During a 15-minute conference call Friday morning, new Carolina Panthers cornerback Charles Tillman shared stories that ranged from heartwarming to hilarious.
In between, Tillman drove home this point: The longtime Chicago Bears standout believes he can still play.
Tillman is 34 and coming off two injury-shortened seasons. But Tillman, who went to the Pro Bowl in 2011 and 2012, said he has plenty left.
“I feel like I can be an every-down corner. I feel good. I feel fine,” Tillman said. “Probably one of the disheartening things about our profession is people worry so much about age. If you feel good and you’re playing good, it really shouldn’t matter how old you are.”
Tillman signed a one-year deal with the Panthers that reportedly could be worth as much as $3.05 million.
Tillman, 6-2 and 198 pounds, spent his first 12 seasons in Chicago, where Panthers coach Ron Rivera was the Bears’ defensive coordinator from 2004-2006.
Tillman, the NFL’s Man of the Year in 2013, said he’s excited to join a Panthers’ team that has made the playoffs the past two seasons, but concedes it will take some adjusting.
“I don’t want to use the adjective ‘weird.’ I think it’ll just be different. It’s my new normal,” he said. “Being in one place for so long you get comfortable. But I also think too you can get complacent. I feel like sometimes change is good, change is necessary.”
Tillman has a built-in support network with Carolina. Panthers secondary coach Steve Wilks, Tillman’s position coach for three years in Chicago, counseled Tillman when his then 6-month-old daughter received a heart transplant in 2008.
“He was someone I would lean on and call and get advice. We cried together. It was a rough time,” Tillman said. “He was more than a coach for me during that time. He was a friend, mentor, big brother, and I’m very grateful for that.”
Tillman also has remained in close contact with former Chicago teammate Greg Olsen, the Panthers tight end whose son has undergone multiple heart surgeries. Tillman said Olsen’s wife, Kara, texted his wife with names of pediatric heart specialists as soon as she heard Tillman was signing with the Panthers.
Tillman signed with the Panthers on Thursday after attending the Hornets-Raptors game the previous night at Time Warner Cable Arena. Tillman ran into a couple of Bears fans, but he also spoke with Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis, the 2014 NFL Man of the Year who tried to get Tillman to sign with Carolina when he was a free agent last offseason.
Tillman ended up re-signing with the Bears, but played in only two games before re-injuring his right triceps. Tillman said they were fluke injuries, not unlike the torn ACLs sustained by former St. Louis quarterback Sam Bradford, who’s now in Philadelphia.
“Sometimes those things happen,” Tillman said. “And I hit the lottery twice with getting fluke injuries unfortunately.”
If he can stay healthy, Tillman gives the Panthers another big corner to pair with Josh Norman, and allows them to slide Bené Benwikere inside to nickel.
He also gives them one of the league premiere ball-hawks. Since entering the league as a second-round draft pick in 2003, Tillman leads all active defensive backs with 41 forced fumbles, and is fourth with 36 interceptions, including eight he’s returned for touchdowns.
“Do I plan on taking a starting spot? No,” Tillman said, responding to a reporter’s question. “I plan on earning and working for what I get.”
Rivera and Tillman are part of a mutual admiration club. The two shot a USAA commercial in Tillman’s hometown of Copperas Cove, Texas, and talked during Super Bowl week at a Man of the Year lunch.
“I think he is the guy to win a championship for Carolina,” Tillman said. “I like his leadership qualities. He’s a great guy.”
Rivera has said the same about Tillman, and calls him by nickname, “Peanut,” given to him at birth by an aunt when he was a 5-pound baby. It followed him to Chicago when a teammate asked Tillman his nickname.
“So it started out as a team nickname – players, coaches picked up on it. And then maybe a year or so later, I think I made a play. I made a tackle or something and I hear the announcer go, ‘Peanut Tillman on the tackle!’” Tillman said. “I was like, Peanut? I guess it’s official now. Peanut Tillman, no more Charles.”
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