Cornerback Charles Tillman blitzes Cam Newton at practice Wednesday, and the closer Tillman gets to the quarterback, the louder he becomes. By now Tillman is yelling happily. Before Tillman can get louder Newton fires a quick pass that has little chance of being caught.
You enjoy this, don’t you?
“I think that’s why we’re here,” Tillman says Thursday from a small table in Wofford’s Campus Life building. “It’s hot, you’re running around for two hours a day, and the heat can get to you. The more fun I have, the more I want to be out in that sun practicing with my teammates.”
Tillman, who played his first 12 seasons for the Chicago Bears, signed with the Carolina Panthers in April. At 34, he’s the second oldest Panther. He loves his job, and he doesn’t care if everybody knows.
“Me in my 13th year, I can’t complain about nothing,” Tillman says, laughing. “I have the best job in the world, all of us have the best job in the world, a bunch of grown men playing football. And it truly is a blessing.”
“I love that about him,” says Panthers head coach Ron Rivera, who worked with Tillman in Chicago. “We’re supposed to have fun. Sometimes we forget that.”
At mini-camp Newton would roar after an offensive touchdown, and Tillman, the new guy, would yell at him from the sideline when the offense failed. Newton tried to draw the defense offside and, when that didn’t work, Tillman told him to just call the play.
You’re not shy or demure, are you?
“No, no, no, no,” says Tillman.
Your quarterback isn’t, either.
“I think Cam is at his best is when he’s being Cam and having fun,” says Tillman. “We all have our own personality of who we are when we do something good. I’m a celebrator. I like to celebrate with my teammates. When our defense is having fun, we’re making plays, we’re unstoppable.”
Carolina general manager Dave Gettleman says that some players play professional football while others are professional football players. Tillman, says Gettleman, is a professional football player.
“That’s a great compliment,” says Tillman. “I’ll take anything he says about me every day.”
One more compliment: Tillman received the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award in 2013, the season before Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis did. The award recognizes a player’s charitable work as well as his work on the field.
It is possible that nobody has gone this deep into a story about Tillman without mentioning forced fumbles.
In 1994 forced fumbles became a statistical category. Since then, according to STATS, Tillman ranks sixth in fumbles forced with 41. The five players in front of him are defensive ends (former Panther Julius Peppers is fifth). John Abraham and Jason Taylor are tied for first with 48.
Tillman, who doesn’t collect the blindside fumbles ends do, forced four fumbles against Tennessee in a single game in 2012.
“I don’t possess that hard hitting capacity like Luke (Kuechly) or TD (Thomas Davis),” says Tillman, who is 6-2 and 210 pounds. “I’m not really good at separating the man from the ball. So I just figure, why not punch it out?”
Tillman says he began the practice at Louisiana-Lafayette.
He’s asked if he throws a punch at the ball or attempts to dislodge it with a few fingers.
“I don’t know how many fights you’ve been in,” Tillman says. “You can’t punch with a finger.”
Is the ball carrier always vulnerable?
“In my opinion, yeah,” says Tillman. “I feel I can get it out every time. That’s my mindset. I don’t care if you got two hands (on the ball), one hand – I’m going to get it out. It might not come out all the time but I think like that.”
Tillman doesn’t study film of ball carriers. As he approaches the ball carrier, he studies angles. He’s dislodged the ball as he was falling backward.
Boxing uses PunchStat to record punches thrown and landed. Tillman has his own. He says he might throw 700 and perhaps 400 will land.
“The more punches I throw the more likely the ball will come out,” he says.
The technique could catch on in Carolina.
“A lot of (teammates) are doing it,” Tillman says. “We got a couple (forced fumbles) out a few days ago. It’s not me, it’s them doing it. They saw and figured wow, if it’s that easy, and then they tried it and they’re getting it out, too.”
Tillman was given a veteran’s day off from practice Thursday. If you didn’t know who he was, you would have thought he was a coach. He spent the morning answering questions and offering advice.
“I don’t want to be here if I’m keeping secrets,” says Tillman. “I’m not here just to try to better myself. I’m here to try to help better this team. I’m just 1/11th of our defense. Everybody on this team – offense, defense, special teams – we all have one common goal, and that’s to win a Super Bowl. If me giving this guy a tip can make us better in a game, I did my part, and he did his part for listening.”