After Chicago, Charles Tillman Hopes to Resurrect Career in Carolina

Bill VothNewsLeave a Comment

Screen Shot 2015-04-10 at 4.56.36 PM

When cornerback Charles Tillman signed with the Panthers Thursday, he became the second-oldest player on the roster. He’s eight months younger than defensive tackle Colin Cole, who was out of football for almost two and a half years before resurrecting his career in Carolina.

Tillman, 34, believes he can follow a similar path.

“I feel like I have a lot left in my tank. I feel like I can be an every-down corner. I feel good. I feel fine,” Tillman said on a conference call with local media Friday. “One of the disheartening things about our profession is people worry so much about age. And if you feel good and you’re playing good, it really shouldn’t matter how old you are.”

Tillman, who spent all of his previous 12 NFL seasons in Chicago, is coming off what were essentially two lost years. Eight games into 2013, he tore his right triceps. Two weeks into last season, it happened again.

“I hit the lottery twice with getting fluke injuries, unfortunately,” Tillman said.

View image |

Before his triceps troubles, Tillman was remarkably durable. He missed just 14 of a possible 160 games in his first 10 seasons. Most of those came in 2004 when he missed half of the year with a knee injury. He started every game from 2010-12, earning his first Pro Bowl appearance in 2011 and a second a year later.

But perhaps his body is now doing what happens to most players as they get older? It’s why you don’t see a lot of 34-year-olds hanging around in the NFL.

That’s not a thought Tillman will entertain.

“If I don’t believe in myself, who will? If I don’t believe in me, why should anyone else believe in me?” Tillman answered, when asked about his confidence about staying healthy in 2015. “I believe I can still play. I still have that belief that I can still produce and make plays.”

And one of the reasons he believes he can make those plays in Carolina is because of who’s in front of him. As Captain Munnerlyn and Mike Mitchell learned, defensive backs can be the beneficiaries of playing behind one of the league’s best front sevens. Linebackers Luke Kuechly and fellow NFL Man of the Year winner Thomas Davis were just selling points for Tillman, as was what defensive line coach Eric Washington has built up front.

“I really, really, really like what he’s done with the defensive line. The D-line and the secondary, it’s like a marriage, they go hand-in-hand. You can’t have one without the other,” Tillman said. “When I have a great defensive line, it makes my job easy. I get spoiled. Those guys do all the hard work. I just get lucky and the quarterback just kind of lobs balls and I pick them off.”

View image |

Tillman is fourth among active players with 36 interceptions, and his 42 forced fumbles since 2003 are the most for a defensive back. And plenty of current members of the Panthers organization had a front-row seat to Tillman’s transformation into of the league’s best ballhawks.

Washington was with the Bears from 2008-10. Ron Rivera was Chicago’s defensive coordinator from 2004-06. Steve Wilks coached the secondary from 2006-08. Tillman was also teammates with tight end Greg Olsen, who spent the first four years of his career in Chicago.

Since then, bonds have been formed that go beyond football.

In 2008, Tillman’s young daughter, Tiana, was diagnosed with a heart deficiency. One of his closest confidants during that ordeal was Wilks.

“He was someone I would lean on and call and get advice. We cried together. It was a rough time,” Tillman recalled. “He was more than a coach for me during that time. He was a friend, a mentor, big brother, and I’m very grateful for that.”

Four years after Tillman’s daughter had a successful transplant, Olsen faced a similar crisis. His son, T.J., underwent multiple surgeries after he was born with hypoplastic left heart syndrome. Tillman was one of the first people Olsen called for advice during that trying time. And now, as they get ready to make a new home in Charlotte, the Tillmans are leaning on the Olsens.

“That was one of the first things my wife and I thought about: We’ve got to make this move, but I’ve got to find good doctors. We’ve got good doctors here, but I know they have great doctors in Carolina as well,” Tillman said. “They’ve been on it. His wife and mine have been texting all day.”

There’s no question the coaching staff’s familiarity with Tillman landed him in Carolina. Rivera has previously shared his admiration of Tillman, and Friday, the player said of his former and now current coach: “I think he is the guy to win a championship for Carolina.”

But the Panthers were also desperate to add experience to their young secondary. Tillman has made 152 starts with 36 interceptions, 42 forced fumbles and 737 tackles in his career. The other six cornerbacks on the roster have totaled 45 starts with five interceptions, four forced fumbles and 198 tackles.

If the season started now, the 6-foot-2 Tillman would line up across from Josh Norman as the second starting corner. That doesn’t mean the Panthers won’t draft a cornerback or Tillman will emerge healthy through offseason workouts, Spartanburg’s sultry training camp and the preseason. But the man who feels younger than his age believes there’s still more to come.

“Do I plan on taking a starting spot? No. I plan on earning and working for what I get,” Tillman said.

“I do all the right things. I take care of my body. I eat right, I train hard, train well. I believe I can still play. I still have that belief I can.”

View image |

Share this post