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Charles Tillman: "Don't give up. We're always in the fight."

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Charles "Peanut" Tillman will go down in NFL and Bears history for a lot of reasons, but among them is his touchdown in what has become an archetypal NFL comeback: the "They are who we thought they were" game between the Bears and Cardinals in 2006. More than just a novelty, that game set the tone for the Bears Super Bowl season. In this discussion with Jack M Silverstein, the Bears legend discusses the comeback, the Super Bowl, and the moment he realized that — ya know what? — he was pretty damn good.

Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images
Charles Tillman's 2006 season did not begin in Week 1 against the Packers, but eight months earlier in January with a call to Brian Urlacher.

The Bears had just lost a home playoff game to the Panthers in which receiver Steve Smith torched them for 218 yards and two scores. Tillman defended Smith on the first touchdown. Smith faked a hitch inside. Tillman slipped. Smith soared. Fifty-eight yards later Smith was in the end zone.

"I remember calling or texting Brian Urlacher after the playoff game in ’05," Tillman told me last week. "I said, ‘Hey, that game, that’s my bad. It won’t happen again.’ It’s not like I had my best playoff game against the Panthers. I didn’t like that feeling. I didn’t want to repeat that."

Panthers 29 Bears 21 January 15,  2006

What does it feel like to lose the biggest game of your career? What does a "legit brotherhood" feel like? How does life look from the mountaintop? What if you never make it back?

In this edited interview, Tillman reflects on the 2006 season and everything around it — how Lovie Smith motivated his team with pictures of the Super Bowl trophy, the exhilaration of the Cardinals comeback, the devastation of Super Bowl XLI, and a search for that great question:

Why didn’t they get back?

***

To me, the story of the 2006 Bears starts after 2005 and that tough loss to Carolina. Take me through your mindset as the season was getting underway in ’06, because obviously the playoff game in ’05 didn’t end how everybody wanted it to end. What was your mindset going into ’06?

My mindset was just having a better ’06 than I had in ’05. I was hungry. I didn’t like the feeling of being that close to a Super Bowl. So I wanted to go out and be great. And one of the things that Coach Smith did a really good job of in 2006 was that at the end of every meeting, on every handout, he had a visual of the Vince Lombardi trophy. We would watch a highlight tape, and at the end he had the stadium of Miami and then the trophy. And it said "Chicago Bears, 2006," with a question mark. Could that be us?

For me, that was when I really started to think, "Okay, we’re playing for a championship now."

We had a great season. We started 5-0, and we go to Arizona and we just get destroyed. (Ed. note: Arizona took a 14-0 lead in the 1st quarter and led 20-0 at the half.) I remember Olin Kreutz came in at halftime and he got everybody together and was like, "I promise y’all, we’re going to win this game. No one’s going to get rattled. We’re going to go over our adjustments. And we are going to go out there and kick their butt. Believe that we will win this game and we will win this game."

He said something similar to that. And nobody got rattled. Nobody was yelling at each other. Our body language was very calm. Nobody panicked. And I really think he calmed us. Like, "We’re good." You have to play two halves. If we come out the second half we’ll be alright.
Matt Leinart 2006 Cardinals-Bears comeback Al Messerschmidt, Getty Images

Lost in the history of the comeback was the brilliance of Cardinals quarterback Matt Leinart: 232 yards passing, 2 touchdowns, 0 turnovers.


You guys were down 20-0 at the half, and Rex already had four turnovers. How was he at that point? Because he was having such struggles.

He was, but mentally I think he was there. It was just one of those things where he wasn’t having a good game, but mentally he was still there. Mentally our offense was still there. I know it wasn’t the best game for our offense but, again, none of those guys panicked. Everyone was in good spirits. The entire team was in good spirits.

And then we come back. Late in the 3rd quarter, Mark Anderson strips the ball. Mike Brown picks up the fumble. Runs it back. Got a little bit of momentum. Thought we were doing okay. Brian Urlacher strips the ball. I pick it up and run it back. Okay, now they’re backing up.



Then their kicker, Rackers, he was a fairly good kicker and I guess the pressure, man — pressure busts pipes. I don’t know if the pressure got to him, but he missed the field goal. There’s a picture of Chris Harris and I hugging each other like, What just happened? Did that just happen?

It was an epic moment. It was my best memory — one of my best NFL memories. When I think of the word "team," I think of 11 guys doing one thing, not one guy doing 11 things. That particular game was the poster child of what "team" is. One guy playing for the other.

I know tackles is a weird stat, but Urlacher was credited for like 19 tackles that game.

Yeah, he was beast mode all day. He took his game to another level.

Seeing him have that strip on Edgerrin James, that ball must have looked so big to you when it popped out.

I was just doing what we were taught: always run to the ball. When you run to the ball, good things happen. I ran to the ball, and the football gods were like, "Here you go, take it. You’re running to the ball." "Thank you!" I took it and got me an easy touchdown.


Funny story: I watched the game the other day. I was on YouTube and that game came up. I thought it was the highlights but it was the actual game. It was a full 3-hour YouTube video. I watched the whole thing, literally. The first time I’ve ever done watched a TV copy of a game. I’m used to watching film. Like how we watch film in our meeting rooms, it’s quiet. There’s an end zone copy and an aerial copy. So I was on YouTube and I came across the game.

Was there anything you saw that you’d forgotten?

Yeah, a lot of stuff. As I watched the film, a lot of it came back to me. And it’s weird — I remember Charles Barkley saying, "Hey man, it ain’t over until it’s over." We were still losing 20 to nothing, and one of the announcers says to Charles Barkley, "Well if they win this game we’re going to have to get you back in the booth." He said something to that effect. And sure as day, we came back and won. Charles Barkley was right.

What was the locker room like after the game?

Oh man, it was like Mardi Gras in there. Everyone was celebrating. It felt like we’d won a Super Bowl or some type of championship. Everybody was so excited. There was this disbelief that, "Damn, we just won this game — that’s crazy! You know what? We can do anything." You know? "I don’t care how much we’re down by. We can win any game."

That game made us feel invincible, that we could do anything. It was a great confidence booster for the rest of the season. I think that game right there set the tone for the entire season.

***

The Cardinals win pushed the Bears to 6-0. They lost three games during the regular season, the last of which was an embarrassing breakdown at home against Green Bay. Bears fans cite this game as the first cracks in the facade, but Tillman gives it no credence.

"I think guys just wanted to get out of that game healthy," Tillman told me. "At that point in time that was like a preseason game. We had the number one seed. We had home field advantage. It was just like, ‘Let’s get out of this game healthy.’"

His favorite memory of the NFC playoffs was the conclusion of the NFC title game against New Orleans when he realized he was going to have a third child.

"When the clock hit zero, the snow was coming down on the field," Tillman said. "My wife made her way down, and I remember the first thing I yelled at her was, ‘We’re gonna have another baby!’ I made a bet with her that if we went to the Super Bowl we would have three kids. At the time we only had one child. We probably planned on having two, (Ed. note: they now have four), and she said, ‘If you go to the Super Bowl, we’ll have three.’

"And that was the first thing I said to her. It was perfect."

***

Alright. Super Bowl.

I read an interview where you said that Marvin Harrison was the toughest receiver you ever had to face.

Yeah, he was.

What was the game plan going into the game?

Let Nathan Vasher lock down Marvin Harrison, and I was going to be on Reggie Wayne. I’m taller and Reggie’s a bigger guy. Marvin’s shorter and Vash is shorter. So we just matched up better that way. from a secondary, that was our game plan. And we were going to try to put pressure on Peyton.

Was there discussion at all about the effect that the rain might have?

No. There was no talk about weather. We didn’t really talk about that, which I think is good, because if you start talking about weather, your mind’s on the wrong thing. The weather shouldn’t matter. You still have to play in it, so the weather shouldn’t dictate how you play.

Chicago Bears defense, Super Bowl XLI Eliot J. Schechter, Getty Images

Charles Tillman and the Bears defense get pumped up during Super Bowl XLI


What happened on the Reggie Wayne touchdown?

Miscommunication. A communication breakdown. I played Cover-2. Danieal Manning played Cover-3. There was a miscommunication. I think he didn’t get the check. A simple mistake. It was loud. Guys are signalling. But he didn’t get it that time.

What do you remember about the fumble you forced and recovered on Bryan Fletcher? Because with all due respect to the Randy Moss interception, I think that Fletcher fumble is your best play.


When I ran up on him I was like, "I’m pretty sure he’s going to stiff arm me." I just tried to do what I did all season, which was punch. It popped on out and I just tried to roll over it and get the field position. And I was like, "Holy shit, I forced a fumble and got a fumble recovery in the Super Bowl. How sweet is that?" I just remember being happy, and I pointed at my family as I was running off the field. I was trying to give them a shoutout. So that was cool.

I always wondered who you were pointing to.

Yeah, my family.

Charles Tillman pointing, Super Bowl XLI Jonathan Daniel, Getty Images

Charles Tillman points to his family after forcing and recovering a fumble in Super Bowl XLI.


Where does that punch rank on your list of best Peanut Punches?

Oh God, I don’t know.

Do you have a list?

I don’t have a list. I’ve never thought about it.

And then of course, the offense takes the field and fumbles and turns it right back over.

A little frustrating. A little frustrating. I was frustrated by it because we had just gotten on the sideline, and you’re catching your breath and talking — "Hey good job Peanut!" And then, "Oh man, we gotta go back out there."

But at the same time, we got in the habit of developing an attitude of excitement when it was time to go back out there. When your offense has a turnover, for a second you’re like, "Damn," but then you’re like, "Wait a second — that’s another opportunity for us to get another turnover. Hell yeah! Let’s go take the field!" So it was a little bit of frustration but there was excitement too because we thought we would go get the ball back. It doesn’t even matter what they do.

At halftime, you’re down by two. What was the mood in the locker room at halftime?

Pretty much the same as it was in Arizona. Everybody was calm. Nobody was panicking. We just went over our game plan. We maybe had one or two adjustments and went from there.

At what point in that Super Bowl did you feel like, "Uh oh"?

When Kelvin scored the touchdown. He got the pick-six and it was like, "Oh shit. That’s not good." The majority of the time when the defense scores a touchdown, they’re going to win the game. That’s a proven stat. And that was the first thing that went through my mind. Like, "Damn, they’re probably going to win this game because they scored a defensive touchdown."

I read that you said after the Super Bowl ended you were "sick to my stomach." What’s the experience of losing that game? Do you remember any conversations you had afterward with teammates?

Let’s put it like this: Everybody wants their space. You’re trying to process what the hell just happened. I just lost the biggest game of my career. We had a good season but that ain’t good enough. You’re trying to figure out how to deal with the moment. You’re trying to figure out family. There’s just a whole lot of things you’re dealing with. I cried. I cried after the game. I sat in the locker room and I cried. I was disappointed in the outcome. It wasn’t what I envisioned. The effort was there. I didn’t have any regrets. I left everything out on the field.

I remember being one of the last ones off the field, and myself and Nate Vash, we just sat there and we watched them celebrate. I stayed out there purposefully because I wanted to know what it looked like to celebrate. It hurt me to watch them, but that was motivation for the following year and years to come.

And I remember Nate Vash saying — and it’s actually on NFL Films — after the game Nate Vash goes, "Man, I’m just trying to see how they celebrate. I’m trying to see how they do it." And I started to say something but I was speechless. I couldn’t say anything. I was just so hurt. That’s kind of what was running through my mind. It hurt.

Bears lose the Super Bowl -- Tribune.

Front page of the Chicago Tribune, February 5, 2007.


***

I really liked the interview that you and Laurence Holmes did recently, and one thing that you said was that after ’06, coming into ’07, you guys all just assumed that you’d be back in the Super Bowl. And like you said, it took until 2010 to even get back to the playoffs.

From ’07 to ’12 — the rest of Lovie’s time in Chicago — what went wrong? Why wasn’t the team able to, in your estimation, get back to that level of dominance?

That’s the magic question. I don’t know. The next year in ’07, we didn’t have the greatest year. ’08 was not the greatest. ’09 was bad. 2010 was a good year. 2010, 2011, 2012, we had good years. We had the guys. We had the talent. But I don’t know.

One of the things about making it to the playoffs or just making it through a season is being healthy. A lot of teams that make it to the playoffs, slash, Super Bowl, they have their core guys intact who stayed healthy the whole year. There are a lot of pieces that have to fall into play to make it to a Super Bowl. And we were just only able to do it one time.

It was only an issue one year, in 2007, but what was the impact of trading Thomas Jones and giving Cedric Benson the starting job? Because I know fans recoiled at that. I spoke with Cedric the other day, and he was really a nice guy and gave me a ton of time, and he said he was kind of excited to have that. What was your reaction to that move?

I guess I didn’t understand it. In my opinion, I look at it as a business deal. Cedric was the 4th overall pick. We had gotten Thomas Jones in free agency. But he was an amazing back. I think it was a business decision. Here we got this young guy. We’re giving him all this money. We have to play him. We have to put him on the field.

And I’m sure Thomas Jones appreciated the fact that they got rid of him, because Thomas Jones is a player. He’s a star. He’s a competitor. I’m sure he didn’t want to be on the bench. But he was a guy who fit into our offense fairly well. He ran hard. He knew our offense. He was a great veteran leader.

So I think it kind of hurt us, because he was one of our offensive leaders who we got rid of. He was a true vet. And he helped a lot of the young guys out. I think when people saw that, it just kind of set us back a little bit. It was like, "Oh man." I know we had Cedric Benson, but man, that’s Thomas Jones. Like, why did you all get rid of Thomas Jones? He didn’t do anything wrong. He ran good for us. He ran hard for us. And he was a good teammate.

You and Vash both signed big contracts after 2006. How come he didn’t shine after that? I imagine you guys thought you would both dominate together for the next decade.

I think he got injured and he was playing through injury and that might have made it a little more difficult for him to play injured and compete. I think people probably looked at him as he got the big pay day and then he took time off and kind of chillaxed. But I don’t think that was the case.

He was playing injured. And when you’re at cornerback and you’re playing injured and the guy in front of you who you’re lining up against is 200 pounds and runs a four-three, it definitely makes your job a lot harder. It’s like playing with a ball and chain. He just really wasn’t able to recover and they got him out of here.

Nathan Vasher and Charles Tillman in the Chicago Tribune, Oct. 31, 2005.

Nathan Vasher and Charles Tillman in the Chicago Tribune, Oct. 31, 2005.


Okay, before my final question, let’s do a few quick hits. Your favorite interception.

The Detroit Lions. 2005. Overtime. The walk-off touchdown against the Lions at Ford Field.

Favorite box up in the box game.

There was one with Brian. Brian Urlacher ran out and I think Izzy was on the second floor and Brian walked in and Izzy just dropped the box at the perfect time. It covered Brian’s whole entire body and everyone was yelling, "Box him up!" that was probably the best one I’ve ever seen.


Favorite reporter in the Bears locker room not counting Laurence.


Cornerbacks who played in your era who you were not ashamed to say were clear cut better than you.

Darrelle Revis. He was good. He made more money than me. He’s got a Super Bowl ring. Yeah, I can say he’s better than me.

Anybody else?

No. Darrelle Revis. (Pause.) And Champ Bailey.

What about Charles Woodson?

Yeah. (Pause.) But I don’t get caught up in, "Oh, he’s better than me." So what, you’re better than me? My job is to go out there and show you better than I can tell you. I never really got into the, "Who’s the number one corner? Who’s the best corner?" To me that changes every year.

You might be a great reporter in 2016, but you might suck in 2017. You know how you see some guys get big pay days, they get the big money off of one great year and it’s perfect timing, and then the next year they just suck? Same thing at corner.

Like Antonio Brown last season — okay, now it’s a new season. Who is the best receiver now? Now it’s him because he has the reigning title, but once the season starts, after that first game, it all goes back to zero.

People say, "Who is the best?" It changes yearly. I was never that guy who wanted to say I was better than this player that year. You know what? This year, I am better than you. That one year, yeah, you got me. The year before, I think we tied. The year before that, I got you. It always changes. It’s always evolving.


Just to be clear though, do you think you’re a Hall of Famer?

You know what? My wife and I sat down when I actually retired, and I read your article. Peter King wrote an article. When I was playing, I never really looked at all my stats and looked up what the great guys, and the other Hall of Famers — I never really did that. There’s plenty of times where people were trying to bring up my stats and I would say, "I don’t want to look at my stats until I retire. I don’t want to think about any of that."

So once I finally retired, I’m reading all of you guys’ articles and blogs, and I didn’t really realize how good I was, because I was just playing. I was just trying to be the best that I could be for my teammates. After retiring, I’m looking at all these stats and comparisons that you guys give, and I remember looking at my wife and saying, "Holy shit babe, I was pretty good!" That was the first time in my career that I actually sat back and said, "Damn, I didn’t know I did that."

Because when you’re playing, you’re just reacting. You’re in the moment. And now that I’m retired I am looking back on my career and saying, "Wow, damn, I was pretty good. That’s pretty cool." If I make it in, hey man, that’s cool. If I don’t, I still had a great career. And I’m happy with it. I’ve had more good memories than bad playing this game.

I grew up in front of a city that I love. I came in at 22 and I left at 35. And I grew up in front of America on tv. And I think that’s a cool thing. Thirteen amazing years. Twelve in Chicago, one in Carolina. And zero regrets. I went out on a high note. And I probably have the best retirement video out there. I’m just saying. Shout out to Spice Adams. I was the producer, he directed it. So I’m challenging everyone else who retires — they’ve got to do a video. Guys are getting creative, so I’m trying to make it more difficult for the next guy. I want to make retirement interesting.


How long was that in the works?

It took us two days to do that thing. It was quick.

So final thoughts on 2006 when you look back. What do you think about first?

How we didn’t win the Super Bowl. That’s the first thing I think about. Like, "Oh yeah! That’s the year we lost the Super Bowl." (Laughs.) That’s the only thing I really think about. We were close. So close. But we didn’t get it done. I don’t think it was a failure. I learned a lot about football. I learned a lot about my teammates. I learned a lot about what you can do as a team when you’re down and you believe in yourself and you believe in the man next to you and you play for the man next to you and you don’t play for yourself.

Again, that Arizona game was indicative of how I played the rest of my career in this league. We’re always in the fight. I don’t care what the score is. Don’t give up. We’re always in the fight.