes, that was an awesome experience.
Lovie Smith, your former head coach, has said that you provide so much more than being a cover cornerback, and your stats prove it. You’ve set Bears records for most interceptions and most defensive touchdowns, and you’ve forced more fumbles than any other player in the NFL since 2003. How would you describe your style of play?
I think I’m a throwback corner. The corners back then had to do everything—they had to cover, they had to tackle. Nowadays, some guys get the title of ”I’m just a cover corner.” Some guys don’t like to tackle. In our defense, our scheme, our corners, we have to tackle because we are a part of the run support. I feel like I’m a complete corner because of the style of defense that we play.
How did you develop the “Peanut Punch”?
I’m a little guy. I don’t hit like Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher, Nick Roach or Julius Peppers. I don’t have that power to hit someone, and they just fly back five feet and the ball comes out. I can’t do that. I’ve tried it, and it does not work. I just figure if I can’t hit like that, I’m going to just punch it out. Typically, when you walk up to a guy or you run up to a guy and you try to force the fumble like that, they’re going to hold it and clench up. You’re probably not going to get it the majority of the time. I was just the guy who thought outside the box and just figured, “Why not just punch it?” He’s vulnerable and there’s a weak spot there. I got lucky once or twice and have been doing it ever since.
What would you like to say about all the years you’ve spent with Lovie Smith as your head coach?
My 9 years with Coach Smith were amazing. I was a part of something special. To be on his defense for all 9 years and lead the league in turnovers and touchdowns—third down conversions—I can honestly say I was on a great defense with his defense system. I’m proud of that and I’m sure he’s proud of the accomplishments that he had during his time with the Bears.
Do you have a favorite Lovie Smith moment?
There’s so many, how do I choose? I’d probably say, the meetings right before a game or right before we would take off to a game. He’s from Big Sandy, Texas, and he has a country accent. He would always say, “Toos-day.” And, he would always say “cuff-you” instead of curfew. He wouldn’t say “nine”. He would say “nain” or “nainy” or something like that. Any time we were in a meeting and he would reference those words, you look over at another person like “What did he say? It’s curfew, not cuff-you, or ninety, not nainy”.
If you could play with any player, living or not, who would it be?
I’d probably say Barry Sanders. Not to tackle him, obviously, but I like to see him do his thing and watch everyone try to tackle him and miss. I think that would be awesome. And, Jim Brown—I ’d like to see him just run through dudes. That would be funny.
What do you do to keep in football shape during the off-season?
Many things. Lots of agility-type things—going into year 11 is really not so much about being the strongest guy in the gym. As long as I can maintain my strength, I think I’ll be okay. I try to just develop and continue to stay explosive, become more explosive and stay quick. I know I’m not getting any faster, but I still work on my running. I do a lot of Pilates, a lot of boxing. Just different types of cardio and swimming.
How many more years do you see yourself playing in the NFL?
As long as the good Lord lets me play. I’m going to go as long and as hard as I can. My goal is to walk away from this game, walking away from this game. I’ve been to a Super Bowl once and I lost. I would definitely like to get there again. But I want to go out on my terms, kind of like Ray Lewis did. I want to go out when I’m ready, not when the team thinks I’m ready.
What do you say your legacy will be as a football player in the NFL and for the Chicago Bears? Is it the legacy you envisioned when you started out as a rookie?
As a rookie, I didn’t envision myself having a legacy. I was just, “Hey, I’m here. Made it, I want to play football, I’m having fun.” I didn’t even think 5, 10 years past football. When I do leave, what would I like my legacy to be? As a guy who game to work every day. A guy who was a hard worker and a reliable player. He was a good teammate. He took his job seriously and he gave everything he had.
When you choose to leave the game of football, what do you want to do, and how will your life change for you and your family?
I don’t know. I’ve had a little interest in media. There are alot of sports analysts on TV. But I do like Tony Siragusa’s job. I think he’s got the best job in football. He’s not on camera too much, but still on air. I’d like to pursue his career path. I would definitely like that. I wouldn’t want to be on camera all the time. If I could be on camera for 2 minutes or 30 seconds, I’m good to go. I really don’t want to host—I don’t want to be the main guy. I would just like to be around the game, but stay behind the scenes.
Many players have established a brand around their name. What qualities or image would you want the Charles Tillman brand to represent?
Serving others. That’s what I want my brand to stand for. Serving others, helping others in need. Just being a team player. I’m all about team. Whatever team I’m on, I’m going to be there 100% for my team. Nothing happens without team unity. I’m really big on team unity.
Many young players struggle to manage their money and develop bad spending habits, which has resulted in a large number of post-career bankruptcies. What financial advice would you give NFL rookies coming into the league?
Don’t try to live your life like the veterans can. These vets have developed a net worth over time. They didn’t just get this wealth and success after their first contract. It took them years and years of hustling and working hard and grinding to get where they are today. Don’t go out and blow your first paycheck and buy an expensive car or watch. You can buy things like that, but take your time. Once every couple years—buy yourself something really nice. Because, if you’re not careful, you’re going to be on the next documentary, “30 For 30 Broke, Part II.”
I was scared. I was single, and didn’t have any kids. So any time I bought something, I would call my financial advisor and ask him, “Can I buy this?” He was, like, “Of course.” I’m sure he probably thought it was weird because I was 22. I was from this small school. Suddenly the Bears gave me a million dollars and I’m, like, “Okay, I don’t want to blow it,” because you hear about all the other athletes who make millions and millions and millions and then blow it all. At that time, that million dollars would have lasted me my entire life because I was spending something like two grand a month.
So I saved everything. I was always questioning how much I should or could spend. I’d ask, “Well, can I buy this car? It’s $30,000. Can I afford it?” And, he’s, like, “You’ve got a million dollars. Yeah, you can afford a $30,000 car.” I’d say, “Are you sure because I’m trying not to spend too much now.” He would just sit there and, say “No, you’re good, you can.” Can I have two cars? Is it okay to have two cars? Am I going to go broke if I have two cars? Because, I want a truck and I want a sedan. He was, like, “No, you’re fine, you’re fine. You’re numbers are good. The market had a great day, today.” It might have been weird for him because I call him about everything. Are you sure? Can I go to Burger King? Can I get this super value meal? Can I Super Size this? Can I get this? “Yeah, you can.” I was very protective of my money. I was extremely protective about it.
If you weren’t a football player, what would you be doing, today?
I’d probably be in the Army. I would be somewhere in Afghanistan or Iraq right now.
My dad served 20 years, and, growing up as a kid, I thought my dad was G.I. Joe. I thought it was the coolest thing to be around tanks and guns and airplanes and Apaches and helicopters. He got out when I was 17, so it was the only thing I knew. I lived on military bases my whole life. They used to do Reveille and Taps in the morning, or at 5 o’clock when they’re letting the flag down. We’d stop, get out of the car and solute. I grew up with that every day for 17 years, so it was the only thing I knew. Living overseas, I came to Chicago once to see one of my grandparents. I was talking to one of my friends around the block. They said something, and I said, “Yeah, we’re going to go back to Germany.” They said, “Germany?” I’m, like, “Yeah. You’ve never been to Germany?” I just thought it was weird. I thought everyone traveled because all my friends in the military were military brats—they all lived overseas, whether it be in France or Germany or Japan or wherever. And, they were just like, “I’ve never left the state.”
For me, the military was always my plan B. If something didn’t work out, I was just going to join the military. It did my father and my family justice. It’s done millions of families justice, so why not me? That is the route I would have taken.
You have three daughters and a son. Do you see any athletes developing in your family?
I do with my oldest son. My daughter Ty is 7; she does gymnastics. I’m starting to see her little body get stronger—she’s doing gymnastics so they’re doing pushups and sit ups and developing strength because she’s in competition next year. I’m starting to see her little muscles form. I’m definitely getting excited about that—to watch my own kids compete. My younger son is 3. He runs around and is very active. He’s a very good swimmer at 3 years old. Loves the water; man can he swim. He’s drown-proof—trust me. We go do some crazy stuff in the water and he’s like, “I can do that. What else you got?” It’s fun watching him swim. Who knows, he might be the next black Michael Phelps. I don’t know. But, I’m enjoying just watching him. The middle one, Tiana, she might do something with horses. She’s not the most athletic one in the family, but she’s 5 so she’s just getting started. She rides a lot. She’s getting really good with the horses and steering them, and learning the techniques like that. I’m excited about her and her riding ability.
What music do you like to listen to, and what songs are on your current playlist?
Everything except country. I like alternative, rock, pop, hip-hop. I love jazz music. I love gospel. Current playlist—I have different ones for whatever mood I’m in. I have a mellow mix—something like rural chill, like a Nora Jones, Adele—just real mellow. Then I have a jazz one with a little bit of Nora Jones and Miles Davis. I also have the hip-hop and pop. And I have some gospel. I have a wide variety of genres for music right now.
Is there a special music playlist you use to pump up before games?
I work out at a place called Fitness Quest 10, and that was the music I worked out to when I was there. So I just named it Fitness Quest 10. It’s a bunch of upbeat hip-hop of whatever is playing right now. I will say the Justin Timberlake album is popular, so I’ve been jamming to that these last couple weeks since it came out.
You went to college at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette, right in the heart of Cajun country. Did you gain a taste for crawfish and étouffée while you were in college?
I did not. I don’t do the mud bug or the étouffée. There’s so many different versions of making étouffée. I couldn’t really get down with it. I do like Cajun food. But crawfish and étouffée are two of the main things that I do not eat.
What are your favorite foods, and are you a good cook?
Soul food is definitely my favorite food. If I were on death row and it was my last meal. I would do macaroni and cheese, some collard greens, corn bread and a roast. I could ascend up into heaven, and we would call it a day. That would be my last meal. Am I a good cook? Yes and no. I love to barbeque more than cooking on the stove. But, I’m always curious to see how chefs make different entrees and wonder what spices and rubs they use.
I’m always taking notes. My wife and I, we love the Iron Chef show. We’ll watch how they’ll make a four-course meal out of octopus. You know how creative they get? I try—I’m a student of food.
I read that you are a huge movie fan. What movies have you recently seen, and are you looking forward to seeing any upcoming movie on the big screen?
Last movie I saw was The Call with Halle Berry and Morris Chestnut. I thought it was pretty good. Upcoming movies? I’ve still got to see G.I. Joe. I have to check out the Man of Steel which comes out soon. I think those will be the top summer blockbusters, Man of Steel and Iron Man.
What’s one of your favorite movies of all time?
I’d say Star Wars. I don’t have a favorite Star Wars movie. I just like the collection of all 6 films. And they’re supposed to be making some more. I really enjoy it.
If I took a look in your fridge, right now, what would I find?
Coconut water, some hot sauce, ketchup, a bunch of eggs, and a ton of goat milk for my kids. Also Some fruit, ham, cheese and salami. Tons of Greek yogurt—Fage yogurt is the best. I’d probably say that was it. And, a lot of apple sauce.
Chicken. Just plain chicken breasts. I can eat chicken breasts and tuna fish all day. If my wife goes out of town and it’s up to me, I’m eating chicken breasts. I’ll make chicken breasts for the week and eat eggs and tuna. I can live off that.
Where do you like to go on vacation?
Europe. Each year my wife and I will take a trip to Europe. We’ll go hang out for 10 days in this city or that city. We just catch the train.
What are your favorite cities in Europe?
Since we’ve been traveling, I’d say one of the best places we’ve gone has been Greece. I didn’t know much about Greek food, but it was probably some of the best food I’ve ever eaten in my life. From the big fancy restaurants to the little ma and pa shops, I never had a meal I didn’t like. I ate a burger made with lamb, chicken, veal, turkey and ground beef. They just forged it all together and made a burger. I ate a bean soup—I normally don’t care for beans, but they made this bean soup that was amazing. Definitely, Athens was our favorite.
You were recently chosen to receive a Salute To Service Award for your support of the troops, including a trip overseas. What does that award mean to you and why have you done so much to help the troops?
The Award means a lot to me because I didn’t even know the award existed before I received it. I was just doing something out of the kindness of my heart. I like to help because it’s fun. It’s all I know—the military is what I grew up around. It means a lot that they recognize what we are doing—a lot of people are out there giving their time and efforts to show support to our military. What they mean to me personally—they mean everything to me. My life experiences, from where I grew up, what I’ve learned to the things that I’ve seen is due to the military. I met my wife in the 8th grade because her dad was stationed in the same place that my dad was. It’s a brotherhood. It’s their sense of team and unity that I’m really attracted to. I just have a passion and a love for the entire military itself. I don’t think they get enough credit for what they do for this country.
You’ve helped over a million people with the Cornerstone Foundation. Tell us what your foundation does and why it’s important to you.
What we do at the Cornerstone Foundation is try to be a resource for families. Not just the sick child or the patient. We try to be a resource for the entire family—the mom, the dad, all the siblings or whoever the guardian is of the patient. We really just try to reach out to them—the chronically and critically ill children throughout the greater Chicago area. We try to be a resource and to lend an ear and help them out in their critical time of need.
When my daughter got sick back in 2008, I was fortunate because I play a professional sport so we had access to financial means. We weren’t hurting in that department. From a financial standpoint, it wasn’t easy, but it was a lot easier for us. Some other families—the typical middle-class family—they’re doing great, but when their kids get sick, the bills really start to pile up. We saw some things in the hospital that made my wife and I feel like we could do something to help some of these families.
In the process of having the foundation, I’ve met so many wonderful people, and I’ve had the honor and privilege of meeting their children and their families. They’ve invited my wife and I into their home. They’ve given us feedback on different things—what can help, what should help, or what doesn’t help. They just let us know that this is their life and current situation. Then we find a way we can make their situation better overall, for each and every family.
I know each family has their unique situation, so we have to be our own judge of character when dealing with them. But for the most part, what we’ve done with the foundation and with these families has been a blessing. Trust me, I would never want to wish what my wife and I went through on anybody. In a certain retrospect, I feel like God has given me this platform to use my name and my talents with the financial means that I have to help bless others and inform them about being organ donors. I’m blessed and the foundation has been a godsend.
You mentioned your daughter needed a heart transplant. What helped you and your wife get through this difficult time?
Faith, family and friends, for sure. It shook my faith a little bit. There’s no question about that. But, in the end, we were where we needed to be. In situations like that, husbands and wives either come together or they break up. Unfortunately, we saw a lot of families break up. On the other hand, we saw a lot of families stay together. From day one, we stated that we really needed to rely on one another. We needed to be one—we needed to be one unit.; me relying on her 100 percent and her relying on me 100 percent is what got us through it. My family, from both my side and hers, was great support. We received great support from the Bears as well.
How’s Tiana doing, today?
She’s good. She’s in school. She’s got horseback riding lessons today. She’s excited about that. And, she’s doing awesome.
After spending so much time in the hospital with Tiana, you founded the Charles’ Locker to help children and their families in hospitals. Tell us how you came up with the idea and what’s the mission for Charles’ Locker?
When we were in the hospital, we realized that some of these families don’t have anything. You’d have a teenager just sitting in a room by himself and he’s bored watching cartoons. We felt like we need to have something that was accessible for all ages—teenager as well as the little infants, toddlers. We came up with this idea of having technology—iPads and, computers, things like that. They’re not just for the patients, they’re for the families as well. The mission is to take your mind off whatever you’re going through for the hour or for two hours—just to have a little bit of sanity.
What advice or encouragement can you give to other parents who have to face a similar fate with a child needing extraordinary medical care?
Faith. Faith is what got us through our situation. And a good support system is important. Prayer, praying—praying a lot. God definitely worked a miracle with Tiana. I live with it every single day, and it is a blessing to see her doing as well as she is right now. I would just say prayer. Pray, pray, pray, and pray some more.
You learned about the word, gratitude.
Yes! I’m in a situation where I can pretty much do anything I want from a financial standpoint. I’m very blessed. But, as a dad, as a husband, as the head of the household, I was left in a position where I couldn’t do anything. For me, that was hard. For the first time in my life, I was paralyzed, and I couldn’t do anything for my family. It was difficult because I wasn’t in control. There was nothing I could do. I had to rely on the doctors. In the end, faith and prayer is what got me through.
What did you learn from that experience?
Never take a day for granted. I try to be a positive role model—to be a better dad than I was yesterday. That’s what I got from it. Seizing the moment because tomorrow is not guaranteed. Seize the moment right now. Don’t take anything for granted.
When you were awaiting the birth of your child, you said you would miss a Bears game if your wife went into labor on Sunday. You took some heat from sports commentators, but your coach, Lovie Smith, backed you up for putting family first. Do you think we, as a nation, have gotten our priorities upside down when a football game is seen, by some people, as more important than family?
Yes, most definitely. At the end of the day, it’s still a game. It doesn’t matter who I’m working for. Unless I’m overseas at war, and I can’t get home because I’m out doing my job, it’s a football game. I’m going to be there for the birth of my child. If complications were to happen, or something like that—God forbid —I would never forgive myself if something were to happen and I wasn’t there for my family. I was fortunate to be there for all four births. That was God’s work at hand. There is this little person coming out and you’re like, “Wow!! Thank you.” It was awesome. Who wants to miss that? If you say something like that [the criticism of Tillman’s decision to miss a Bears game for the birth of his child], you probably don’t have kids or you’re just not that connected to your kids. I didn’t care about taking the heat. I’m blessed that Coach Smith supported my decision. I hope everyone can be there for the birth of their child.