Charles Tillman's introduction to the national stage came on December 14, 2003. On an overcast afternoon at Soldier Field, Tillman – then a rookie second-round pick from Louisiana-Lafayette – went head-to-head with the best wide receiver in the NFL at that time, Randy Moss of the Minnesota Vikings. Chicago was up 13-10 with a minute to go in the fourth quarter, but Minnesota had possession on the Bears' 10-yard line. Everyone in the stadium knew where the ball was going.
On 2nd-and-Goal from the 10, Vikings quarterback Dante Culpeper threw a pass that sailed high into the endzone. Moss – standing 6-foot-4 – leaped and snared the ball with both hands. At the same time, Tillman – at 6-foot-2 – also rose off the ground. The rookie cornerback reached his left arm in and snatched the ball away from the All-Pro wideout, before securing it with his right arm and falling to the ground. The interception secured the Chicago victory and showed the rest of the NFL that the Bears had a turnover machine lining up at cornerback.
With Charles Tillman announcing his retirement, ChicagoBears.com takes a look back at the two-time Pro Bowl cornerback's illustrious 13-year NFL career.
Nearly 13 years later, Tillman is leaving that stage. On Friday, he agreed to a 1-day contract with the Bears in order to retire as a member of the team. Tillman played his first 12 professional seasons in Chicago, before playing the 2015 season with the Carolina Panthers. He finished with his career with 38 interceptions and 44 fumbles forced in 168 games.
"One of my best memories is that Minnesota game – it was the game that really put me on the map," Tillman said during a press conference at Halas Hall. "That game really showed the world that I could play with anybody. I know when I came from Louisiana when I got drafted, there were a lot of people who said, 'Who the hell is Charles Tillman? What school is that?' So I had a chip on my shoulder, because I was this young kid who no one knew about."
Over the years, opponents and fans learned who Tillman was. He became one of the league's top players at his position, earning two trips to the Pro Bowl. His 'Peanut Punch' tactic to knock the ball out of offensive players' hands became a patented move and a driving force in helping the Bears defense become the gold standard in taking the ball away from opponents. And he was a key player on three NFC North division champions and started in Super Bowl XLI.
He also did a lot off the football field. Tillman was named the 2014 NFL Walter Payton Man of the Year, named after the legendary Bears running back, for his community service work. In 2005, he launched the Cornerstone Foundation, which works to help the lives of critically and chronically ill children. The work hits close to home for Tillman, after his daughter, Tiana, was diagnosed with a dilated cardiomyopathy before receiving a life-saving heart transplant as a three-month old in 2008.
"To all the Charles Tillman fans that have supported myself, my family, my foundation – I'm honored that this many people want to hear from me – I really appreciate that," Tillman said during his press conference. "I've left my mark. I'm happy with my career and what I've been able to accomplish."
Tillman never sought out the spotlight much as a player and he did the same in saying goodbye. He listed his only career regret as not grabbing two more interceptions so that he could be the first player in NFL history in the 40/40 Club with that many interceptions and fumbles forced. Instead of praising himself, he thanked Bears fans who cheered him on, coaches who supported him and several teammates who made him the player he was.
"It wasn't just me making those plays out there," he said. "You have to look at the guys I had beside me helping me out. Mike Brown, Chris Harris, Alex Brown, Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs, Tommie Harris, Nate Vasher – all those guys who I played with, they made me a better player. I'm not shutting down (former Lions wide receiver) Calvin Johnson by myself. We shut down Calvin Johnson."
When it was over, Tillman posed for a photo with his family, holding a Bears helmet and casting a big smile. He plans on being a stay-at-home dad this fall, helping coach his daughters in basketball, while also working as a football analyst on Fox.
"Don't look so sad," Tillman said. "I'm just retiring from football, not life."