Injured in his 12th season, Bears cornerback Charles ‘Peanut’ Tillman knows his NFL days are numbered. The MMQB caught up with him to talk about longevity (he wants two more years), the best receiver he’s ever covered (the answer might surprise you) and why he recently stood on a chair and asked people for money
CHICAGO — Peanut Tillman holds a glass of soda with his casted right arm, a microphone with the other. A room full of charity benefactors, their bellies full from $375 plates, are bidding thousands more on luxury items such as a signed photo of Michael Jordan going up for a dunk, a life-sized portrait of Peanut in a cornerback crouch, and a dinner with Peanut himself. While an auctioneer recognizes bidders, Tillman implores them to spend.
“I like the money that jingles,” Tillman says, doing his best Coming to America, “but the money that folds is a lot better!”
Sensing a lull near the end of the auction, Tillman stands on a chair around 10 p.m. and asks everyone in the room to stand with him. “Everybody shake it out. Just shake it out.”
The Bears cornerback, on injured reserve after tearing his right triceps for the second time in a year, invited a handful of current and former teammates, including Jared Allen, to the swanky Montgomery Club on the Near North Side for a celebrity waiter night to benefit his charity. The Charles Tillman Cornerstone Foundation helps children in need, including those born with heart defects. Charles and his wife, Jackie, redirected the foundation’s mission in 2008 when their daughter, Tiana, was diagnosed with a congenital heart problem.
After eleven NFL seasons, Tillman was named the Walter Payton Man of the Year for 2013, awarded annually to honor a player’s charity work as well as his on-field accomplishments. At 33, the Copperas Cove, Texas, native says he’d love to play two more seasons, but he’s at peace with the reality that the Bears might already be finished with him.
After coming down from the chair, he sat down for a conversation with The MMQB.
THE MMQB: Your charity changed missions. What did you used to do?
TILLMAN: We used to do attendance. Chicago Public Schools had a huge problem with getting kids to go to school. Arne Duncan, [now the U.S. secretary of education], was on the board and one of our ideas was to reward attendance. If you went to school for X amount of days you got to hang out with me at a school assembly. I felt like we were doing some good things. But when my daughter got sick it changed everything for my wife and I. We changed the mission.
THE MMQB: You have four kids—are the other three at risk for the same kind of heart defect?
TILLMAN: My daughter had the heart defect, so now my son, who’s five, is on heart meds. This is new to us within the last six months. I look at it as our new normal. He still plays soccer and runs around. At first it was like, Wow, now we’ve got two kids on heart meds. But now it’s not a huge problem. We go to the doctor every three months and go about our business in our lives.
THE MMQB: People were throwing around thousands of dollars for charity tonight? Does it ever blow your mind?
TILLMAN: At first, I’m thinking, No one is going to spend that much money on this item at an event for me. After the first couple bids I’m saying to myself, ‘What’s wrong with these people? I don’t think I’m that cool!’ But I look at the work that we do. We had a family that I met at the hospital one day come talk to the attendees. I met them at the hospital, and I saw their kid with tubes running through her, and I was like, Man, that was my kid six years ago. So we offered whatever help we could. You learn to appreciate inches of success: She got the tubes out, she’s breathing on her own. That’s an inch. We’ll take it. I can tell you about what we do, but it’s better if a family can tell you.
THE MMQB: Last week you defended your teammate Lamarr Houston, who got into it a bit with fans on Twitter. You said people take football too seriously. Does the work you do here lend to that perspective?
TILLMAN: For sure. The Bears have been nothing but amazing for my family. The NFL has been amazing for me. I got married in Chicago. I bought my first house here. All four of my kids were born here. It’s my home. But the reality is I am a commodity. I’ll work for them until they no longer need my services and then I’ll be terminated. That’s life. That’s the business of the game. Fans express their opinions, and rightfully so. You pay $100 for a ticket, $10 for a beer, and we don’t play well? I don’t have any problem with you expressing your opinion. But you can do it in a way of respect versus F you, F you F you, I hope you die, go to hell, I’ll kill you. It’s uncalled for.
THE MMQB: It’s weird, right?
TILLMAN: It’s extremely weird. And then certain people do that and the player responds and then everybody gets mad at the player responding. As an athlete you will never win on social media. Vent to your loved ones, or just stay away from social media.
THE MMQB: Did you think your career was over when you tore your triceps for the second time?
TILLMAN: My first thought was, I gotta come back stronger than ever. You look at how Mariano Rivera tore his ACL. He was just out shagging balls. Fluke injury. Looking at how I did mine, Kaepernick scrambling—I try to push him and it just snaps. My thought was, I just want to get healthy first. Once I get healthy, then I’ll make my decision. There’s so much emotion. I was trying to keep composure. I’m on TV and I don’t want to be on TV crying. I want to support my teammates. It’s a strange feeling.
THE MMQB: Do you think you’ll play next season?
TILLMAN: Yeah. Rehab is going well. I feel good. Ultimately it will be about getting cleared and then thinking about what I want to do.
THE MMQB: How much longer do you have?
TILLMAN: That’s a good question. Maybe two years? Max? That’d be awesome … if my body were able to hold up.
THE MMQB: One of my favorite things about the NFL is watching you cover Calvin Johnson. How do you have more success with a guy like that than most?
TILLMAN: I think it’s the preparation, the film study, the defensive line, the safeties with the help over the top. Nobody is alone on a football field. I look at Seattle. They have an awesome D-line, and they don’t blitz a whole lot. Those four guys will get after any offensive line, and you don’t hear about them. You hear about Sherman, Chancellor, Thomas; those guys are all great players. All-Pro players. But I think that defensive line does a hell of a job, getting sacks, making the QB pat the ball. The timing is off and the back four is able to make plays. I don’t think the front four gets enough credit.
THE MMQB: Who’s the best offensive player you ever played against?
TILLMAN: Marvin Harrison. We played a lot of Tampa 2 with coach Smith, and I could never touch him, couldn’t jam him. He was so quick, like a little rabbit. I missed every time. Hardest person I ever had to cover. And most people don’t think that. Like, who would you have guessed I would say?
THE MMQB: Randy Moss or Calvin Johnson.
TILLMAN: Nope. Marvin Harrison. He was unstoppable. The best I ever played against. He made me look terrible.
THE MMQB: You could’ve signed with Tampa this offseason. Why didn’t you go play for Lovie?
TILLMAN: So I’m a Christian guy. I pray. I’m not perfect, but I do my part. I couldn’t tell you how many times I prayed. I said, ‘God, please, if you could just tell me right now, where I should go, I’ll go. I’ll listen to you.’ And this was months and weeks of just praying about where I should go. So a buddy of mine gives me a call, a mentor. And he says, ‘Well, Peanut, a bird in the hand is better than two in the bush.’ I think that’s the phrase. So I said all right. Then my roommate from college calls me 10 minutes later, and he has never met my mentor and I never mentioned what he said. And my buddy says, ‘I tell you what, man, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.’ And I said, ‘I’ll be damned. You told me twice, God, through two different people who don’t even know each other. I hear you.’ I signed with the Bears.
THE MMQB: Think you’ll stay in Chicago after you retire?
TILLMAN: This is the longest place I’ve ever lived. I came here at 22. I grew up on military bases my whole life. Honestly, after four years of living in Chicago, I was ready to move because that’s what I was used to my whole life. I would’ve been okay going to whatever team picked me up. From kindergarten to 12th grade, I went to 12 different schools. I found it weird to be in the same place for that long.
THE MMQB: Were you always ebullient? Outgoing? Is that a product of moving around?
TILLMAN: I think the military makes you that way. You move around so much and you have to be around new people, so I blame them for my personality. I like being able to walk in a room and mingle and figure things out and learn about different people and cultures, different races. That starts at a young age. There are so many opportunities I wouldn’t have known about if I was that shy guy.
THE MMQB: Did you ever run into racism growing up?
TILLMAN: For sure. In high school we played a team, and I won’t say what team, and I remember [Head coach] Jack [Welch] prepared us. He said, ‘Now we’re playing this school and they might call you the N-word and I don’t want you to respond to it.’ I thought nothing of it. Then I did something good in the game and this white kid starts yelling, ‘You sorry n-----!’ And I was just like, Wow. Growing up on a military base you live with all kinds of people. All kinds of races. You name it, I knew them. You had to accept everybody because everybody was a mutt. So when I experienced it I was confused. You go to this small little hick town and its 1997 and they’re stuck in the ’60s. Even today, you go in certain NFL cities and there’s that one fan screaming the N-word at you. But you can’t let a handful of knuckleheads ruin it for everybody.
THE MMQB: What do you want out of these last days of your career? Are you a Hall of Famer?
TILLMAN: For me it’s about Super Bowls. I think when you’re retired you might be able to think about the Hall of Fame. But I’m not retired, so I’m thinking about the now. I call it the “precious present.” I think about winning the Super Bowl. That’s the only thing I haven’t been able to accomplish. That would be sweet to go out like Ray Lewis or Jerome Bettis. If we win the Super Bowl this year I will easily retire. I’ll take my ring and run.
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