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A Relentless Pursuit

Chicago Bears star cornerback Charles Tillman tackles more than opposing players.

Charles Tillman, shown here in his home, founded the Cornerstone Foundation, which helps chronically ill children from underprivileged homes.

It’s a beautiful California day, late-June. Charles Tillman is cruising through the mountains just outside of San Diego, his wife and four children in tow. Pure domestic bliss. One has to wonder, though; in such a setting, could Tillman, the Chicago Bears’ hard-nosed Pro Bowl cornerback, the man who rips and claws footballs away from opposing offensive players at will, possibly have football, the gnarly game he loves and excels at, on his mind?

He laughs. “If you’re just trying to get in football mode now, it’s too late,” Tillman says, deriding us for our naivete. It’s simple, he explains of his preparation for the season, which begins every April: “You win your championships in the offseason.”

Much like his game—scrappy, relentless—Tillman is a man with clear vision and purpose, constantly in pursuit of the ball. Never a showboat, the last one seen mouthing off to coaches or referees, this 12-year vet of the National Football League straps on his helmet every Sunday, goes out there and does his job.

“I’m just the guy on the team who blends in with everybody else,” says the 33-year-old, though his knack for punching the ball away from opponents and often being in the right place to make a key interception, leads one to think otherwise. “You have to want to be around the ball,” he says of his reputation as one of the league’s most well-known ball hawks. “You have to want to make plays.”

He signed a one-year deal with the Bears this off-season, and although he says he blends in, he most certainly wants to be noticed. It’s essential to his being. “I’m my own worst critic,” he says. “I’ve been in this game 12 years and to this day I’ve never played a perfect game. I still strive for that perfection. I think we all do.” 

His relentless drive to make his mark isn’t limited to the gridiron: Tillman may be one of Chicago’s most notable athletes, but he’s also evolved into a key member of its philanthropic community. Most notably, he and his wife, Jackie, are at the helm of the Charles Tillman Cornerstone Foundation, an organization they started in 2005 to provide financial support and key services to the families of chronically ill children. The Tillmans are also prominent on the fundraising and charity circuit. Tillman was inspired to double down on his charitable efforts when, in 2008, his then 3-month-old daughter, Tiana, was diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy, an enlargement of the heart that required her to undergo a heart transplant. For a man whose toughness is a key virtue, this was one fight for which he was unprepared.

“I never knew about transplants for kids,” Tillman admits. “Hell, I didn’t know about transplants, period.” After his daughter’s successful transplant, which included a four-month stay at Children’s Memorial Hospital, Tillman had a new purpose.

“We feel like it’s our responsibility to do our part,” he explains of his and Jackie’s motivation for starting their foundation. “By no means am I trying to cure cancer or find a cure for HIV. I wish I could, but I’m not that smart. But the Lord has blessed me. He’s given me a platform. He’s given me this position, and I feel like it’s my personal responsibility to give back.”

Most fulfilling, Tillman says, is his ability to connect with and offer support to other families going through the same struggle his family encountered not long ago. “I can meet this person in the hospital and their son has leukemia,” Tillman says. “And that dad can look at me and say, ‘Hey man, I know how you feel. I know what you’re going through.’ And I can genuinely look that man in the eye and say, ‘Yeah, you’re right.’ It can be a complete stranger and yet [he] and I can connect on a different level [than] you and your best friend for years could ever connect on.”

Like any good Chicagoan, Tillman makes sure to find time to enjoy the city’s pleasures. A self-admitted “burrito and burger guy”—Allende and Kuma’s are two of his favorites—Tillman and his wife are constantly on the lookout for the new “it” culinary spot.

“We’re always trying to find the new up-and-coming restaurants, see what they have to offer, what makes them different from the usual,” he says.

Unlike many of his teammates, however, Tillman doesn’t stalk Michigan Avenue in search of the latest fashion finds. “I’m as basic as they come,” he says of his sartorial sense, which typically consists of cargo shorts and a T-shirt. “My fashion is terrible. Whatever my wife buys, I’ll wear. It’s all about pleasing her.”

That’s not to say he won’t occasionally take some fashion chances. His wife recently snagged him a pair of gray dress shoes, which, for Tillman, was “stepping out of my comfort zone. I’m like, ‘I dunno, babe.’ And she’s like, ‘Trust me, this is the new sexy.’”

What else can you say about the guy? He’s a team player, an impact player. He stands out even when he’s working so hard to blend in—especially when he agrees to wear the gray shoes.