Over the weekend, hip-hot artist Jasiri X posted this image on his twitter feed. It’s taken from the front page of the New York Daily News’ website. Note the screaming headline and the sympathetic caption: “Accused killer Dylann Roof had one chance at a stable family life — and his abusive dad ruined it for…
One of the saddest images to emerge in a NFL season that so far has been filled with horrible images was that of Charles Tillman, sitting on the sidelines of last night’s Bears-49ers game in newly minted Levi’s Stadium, tears streaming down his face. Tillman had just reinjured his right triceps, the same muscle he tore last November, ending his 2013 season in week 8. After last night’s injury, the Bears placed Tillman on injured reserve with the expectation that he’ll be back. But after twelve years in the League, who knows when that will be.
Of course, Tillman’s injury is nowhere near as serious a matter as the NFL’s major off-the-field controversies, including multiple allegations of domestic violence, child abuse, and rape. But it’s sad precisely because Charles Tillman is one of the genuine good guys in the NFL, and his injury happened at a time when the League desperately needs more men like him. Tillman, in fact, is something of a hero.
His heroism has very little to do with his exceptional play at corner back on defense that has been, through the course of his career, at times among the best in the League and at times among the worst. Make no mistake, though. He’s been spectacular on the field:
A 12-year veteran and two-time Pro Bowl selection, Tillman (152 career starts) ranks third in franchise history with 36 interceptions. Tillman leads the franchise in career interception return yardage (675), interception return touchdowns (eight) and defensive return touchdowns (nine).
Tillman leads the NFL with 42 forced fumbles since 2003. Tillman is also the only player since 2003 to record 40 forced fumbles and 30 interceptions.
Still, that’s not what makes Charles Tillman great. Rather, what makes him great is the way he’s overcome one of the toughest hurdles a young parent can ever face:
In 2008, Charles Tillman, the Chicago Bears’ two-time Pro Bowl cornerback, had to leave practice because his three-month-old daughter was rushed to the hospital. He arrived to find doctors huddled around Tiana.
“She was so swollen from all the fluids they were trying to fill her with. It didn’t seem like it was real. I remember my wife running out. She couldn’t believe it, so she just ran out crying. I was holding Tiana, and her heart rate was like 212 – 220, at three months. My heart couldn’t even do that now. The doctor was like, ‘Look. There’s the possibility that your daughter could not make it through the night.’”
Tiana made it through the night, but was given a dire diagnosis. She had dilated cardiomyopathy and needed a heart transplant.
If that’s not enough to break your heart, consider this. “It was hard for me to pray,” Tillman said, “because I didn’t know if it was right for me to pray for a heart for my child because I knew that for my child to live, somebody else’s child had to die.”
Imagine that. The only way for your child to live is for another to die. Many of us, faced with that circumstance, would pray like hell for our kid just the same. It’s a sign of Tillman’s character that he felt hesitant.
Tiana Tillman received her heart transplant on July 31, 2008. It saved her. The donor was a two-month old boy from Minnesota named Armando, who died unexpectedly just as Tiana was fighting for her life in Chicago.
Tillman’s experiences with his daughter’s illness led ultimately to the establishment of the Charles Tillman Cornerstone Foundation, which runs various programs ranging from giving toys, video games and iPads to hospitalized kids to giving financial assistance to needy families with critically ill children. Moreover, unlike some charitable foundations that squander donations or provide a comfortable salaries to an athlete’s family and friends, Tillman’s foundation appears to be the real deal. According to Bleacher Report:
[Tillman] does not have any relatives or girlfriends receiving a salary from the foundation—in fact, no one, not even Tillman, receives a salary from the Cornerstone Foundation, according to tax records.
[In 2011], the foundation brought in nearly $350,000 in contributions, grants and program-service revenue, according to tax records. The foundation gave more than $115,000 in grants. The Cornerstone Foundation spent a total of $246,196 on program-related expenses, which is 70 percent of its total revenue. Charity Navigator rates the financial stability of charities and notes that an effective charity spends more than one-third of its budget on program-related expenses, which the Cornerstone Foundation greatly exceeds.
None of this, of course, minimizes the very serious problems the NFL has with domestic violence, child abuse, and the like, nor does it minimize the NFL’s historic failure to address those problems. And, when a prominent institution like the NFL looks the other way or fails adequately to punish abusers, it undermines society’s attempt to deal with those problems, too. At the same time, though, it’s important to note that there are players like Charles Tillman who do great things, despite the League’s abominable failures.
So, here’s to a speedy recovery, Mr. Tillman. The NFL needs you.