In June 2001, the city of Boston enjoyed its first Stanley Cup celebration in 29 years. Not because of the Bruins, mind you -- they finished 4th in their division and missed the playoffs.
No, the celebration came from Ray Bourque, who won the Cup in his second year with the Colorado Avalanche after 21 seasons on the B's. The citizens of Boston were so damn excited that 15,000 of them showed up for a parade in Bourque's honor, their long-time captain using his time with the Cup to celebrate a Boston victory by osmosis.
Even the Avs fans knew the importance to Bourque, cheering wildly when captain Joe Sakic honored the 40-year-old lifelong Bruin by immediately handing him the Cup and giving him the team's first victory skate.
No doubt Bourque and the people of Boston would have preferred the future Hall of Famer to hoist the Cup as a member of the Bruins, but this was certainly better than nothing, especially with no rivalry to speak of between the B's and the Avs.
I feel the same about Peanut Tillman.
Every year a team wins a Super Bowl. Every year, I watch. And every year but two, I've had to decide which team to root for, if any, in lieu of my heart's desire.
Most frequently my answer is "a good game." Sometimes I like both teams well enough (the 1999 Titans and Rams, for instance). Sometimes I like one team (the 90s Bills) or dislike another (2010 Steelers due to Ben Roethlisberger). Sometimes I'm rooting for a city (2009 New Orleans) while other times I'm rooting against the Packers.
Now and again, I am rooting for one single player to capture a ring after a distinguished career. Think John Elway in 1997 (success!), Aeneas Williams with the 2001 Rams (sadly, no), or Charles Woodson with the Packers (oh the conflicted feelings of Super Bowl XLV!).
This year, I get the best possible version of "Well, who are you rooting for?" Ol' number 33 (now ol' number 31) is a member of the 15-1 Carolina Panthers, and my heart rides with him.
Like most Bears fans I know, I've been a fan of Charles Tillman since his rookie year, specifically his epic game-clinching endzone interception against Randy Moss. Moss was an absolute terror at the time, a one-man wrecking crew whose rookie year was the last year of Barry Sanders, just to ensure the NFC Central would receive no reprieve from divisional offensive menaces.
Moss led the NFL in receiving touchdowns in 2003, was an All Pro, and already had one TD that game. So when Moss and Charles -- as he was quaintly known -- leaped in the Soldier Field endzone with the Bears clutching a 13-10 lead with just over one minute to play, Bears fans everywhere held their breath. It was them against us, Goliath against David, the playoff-bound Vikes (we thought) against the moribund Bears.
And just like that, we won. We won. We won. We won.
Tillman's swipe felt like all of Chicago was swiping all of Minnesota. He gave that to us. And we never looked back.
Soon he was "Peanut," and when he earned a trip to the Super Bowl as a member of the 2006 Bears, his talents shone on the global stage. As far as I'm concerned, he made the greatest single play of that game, when he hit Colts tight end Bryan Fletcher, punched loose the ball, held Fletcher up, and then fell on the ball for the recovery.
The cool thing about Peanut was that until 2011, he never really got his national due. He could have made the Pro Bowl in 2005, 2006, 2008, and 2010, and he DEFINITELY should have made it in 2007. True to his motto "Always be peaking," Tillman just kept getting better, so when he grabbed Pro Bowl honors in 2011 and again in 2012 along with an All Pro selection, the love of Bears fans felt vindicated.
"See!" we seemed to be shouting to football fans everywhere. "This dude is the BEST."
And he is. He is unquestionably the greatest cornerback in Bears history, and arguably the greatest defensive back in Bears history too, with respect to Doug Plank, Gary Fencik, and Mike Brown. When Tillman's torn triceps landed him on IR three weeks into the 2014 season, the pain he felt (epitomized in this photo) was matched by the outpouring of love from Bears fans.
Fast forward to this week, when news hit that Tillman would miss the rest of the season with a torn ACL. Bears fans, former teammates and even sportswriters went online to show love for Peanut.
Lance Briggs (@LanceBriggs) January 5, 2016
Prayers Up @peanuttillman . Heal up quickly!!— Jerry Azumah (@JerryAzumah) January 4, 2016
Certainly ex-Bears have had a chance to win a ring in my lifetime. Most recently, Kellen Davis won one with Seattle in 2013, while two of my favorite Bears -- Brendon Ayanbadejo and Corey Graham -- won rings with the 2012 Ravens. None of those guys, or anyone else I can recall, had the Bears career of Tillman and then had a shot at a Super Bowl elsewhere.
The only thing comparable in my life was rooting for Mark Grace to win the World Series with the Diamondbacks, which he did, a few months after Bourque's victorious run with the Avalanche.
With few exceptions, everyone I've ever met who has met Charles Tillman has a story about his graciousness and warmth. Teammates love him. The Bears press corps almost universally respect him. Bears fans revere him. And Panthers fans already hold a place for him in that franchise's brief but strong legacy.
Should Carolina earn a slot in the Super Bowl, Charles Tillman will be on the sideline.
All of Chicago will be there with him.