Shares  Childhood Stories And Life Lessons

Often kids in military families grow accustomed to moving as a parent is transferred from location to location. Many resent the lifestyle and changes, but others embrace the opportunities for learning and growing in different cultures. Charles Tillman credits his multiple moves during childhood to instilling in him an education, culturally and academically, that prepared him with character traits that led him to become an award-winning NFL player.  With a career of more than 12 years in the NFL, Tillman recently teamed with writer Sean Jensen to write the book, The Middle School Rules of Charles “Peanut” Tillman, sharing his school experiences and challenges. Risen caught up with the talented athlete to talk about the book, his career, family and a medical diagnosis of his young daughter that tried his faith.

Interviewed exclusively for Risen Magazine

Risen Magazine: Your father served in the U.S. Army so your family traveled around the world which meant you and your older brother Donald (“Duck”) attended 11 different schools. How did this shape your personality and interaction with other kids?

Charles Tillman: I think it just made me more open; it made me more alert and it made me want to try new things. I thought that if you had never lived in Germany you were weird. I was talking to some kids in Chicago when I was visiting my grandparents and one of the kids said, “So you’re moving?” And I said, “Oh yeah, I’m moving to Germany with my dad. Have you guys ever been to Germany?” And the kids said, “No.” For me, I’m like eight or nine, I’m thinking, why haven’t you been to Germany? Because I had lived on a military base my entire life, all of my friends had been to Germany. By the age of six or seven we all had lived overseas, so for us, that was normal to have lived in Europe. The military allowed me, and my brother, the opportunity to try new foods, learn a different language, and learn about European history – kings, queens and castles.

RM: Nicknames sometimes can end up defining a person and in your case “peanut” stuck. Tell me about this childhood nickname and how it translated into the “peanut punch” during your NFL career?

CT: My Aunt Rene gave me the nickname and it stuck. As a kid I hated my nickname because I had a big peanut head. I didn’t have dreads so everyone used to make fun of my head; my mom would yell, “Peanut get in the house!” I remember telling my mom, “Don’t call me peanut. Call me Charles, you named me Charles.” She did, but it sounded so foreign; it didn’t even sound like my real name. It wasn’t until I got to high school that I started to like the nickname. I think a girl found out my nickname and thought it was kinda cute. I liked the girls so I thought, yeah call me Peanut that’s my name, don’t wear it out!

When I got to the NFL, I went by Tillman, because in the football world everyone calls each other by their last names. [Teammate] Mike Brown [Chicago Bears Safety] was giving out nicknames and he said, “If you don’t want me to mess up your nickname you should write it on the board. Because if you don’t write it, I’m just going to give you one.” So I wrote “Peanut.” They seemed to like it.  It started out small where I would just be called Peanut around the building, but then I made a couple plays and I remember hearing the announcer say, “Peanut Tillman on the tackle!” I thought, I guess I made it; it’s mainstream now. It was one of those nicknames that just stuck. Now the “Peanut Punch,” I have no idea who started that. I remember I was punching down footballs, but that nickname came kinda late. I had been knocking out footballs since I got in the league in 2003. I think people caught on to that late, some reporter coined the “Peanut Punch.”

As a dad, my daughter was hurt but I couldn’t protect her, I couldn’t do anything. I was rendered helpless and for the first time in my life I truly had to rely on God and prayer, family and friends.

RM: Your High School coach Jack Welch was instrumental in helping you land a college scholarship in football which was a catalyst for going second round in the NFL draft. I found it interesting that the University of Louisiana at Lafayette coach actually first saw you play basketball and your character traits were important to him. Talk to me about the importance of setting goals and dreaming, but being open to the outcome looking different than you originally might have planned?

CT: You can watch film all day, but until you actually see that person move around and see how athletic they are – I think that has to be done in person. We had a basketball game so he came over to watch us play because you have to be athletic to play basketball. So he saw me play and said, “I like him. He’s pretty good.” Now for setting goals, the funny thing is for writing goals down I didn’t know how impactful it was at the time when I did it. I just knew I wanted something my senior year and I was able to make it happen. I made two out of the three goals happen and I’m a firm believer of speaking things into existence. Saying, “Hey, I want to be a reporter,” or “I want to get a masters’ degree.” These are things that I talk about and I say them out loud and I say them over and over again. Then I can set my mind on this attainable goal and it happens.

It’s not an overnight process, but it definitely happens. Once I set a goal, now I have to make a plan as to how I can get to this goal. I have to lift weights, I have to run fast, I have to jump rope, I have to eat right, I have to to wake up early, I have to stay away from drugs and alcohol; there are things that you’re going to have to pay a price for in order to get to where you want to go. And again not really knowing how impactful these decisions were and how they would affect me. Now at thirty-five years old, I realize I made a lot of grown-up decisions at the age of 17. I didn’t know what I was doing or how good I was. I didn’t know the impact of how all those decisions would affect me. I can’t believe I was smart enough to make that decision. Where that came from? I guess I’m going to have to give it to my parents. The first time I saw football I absolutely fell in love, because it was everything I was as a kid – rough, tough, physical – and from like six-years-old and on, that was what I wanted to do.

The Tillman Family: (l to r) Charles, Talya, Jackie, Tessa (front row) Tysen and Tiana.

The Tillman Family: (l to r) Charles, Talya, Jackie, Tessa (front row) Tysen and Tiana.

RM: How did you feel when you got drafted in 2003 to the Chicago Bears and what did it mean to spend more than a decade in the navy and orange uniform?

CT: One of the best things about the NFL draft is watching a kid get drafted because seeing when he gets that phone call from that prospective team and watching his reaction to talking to the coach or the general manager – it’s priceless. I wish I could have recorded my reaction because I felt like, wow I’ve worked so hard – four years of college, four years in high school, all the weights I’ve lifted, all the injuries I’ve endured, the surgery, the rehab, the blood, the sweat, the tears, winning games, losing games, criticism from people telling me that I’d never make it, defying all the odds, being in that .001 percent of the U.S. population – when I made it I was so happy and joyful. I wanted to share it with my family and my friends. Now, thirteen years in the NFL, I’m no different. I still remember the [draft] phone call. I still remember Jerry Angelo [Chicago Bears GM] asking a couple questions and saying, “Congratulations, you’re a Chicago Bear! We’re going to take you with our next pick.” I was numb. I didn’t say anything. I just kind of stood there thinking, I made it. I didn’t say anything and the whole house was like, “Say something dummy.” Then the television screen flashed and it said, “Current selection Chicago Bears; Charles Tillman thirty-fifth pick overall.” The whole house erupted with everybody screaming and I’m tearing up. It’s just an amazing feeling and I love seeing it [the draft] every year.

RM: You’ve accomplished so much within the sport from being selected to the Pro Bowl, to winning the NFC Championship, playing in a Super Bowl (XLI) and even being named 2013 Walter Payton Man of the Year. When you hear it listed like this, what comes to mind about your football career and the lasting legacy you’ve created?

CT: I’m not retired yet, so I guess since I’ve been playing I haven’t really had time to digest it all. My goal when I first came into the league was just being happy to be in the NFL. Once I got here, I wasn’t satisfied just being a player, I wanted to be an impact player. I wanted to be a guy that makes a difference on my team. That is what I tried to do. I wanted to help my team win games. My mindset was that I was going to do everything in my power to help us win a Super Bowl, whether it was interceptions, or forced fumbles sacks, I wanted to be the best and make an impact. I started the “Peanut Punch” thing and more and more people nationally started requesting interviews. I remember thinking, “Where did all this come from? I’ve been doing this for the past five years. Why is it such a big deal now?” That’s just what I do. I’m glad it worked out that way. I feel like I didn’t get notoriety until the end of my career which is good because I felt like that kept me humble. My stats were as good as everybody else’s, but I just didn’t get the notoriety. It pushed me and kept me hungry. Because of what I’ve done, and the sacrifices I’ve made, I’m opening doors for my grandkids and I’m able to build a legacy for them. I love that more than anything.

RM: This past February an injury kept you from playing in your second Super Bowl (50), this time in a Carolina Panthers uniform. How are you healing now?

CT: I’m healing great. I just finished my rehab and it was one of the hardest rehabs I’ve had to do. Right now I’m in competition with my ACL. I’m a competitive guy by nature, like most professional athletes, and right now I’m seeing what I’m made of. I know I can play with the best of them in the NFL, but I’ve never had to compete against an ACL. Ninety percent of the time I feel like I won in this injury, but ten percent of the time my knee hurts and I feel like the injury beat me. I went to a military base a couple months ago and I saw a soldier that was an amputee. He was doing box jumps with one leg and just killing it, doing an amazing job. From that point on I was like, “I’m not going to feel sorry for having torn my ACL.” Since then I’ve been A-Okay with my rehab.

To me, character is what someone does when nobody’s watching.

RM: According to your book you attended church when you were young when your Aunt Prudence made you go, but when did your faith become real to you and you knew you wanted it to be a part of your life?

CT: I think for most kids, in most households, religion is kind of forced. Your parents believe something so naturally you are going to believe it too. So staying at my aunt’s house she had a rule, “We are going to church. I don’t care how late you stay up, if you can stay up until twelve you can get up at eight for the Lord.” It was not really until I went to college that I made the conscious decision to go to church on my own. I got saved and baptized in college and did a Bible study. I had gotten baptized as a kid, but I felt like I needed to do it again at the age of 19 or 20, because you don’t really know all the stuff you need to know. I thought it was what was right for me and if I die I definitely want to go to Heaven. From that point on my faith was good. Then in 2008, when my daughter got sick, it was tricky. I’ll be the first to admit my faith was shaken up. I started to doubt a little bit. I had to really dig down deep and through reading, and prayer, and spiritual counseling, those tools really helped me get through. We’ve had hiccups with my daughter’s health, but now my faith has been rock solid. It taught me a lot about myself and my faith.

RM: Talk to me more about your daughter. You are married and have four kids and you’ve always had a heart to help others so you and your wife Jackie established the Cornerstone Foundation. How did the focus shift in 2008 when your daughter, Tiana, was diagnosed with a heart disease and needed a transplant.

CT: Initially when I started it in 2005 we were helping kids go to school. There was a huge attendance problem in Chicago public schools and I wanted to figure something out. When Tiana got sick it changed everything. Not that my heart wasn’t in it anymore, but it just didn’t feel right when my daughter was sick. I wanted to do something to help kids that are sick. We kept the foundation and changed our mission statement and since then it’s been amazing. We’ve helped a ton of families. I want them to know that they are not alone.

RM: You were physically strong and financially successful, yet you can’t control getting a heart for your daughter. How did your faith grow and what encouragement can you share with other families?

CT: Like you said everything was going well. My faith got shaken. I realize as a man I’m a protector, I’m a hunter and gatherer, and that’s my job. As a dad, my daughter was hurt but I couldn’t protect her, I couldn’t do anything. I was rendered helpless and for the first time in my life I truly had to rely on God and prayer, family and friends. I didn’t have all the answers. I couldn’t do it all by myself so community played a big part in that my inner circle helped me through that tough time. I got to know my wife even more because that was the first time I really really had to lean on her. She was there for me and I was there for her. That situation made us a lot stronger. I learned a lot about her. I learned how strong she is. When you go through something like that with your child and they get sick, I truly think God gives you a little gift of energy to get through that tough time. My wife and I look back and think, “How did we do that?” You deal with every situation and it makes you stronger. I learned a lot about giving and community, we were already giving back to the community, but when Tiana got sick I think we took it to another level. We were so blessed and so thankful that a mom in her deepest and darkest hours saved my daughter’s life by making the choice to donate her organs – she saved a bunch of lives that day. And in the cycle of giving I said, “We have to keep this going. I want to use my voice for something positive.”

RM: Your book, The Middle School Rules, is such a unique way of telling childhood stories that helped shaped you and highlights these “rules” that are more like guidelines to success. Why do you feel it is important to instill values in young people?

CT: I think kids need structure and I had a lot of structure in my life. One of the biggest compliments my father got from us as kids was that we were polite to other adults. I remember strangers saying, “Oh your kids are so well mannered.” As a child, I couldn’t do certain things. I couldn’t get into adult conversations. My dad would get on me about speaking correctly. It helped me as an adult. As a black person, in a predominately black high school in Chicago, other people would make fun of me and say, “Why do you sound like a white person?” My dad taught us how to speak correctly and be polite, and I try to instill those values into my kids. I get compliments on how polite my kids are too. We just got back from the Cayman Islands and my kids were so good on the flight the attendant gave them extra cookies. I told my kids, “See what happens when you do the right thing?” To me, character is what someone does when nobody’s watching. If you do good things, good things will happen to you. I try to teach them about independence and responsibility. I don’t want them to grow up saying, “Oh well I broke it, but my dad’s going to buy another one.” I didn’t grow up like that. For their [kids] birthday, my wife and I tell them they can have a party, but all the toys they get will be donated, or, they can get one or two gifts from Mom and Dad, but [then] can’t have a party. And every year they always want the party and to donate gifts.


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