With his flourishing family and passion for giving back, NFL Man of the Year Charles Tillman just might be Chicago’s Father of the Year.
The visit to Chicago Bears cornerback Charles Tillman’s suburban home begins with a warning: Baby Tessa is sleeping, so be quiet.
Tillman’s three other children — 8-year-old Talya, 6-year-old Tiana and 4-year-old Tysen — greet us at the door and direct us upstairs to the master bedroom, where his wife (and one-time high school crush) Jackie is getting ready for the day. Evidence of family is everywhere. Finger paintings and homemade art projects supplement the family portraits that decorate the bedroom walls. In the hallway, an award Tillman received as a rookie rests a few feet away from a pink Dora the Explorer toothbrush; another award has been turned into a makeshift parking lot for four tiny metal cars.
Further down the hallway, a shadow box that contains the Berlin Heart device used during Tiana’s 2008 battle with a serious heart disease hangs as a reminder of one of the family’s most trying times. Since being drafted by the Bears in 2003, Tillman’s been named the 2013 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year, made the Pro Bowl as one of the NFL’s best defenders in 2011 and 2012 and has 36 interceptions — but he’ll be remembered far longer for the work he’s done through his Cornerstone Foundation. After Tiana fell ill, Tillman got the idea to change the work of his foundation (established in 2005 with a focus on education) to help chronically and critically ill children.
“When [Tiana] got sick, I had a lot of time to think about what I wanted to do foundation-wise,” Tillman says. “The best thing about it is you’re just getting out and you’re talking to families and you’re offering advice. I’ve been in that situation, so I can actually relate to what this parent is going through.”
Tillman can still remember being at football practice in May 2008 when then-coach Lovie Smith pulled him off the field to tell him Jackie had called — something was wrong with 3-month-old Tiana. She had stopped eating and was rushed to the hospital, where doctors discovered that her heart rate was about 220 beats per minute. She was diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy, a disease that makes the heart weak and enlarged. She needed a transplant.
“The doctor goes, ‘Look, I have a kid and I’m just going to be straight up with you. I’m going to tell you because I think you can handle it, but there’s a chance she might not make it through the night,’ ” Tillman remembers. “[Jackie] was crying, and I said, ‘When you see me cry, that’s when we have a real problem.’ And I just broke down. … I went to the bathroom, I cried, threw some water on my face, gave myself a pep talk, and went back outside and tried to be as strong as I could for [the family].”
Tiana received her new heart in three months, but there were tough times before that. She developed an infection that put her life in danger again, and on Father’s Day doctors put her on a paralytic drug. Machines controlled her heart and lung activity until the transplant. Tillman filled his down time in the hospital by writing in a journal and talking to Jackie. “I think in those three months I got to know her a lot better,” Tillman says. “Your marriage can either break or bend, and we bent a little. There were good days and there were bad days. But in the end, I felt like we made it through.”
Since then, Tillman has used his experience to help families in similar situations. He’s seen the boredom of an extended hospital stay, so his foundation has provided hundreds of thousands of patients and their families access to iPads, laptops, gaming systems and more. He’s felt helpless, exhausted and alone, so he helps organize an annual spring luncheon for the mothers of sick children so that they can take a day to relax and connect with other women. “It’s one of the best programs we do,” Tillman says. “It’s a tear-jerker, but yet, it’s therapy for these moms. … Lot of crying, lot of laughing, lot of hugs, but a lot of connections.”
Outside of the Cornerstone Foundation, the Tillmans have helped build a school in Cambodia and donated more than 700 tickets to Bears games since 2008. That’s just scratching the surface of Tillman’s charitable reach, and his passion for that work came out during his acceptance speech for the Man of the Year award in February. Tillman’s eyes welled with tears as he talked about Tiana’s recovery, and he began to cry when he dedicated the award to the lost lives of five children he had gotten to know through the foundation. “I wanted everybody to know the kids meant a lot to our family,” says Tillman, who calls the Man of the Year award his greatest NFL memory. “If I had to say one bad thing about our foundation, I would probably say [it’s that] not every kid makes it.”
That’s why the Tillmans feel so lucky. Tiana is happy and healthy now, a typical little girl who bickers with Tysen, makes up birthdays for the family’s dogs and uses her charm against her father. Charles might not have many weaknesses as a parent, but Jackie has spotted one that Tiana can already work. “If [the kids] can make you laugh, that’s a weakness,” she tells him. “Tiana knows how to get to him. … She pushes you.” Charles has no defense for that. “You can give her an inch, she’ll take two inches,” he laughs. “You give her a rope, she’ll want to be a cowgirl. That’s her attitude.”
The only physical reminder of Tiana’s illness is a chest scar that the Tillmans lovingly call her “zipper.” It’s an artifact that’s made Tiana stronger instead of weaker. “I think she feels like it’s normal,” Tillman says. “If we’re swimming or something and her bathing suit kind of shows her zipper, some other kids are like, ‘What the heck is that?’ She’ll look them square in the face and say, ‘It’s my zipper. What? You don’t have one?’ ”
That no-nonsense attitude can be traced to Charles and Jackie, both products of military upbringings. Charles’ childhood saw him make stops in Illinois, Louisiana, Germany, Kansas, Ohio, California and, finally, Texas. That’s where, as an eighth-grader, he met Jackie. The two bonded over a shared interest in sports, and as sophomores, they made a deal to go to prom together their senior year. But Jackie’s family moved to Germany the next year, and that promise went unfulfilled.
Charles and Jackie continued to stay in touch as Charles went to the University of Louisiana-Lafayette to play football, and Jackie played basketball at Wyoming. In 2004, one year after the Bears drafted Charles, the pair finally started dating. “There’s a perception of celebrities and celebrity wives that they’re always fancy and they’ve got butlers and a maid service, but we’re like the complete opposite,” says Tillman, calling attention to the sweatshirt Jackie is wearing, as well as his own outfit — a white undershirt with red basketball shorts that have “Ragin’ Cajuns” printed on the left leg. “[Jackie] slept in that thing. It’s falling apart. But that’s what she wears every day. And I love the fact that she’s very low-maintenance.”
These days, low-maintenance appears to apply to the whole Tillman family. If there’s any marital strain, it’s the result of Charles and Jackie’s hypercompetitive battles on the family’s air hockey table (“I always win,” Jackie says). Tiana is healthy. Talya is learning to help take care of Tessa. Tysen has dropped one of the training wheels from his bike and plays a mean game of hide-and-seek.
Almost six years after the day Tiana was placed in what was essentially a drug-induced coma — a day Tillman calls “the worst Father’s Day I’ve ever had or experienced” — he’s looking forward to seeing what types of gifts his children will be able to come up with for Father’s Day. “Each year, the gifts get better because as they get older, they get a little more experienced at writing or their creativity,” he says. “I’m excited about this year.”
For more information about the Cornerstone
Foundation, visit Charlestillman.org.
Chicago Bears star cornerback Charles Tillman breaks down the tendencies of his toughest
coverage assignments — his children.
“She’s still kind of working into her personality. She reminds me a lot of Talya in her calmness. She’s a very calm baby. … Extremely sweet with me, which is rare. None of my kids liked me when they were babies.”
“He’s a mama’s boy. Everything about him is, ‘Well, I want to do it for mommy.’ … Him and Tiana, one minute they’re best friends, one minute they’re Jedi vs. the Sith Lord. … But they’re so close in age, we call them twins.”
“The complete opposite [of caregiver big-sister Talya]. She’s competitive. She’s fierce. She’s stubborn. Very standoffish. Very sneaky. … But yet she can be sweet, at times.”
“She is probably the mother goose, the mama bear. She takes after my wife Jackie in every way — has her beauty, has her smile, has her looks, has her long hair. Personality-wise, she’s the caregiver.”
THAT’S MR. PEANUT
Charles Tillman — perhaps better known as “Peanut” among NFL fans — can’t remember a time before the nickname. “My Aunt Renee gave me the nickname when I was probably a day old,” he says. “I was just a real small baby. I didn’t start growing until high school.”
The name stuck with Tillman even as his family followed his father’s military career throughout the United States and Germany. He resisted it at first, learning to love the moniker only after his family finally settled in Texas. “I hated it as a kid. All my friends made fun of me,” he says. “When I got to high school was when I thought it was cool, because all the girls thought it was cool.”
When Tillman joined the Chicago Bears in 2003 after a college career at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette, veteran defenders Mike Brown and Jerry Azumah were passing out nicknames. He told them his was Peanut. The name caught on around Bears headquarters at Halas Hall, growing in popularity until Tillman heard something strange over the public address system during a game.“We were in a game and I noticed the announcer said, ‘Peanut Tillman on the tackle.’ And I’m like, ‘Peanut Tillman?’” he remembers. “I just felt like the Peanut completely crossed over and took precedence over Charles.”
Styling: favia Ford Artists
Hair: Juan Jose Herrera for Mario Tricoci
Makeup: Kathy Brown for Amazing Cosmetics
Shoot coordinator: Katerina Bizios