I remember sitting in that beautiful stadium they’ve got down there in Nashville. Right off the water. Lower Broadway’s honky tonks audible from my seat. I remember seeing Matt Hasselbeck throw passes to receivers and expect those receivers to hold onto the ball. The silly man actually believed his receivers had the option! He should have known better. Charles “Peanut” Tillman did not force one or two fumbles that afternoon. He forced four, cementing his legacy as the greatest forcer of fumbles the NFL has ever seen. And in my mind, on that warm November day in Tennessee, Tillman cemented his place in Canton.
For me there are three types of players comprising an NFL roster. First are the brand players. These are the individuals fans associate exclusively with their favorite team and would be greatly upset to see play for anyone else. Second are the mercenaries. These are the players brought in from other teams and the goal of the organization is to get as much production for the price tag as possible. (Mercenaries rarely see out the length of their contract.) Third is everybody else. The role players. The bottom third of the fifty-three.
Tony Fiammetta and Nate Collins are role players. Julius Peppers and Jermon Bushrod are mercenaries. Charles Tillman is the definition of a brand player. But the Bears did not pay him $3.5M because of brand awareness. They paid him $3.5M because he can still play at a supremely high level.
Tillman is not a player physically breaking down, even at thirty-three years old. Last year’s season-ending injury was more of a fluke than anything else. From an article at ESPN:
“I knew something happened in the second half,” Tillman said. “I don’t know exactly what play, I just remember shoving Calvin [Johnson] on one play and I felt something kind of strain, perhaps tear. I just felt a sharp pain.
“Yeah [they told me it was torn], but it’s still being evaluated.”
Despite the apparent torn triceps muscle, Tillman managed to finish the game, recording five tackles and two pass break-ups. He was beaten by Johnson for what turned out to be a game-winning 14 yard touchdown pass with 2:22 remaining.
Tillman refused to say that the triceps injury affected his performance.
“I don’t think so,” he said. “I think Calvin is a good receiver and he had a good game.”
In the nobody-can-remember-ten-minutes-ago world we live in (A plane is missing, what’s Ukraine?!) it is easy to forget Charles Tillman is only a year removed from his best season as a professional. While he had only three interceptions in 2012, he scored three touchdowns. He forced ten fumbles. He was named first team All Pro for the only time in his career.
What was most impressive about 2012 was Tillman’s performance against Calvin Johnson as the monster was in the midst of one of the greatest receiving seasons the league has ever seen. In a year where Megatron caught 122 balls for nearly two thousand yards (averaging 122.8 yards a game), Peanut held him to 3-34 and 5-72. No touchdowns. Little impact. Anyone who thought Tillman a system corner thought again. He was never a system corner. He was a great corner in a system that devalued the position.
And let’s not forget what the reigning Walter Payton Man of the Year means in the city of Chicago. His charitable work is the real deal, forged through the life-threatening heart ailment his daughter faced. His work has aided (at least in part) nearly a million Chicago-area children and their families. One needs only to turn on CNN these days to realize Chicago is not a city that can afford to lose individuals like Charles Tillman.
I understand the difficulties organizations face due to the restrictions of the salary cap. But football, to the diehard fan, is still about investing emotionally in a large group of men you don’t know because they are wearing a particular shirt and hat. Some of those men are criminals. Some of those men are morons. Charles Tillman isn’t just a great football player. He’s a great man. The Chicago Bears are far easier team to root for when he is donning #33.