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Letter to My Younger Self

Jan 19 2017
Photo by
Nam Y. Huh/AP Images
Photo by
Nam Y. Huh/AP Images
Jan 19 2017

Dear Charles,

Check you out. Twenty-two years old. Fresh out of college. Young and dumb, and just hours away from the 2003 NFL draft.

You feel like you’re ready. Ready for the NFL. Ready for your life. And in a lot of ways, you are ready.

But believe me, there’s also a lot that you’re not ready for — obstacles and challenges that from where you sit right now you can’t even fathom.

But before I get into what lies ahead, let me take you back.

Back to the third grade.

With dad in the Army, you moved around a lot as a kid — 12 times in 13 years of grade school, to be exact. In third grade alone, you attended three different schools. You went from Kansas to Ohio to Weierhof, Germany, of all places.

You remember when you walked into your new classroom in Ohio for the first time? All the kids were writing in cursive. It looked like a foreign language to you. They might as well have been writing hieroglyphics. The teacher asked you, “Charles, can you write in cursive?” And your eyes got kind of wide.

“Uhhh … no.”

You were embarrassed.

The teacher gave you a strip of paper with the cursive alphabet on it, uppercase and lowercase, and you took it home and spent the whole week practicing in your notebook — looping, swooping, connecting letters, scratching all over the paper until you mastered it. You taught yourself. You did it on the fly, and you caught up with the other kids quickly.

But three months later, just when you were starting to settle in and get comfortable in your new school, it was time to move again — to Germany.

This time, it wasn’t cursive that the other kids were working on. It was long division. Another foreign language.

You know as well as I do that you’re just like Dad: confident, outgoing, always up for a conversation or for meeting new people. But in Germany, when the teacher would call on somebody to come up to the blackboard to work out a division problem in front of the class, you would sink down in your chair and think, Please don’t call on me.

Sometimes you’d even go home and cry because, for the first time in your life, you hated school and you hated moving.

charles-tillman-3rd-grade-in-germanyCharles Tillman

In Germany, you lived on an Army post where everything was American. Your neighbors were American and everybody spoke English and used the U.S. dollar.

But off post was another story. The stores and gas stations only accepted these multicolored bills called deutsche marks. When you’d go out to eat at a restaurant with your family, you’d always order the chicken because the menu was in German and you couldn’t read it, and chicken was the only thing that looked familiar. Very few people spoke any English, especially the kids. You were like cavemen trying to communicate with each other.

So you communicated through sports.

You showed some of the German kids how to play American football and they showed you how to dribble a soccer ball. You connected by learning from each other. And once you made those connections, you started to embrace the German culture around you. You started to learn a little bit of the language and to explore new things off the Army post. You even stopped ordering the chicken, and instead tried the schnitzel and the currywurst — new stuff that you had never experienced before.

By now, Charles, you’re probably thinking, I know, dude. I was there. Why are you telling me all this?

I’m telling you because that was a time when you learned some of the most important lessons of your life — lessons that will one day help you on the football field.

You have to adapt. You have to learn on the fly. You have to keep an open mind and you can’t shy away from a challenge.

You have to be comfortable being uncomfortable.

Which brings me back to where you are now.

Draft day.

You’re going home, Charles. You’ve moved around your whole life, but it all started on the South Side of Chicago, where you were born. And when the second round of the draft comes around, the team that will call your name will be the one that you saw on TV when you first discovered the game of football.

The Chicago Bears.

usatsi_4984120Dennis Wierzbicki/US PRESSWIRE

Go ahead. Let that sink in. You deserve it.

But let me tell you, the next few months will be pretty crazy. You’ll spend long nights during camp with Todd Johnson, a rookie safety out of Florida, studying and quizzing each other on defensive schemes and play recognition. You’ll work out with other rookies, like a linebacker out of Arizona named Lance Briggs. Get to know him, Charles. He’s a great man. He’ll be a great teammate and, more important, a friend for life.

And as soon as you step on the field, you’ll prove you belong. The learning curve won’t be too steep for you, Charles. You’ll use your ability to adapt and learn on the fly — the things you learned as a military brat living abroad — to make an immediate impact.

Bears fans will love you. Your teammates will love you. You’ll have a lot of success, and quickly.

But don’t get a big head. There’s more to life than football. And a couple of years into your career, you’re going to figure out exactly what that means.

In 2005, before your third year in the league, you’ll get married. (Yes, to Jackie … who else?) A few months later, during the season, Jackie will give birth to your first child, a baby girl, Talya.

This is a huge responsibility, Charles. You may think that goes without saying, but I cannot overstate this point. You’ll be 25 years old and still learning how to be a great husband. Now, you’ll have to learn how to be a great father at the same time, all while continuing to be a great football player.

And if you think that sounds difficult, you have no idea….

After your daughter is born, you’ll be so sleep-deprived and stressed-out that your play on the field will decline. You’ll go through a three- to four-game stretch when you’ll be giving up touchdowns left and right. And let me tell you: When you’re in the NFL, every one of your missteps is on television. Every little mistake is magnified. You’ll start reading things on the Internet and seeing analysts on TV questioning your ability to play in this league. And for the first time in your life, you’ll start to doubt yourself.

So here’s what I want you to do: Go to Barnes & Noble and look for a book by Earl Nightingale called The Strangest Secret. It’s a book about mental toughness, and the whole premise is that we become what we think about.

This book will speak to.

And what it will make clear is that the reason you’re struggling is not because you’re tired or stressed-out from your duties as a husband and a father, or because of what people are saying about you. You’ll struggle because you will have allowed yourself to think about those things. And if you are thinking about how you’re tired and stressed-out, that’s how you’re going to play. When you doubt your ability, you cannot maximize it. You become a manifestation of your own thoughts.

As soon as you read The Strangest Secret, you’ll say to yourself, “Wake your ass up. To give your family everything they deserve, you’ve got to be a great husband, an amazing father and one hell of a football player. So quit whining and just go do it.”

That’s when everything will turn around and get back on course — after you read that book.

So do yourself a favor and get the book now. Don’t waste any time. Get it before you think you need it. In fact, pick up the audiobook version and listen to it regularly. I listened to it he morning before every game to remind myself of the mindset I needed to have. The Nightingale’s voice is smooth — like a white Morgan Freeman — and it always got my mind right.

You’ll need to be at the top of your game when you close out the 2005 season, because, in 2006, you’re going to go to the Super Bowl.

Now, that’s going to be an amazing season for you and your teammates, so I don’t want to spoil too much of it for you. But I will say this….

Remember the name Marvin Harrison.

You’ll play against him in Super Bowl XLI, and even though he won’t blow up in that game, it won’t be the last time you face him. He’ll be the toughest wide receiver you’ll face in your NFL career.

Seriously, this guy will make you look stupid. When you’re riding a high and playing well and you’re feeling yourself, there will be nothing like playing Marvin Harrison to bring you back down to earth and make you realize that you still have a lot of work to do. He’s a small guy — like six feet and 185 pounds or something like that — and he’s quick, like a little rabbit. He’s tough to get your hands on and jam at the line, and once he’s out in space, he can do it all.

So do yourself a favor and start watching film on him now. You’ll thank me later.

And keep an eye on Georgia Tech football, too. In a couple of years, a young receiver will start to blow up down there, and his next stop after college will be in your division with the Detroit Lions, so you’ll have to face him twice a year. His name is Calvin Johnson. He’ll give you fits, but he’ll also make you a better player. So get to know him.

Again, you’ll thank me later.

ap_506610657769Charles Rex Arbogast/AP Images

Now, I wish I had better news for you, Charles, but that Super Bowl won’t turn out the way you want it to. You’re going to lose to the Colts, and it’s gonna hurt. Toward the end of the game, while the Colts are already celebrating on their sideline, your teammate Brian Urlacher will say in the defensive huddle, “I want you all to remember the feeling you have right now, because I promise you, we will be back.”

But that’s easier said than done.

It will take you 10 years, but eventually you will get back to the Super Bowl … kind of. And I’ll get to that.

But first, I want to tell you about the most difficult thing you will ever experience, more difficult than anything that will ever happen on the football field — even more difficult than losing the Super Bowl.

In 2008, you’ll be at an off-season practice when your head coach, Lovie Smith, will walk over to you and say something that will change your life forever.

“They’re taking your daughter to the hospital. You need to go.”

You’ll rush home and burst through the front door of your house to find Jackie hasn’t left yet, and she’s there with your second child, your three-month-old daughter, Tiana. You’ll see the panicked look in Jackie’s eyes as Tiana vomits uncontrollably, and you’ll rush her to the hospital.

The doctors will admit her and stabilize her, and all you’ll be able to do is just stand there while she’s lying in her hospital bed, her little body swollen from all the fluids doctors are pumping into her. The sight will be too much for Jackie to handle, so she’ll leave the room. It will just be you and your daughter when the doctor walks in.

“Mr. Tillman,” the doctor will say, “I’m gonna tell you this because I think you can handle it.”

“O.K….”

“There’s a chance your daughter might die tonight, so you need to call the people you need to call.”

Everything will stop. You’ll think you hadn’t heard the doctor right, but you’ll quickly realize that you had. You’ll stand there silent for God knows how long, trying to think of something to say. When the words finally come, you’ll just spit them out.

“I gotta go to the bathroom.”

As soon as the bathroom door clicks shut, you’ll lose it. I mean, your knees will hit the floor and you’ll put your face in your hands and start sobbing — like a chest-convulsing sob. When you finally muster the strength to stand again, you’ll lean over the sink and look in the mirror, and you’ll see a helplessness that you never thought was possible.

Then, you’ll call Dad.

“You gotta stop crying, Peanut,” he’ll say. “You gotta be strong for your daughter. You gotta be strong for Jackie. We’re gonna get through this. It’s gonna be O.K.”

You’ll know he’s right, and you’ll hang up and take a few minutes to calm yourself. You’ll lean over the sink, splash some cold water on your face and slap yourself a couple of times like a boxer coming out of the corner for another round. Then, you’ll get back out there and try to make the best decisions possible to allow your daughter to survive the night.

The doctor will explain that Tiana’s heart rate is dangerously high, and that she has something called dilated cardiomyopathy.

Cardiomyo-what?

I’ll spare you the medical jargon. You’ll have plenty of time to Google everything and learn all about it while you sit at the hospital and wait for a miracle, because what it boils down to is that your daughter’s heart will be failing.

She’ll need a heart transplant.

charles-and-tianaCharles Tillman

The first thing you’ll do is pray, and that will be the most difficult and confusing part of the whole ordeal, because you’ll realize that in order for your daughter to live, somebody else’s child will have to die. So for the first time in your life, it will feel wrong to pray. Praying for Tiana’s life will feel like praying for another child’s death. You’ll feel guilty about that. You’ll feel selfish.

The hospital will become a second home for you. You’ll learn all the doctors’ and the nurses’ names. You’ll get to know the people who work in the cafeteria. On the many nights you sleep there, you’ll brush your teeth in the same bathroom that you ran into the day Tiana got sick. You’ll wash in the same sink you used that day, too. You’ll even learn how to work all the machines and monitors in Tiana’s room. When something starts beeping, the nurse will call the room and ask if everything’s O.K., and you’ll be like, “Yeah, I got it.”

You’ll alternate nights with Jackie so that Tiana will never have to be alone. You’ll live like that for four long months before, on July 31, 2008, at about 7 a.m., you’ll get a phone call from the doctor.

“We got a heart.”

You’ll try not to get too excited. You got the same phone call a couple of months before, and the doctors had told you then that they were prepping Tiana for surgery. But they called everything off five hours later because the heart wasn’t in good condition.

That near miss was devastating for Jackie. To have that kind of hope snatched away was almost more than she could handle. She told the doctors that from then on, she only wanted to know about a transplant if it was a sure thing.

So when you get that second call, you’ll ask the doctor, “Are you serious? Is … is it for real this time?”

“We think so. But this is going to happen pretty quickly. I know Jackie doesn’t want to know, so can you come down to the hospital?”

You’ll rush to the hospital and start filling out the paperwork. Just as you finish, the doctor will come into the room.

“Go get Jackie. This is happening. This is the real deal.”

You’ll catch a cab home and run into your bedroom. Jacking will be lying in bed. You’ll grab her by the shoulders and start shaking her.

“Wake up! We gotta go! They got a heart!”

“Are you serious?”

“Yes! Let’s go!”

Jackie will still be fumbling around and getting dressed when you’re running out of the house. You won’t be able to catch a cab, so you’ll literally run an entire mile to the hospital together. When you arrive, the doctors will fill Jackie in on what’s happening and the two of you will go to your daughter’s room, where they’ll be prepping her for surgery. You’ll each hug her and kiss her.

Then, you’ll wait.

The next time you’ll see Tiana will be eight hours later. She’ll be asleep, and she’ll have a thick scar down the center of her tiny body where they cracked her chest open. There will be staples holding the scar closed, like a zipper.

Beneath that scar will be her new strong, beating heart.

Now, as I write this in 2016, Tiana is eight years old. She plays basketball. She plays soccer. She does gymnastics. In fact, she’s probably the strongest one in the family. She’s one tough kid — never cries about anything.

She’s our little miracle.

charles-tillman-family-shoot-4Charles Tillman

Through Tiana’s heart transplant, you’ll learn that you have more strength than you ever knew. You’ve had a lot of help in your life, Charles. You’ve been strong for yourself, and you’ve had others be strong for you.

But until Tiana, you never knew what it meant to be strong for somebody else.

And remember what I said about praying for Tiana? It will be so confusing because, for Tiana to live, another child will have to die.

Well, that child will be a young boy, baby Armando. And his sacrifice — along with the strength of his mother, Magali, who will make the decision to donate his heart so that another child can live — will show you a level of selflessness that you didn’t know was possible. From that moment forward, everything you do through your foundation will be inspired by Armando and Magali, and your whole life will become focused on what you can do for others.

You’ll never be able to pay them back.

So instead, you’ll try to pay it forward.


Now, I told you that you were going to get back to the Super Bowl … kind of.

Let me explain what I mean by that.

You’ll have a long and successful career in Chicago, Charles. Twelve years, a couple of Pro Bowls and a Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award for your work off the field.

But at some point, you’ll have to move on. And rather than call it a career after 12 years in 2015 you’ll sign with the Carolina Panthers as a free agent. You’ll bond instantly with your new teammates; you’ll pick up right where you left off on the field — playing at a high level — and the team will start the season 9–0, the best record in the NFL.

Then, in Week 10, you’ll suffer a knee injury. When the MRI comes back, it’ll show a partially torn ACL.

Notice I said “partially” torn.

You’ll have a choice to make: Go to injured reserve and end your season … or try and come back to help your team secure the No. 1 seed in the playoffs and make a run to the Super Bowl. The problem with the second option is that there will be a possibility that you could tear your ACL completely and be done for the year.

Now, it’ll be your first season with that team. You won’t owe those guys anything. You would be well within your rights to shut it down, focus on yourself and get your knee right before taking the field again.

But there will be a culture in Carolina that will make you think otherwise — a culture that you’ll buy into. And in addition to that, there is a group of 52 guys in the locker room who will have bought into you, too.

So after missing four games to get the swelling down, you’ll decide to return to the field, because you’re all in and you want to win a Super Bowl. Not for Charles Tillman, but for the rest of the guys. For Roman Harper, Kurt Coleman, Thomas Davis, Luke Kuechly … those names don’t mean anything to you now, but believe me, they will. These are guys you’re going to want to go out there and fight for, and they’ll fight for you, too.

In Week 17, your ACL will finally give out and tear completely, sending you to IR for the rest of the season. But those guys will keep pounding — all the way to the Super Bowl.

Now, you know I’m not one to swear, but you’re gonna feel like shit standing on the sidelines and watching. You’ll feel even worse when the Panthers falls short.

You’ll wish you could have been out there with them to help, or to go down with them. But you’ll never regret your decision to play hurt. Because in football, you don’t play for yourself, Charles. You play for the person next to you.

So when you get to that point, and you have to decide whether to shut it down or keep playing and risk tearing your ACL completely, get back out there and play for your teammates. Even though you now know that it will mean not playing in the Super Bowl. It’s the right thing to do.

That’s what I did, and I’d do it again if I had the chance.

ap_953049918858Greg Trott/AP Images

Truthfully, you’ll have only one regret from your entire playing career.

No player in NFL history has ever forced 40 fumbles and intercepted 40 passes. There is no 40-40 club.

Well, when you decide to retire from football after that 2015 season in Carolina, you’ll have 44 forced fumbles and 38 interceptions. And the one thing that will eat at you — maybe for the rest of your life — is that you’ll know that there were at least two interceptions that you dropped in your career that would have gotten you to that 40-40 milestone.

So whatever you do, when the ball hits your hands, squeeze it, man.

Just two more….

One year into your retirement, which is where I’m writing you from today, you’ll be completely at peace. Yeah, you’ll miss the game and you’ll miss the guys, but you’ll have Jackie, your son, Tysen, and your three beautiful daughters, Talya, Tiana and Tessa, and you’ll get to spend more time with them than ever.

So work hard, Charles. Remember what your old man taught you: Think before you act. Remember what you learned as a military brat moving around all the time: Be comfortable being uncomfortable. Remember to take advantage of the opportunities that are given to you. (Seriously, two more interceptions, dude … you can do it!)

And always remember that you will become what you think about. So think positive. If you do, you’ll have a blessed life.

Go get ’em, Peanut.