Charles Tillman’s stride was confident as he moved toward the bright stage – unfazed by the shower of compliments from the Dove Men + Care executive at the podium.
His braided hair bounced as he skipped a stair and hopped gracefully onto the stage – entering the awaiting spotlight.
Tillman took in the applause welcoming him like any celebrity would. He certainly looked the part.
My smile broadened as the crowd roared. After all, my father grew up in the Chicago suburbs and I have cheered for the Bears my entire life.
I cried when Chicago’s 1985 team lost to Dan Marino’s Miami Dolphins. I continue to cheer for the Jay Cutler-led squad – even if recapturing prior greatness today seems distant.
Against that backdrop, I certainly looked forward to hearing Charles Tillman speak at the Dad 2.0 Summit in San Diego over the weekend.
“Get a selfie with him,” my 11 year-old insisted as I left for the airport.
“For sure!” I assured him with a wink.
But, I lied – and for good reason.
As I sat listening in my seat – front row, stage right – the big, bad, Chicago Bear corner was not the larger-than-life celebrity that I expected.
Instead, Charles “Peanut” Tillman was a dad, husband, son and philanthropist with an important story to share. A tale grounded by lessons that are longer lasting than any star-gazing selfie.
Lesson #1: “Be comfortable being uncomfortable.”
Tillman was a military kid – often moving from place to place, never staying anywhere for long. One school year, in fact, he spent time in three schools in two countries.
In doing so, he developed an underdog mentality that he never lost. In his words, Tillman was always catching up – whether in cursive writing or math homework.
“Every time, I went home and practiced until I had it,” he explained.
I wondered: Do my children have that internal drive? Have I allowed them to practice such gumption?
Conventional parenting wisdom often emphasizes the importance routine and stability. While there is something to be said for security in a child’s development, Peanut Tillman’s story tells me that disruptions can breed toughness and self-reliance.
Finding themselves unsettled from time to time might force my children to attempt to level their own playing field – even if doing so is an arduous, long, solo climb.
Lesson #2: “Be at your best, on command.”
Tillman was open with the crowd about his six month-old daughter’s sudden need for a heart transplant in 2008.
“They told me, you need to call anyone that needs to see her right now because she may not make it to tomorrow.” Tillman paused as he continued, seeming to remember the emotion he felt at that time so many years ago. “I held it together, though. I was like, ‘Ok, game time!’”
When everything around him was most broken, Tillman found the strength to be at his best.
This idea is the backbone of parenting. The ability to weather any storm, hopefully trivial, but sometimes dire, is critical for dads and moms.
Finding such strength doesn’t require a 6’6” frame or a sub 5.0 forty-yard dash – just as the prerequisite for spreading these lessons is not a lucrative, pro football career.
Inner strength is not reserved for a chosen few – I need to work on this, everyday.
As the keynote speech ended and Tillman straightened his blazer to exit, I no longer saw a football player. I was left watching a dad, simply trying to apply his strengths to fumble through his version of parenthood.
He was us.
I came to hear about the “Peanut Punch” and, instead, witnessed a vulnerable but strong, confident while grounded, famous and inconspicuous slap of fatherly excellence.
The lessons I learned from Charles Tillman are forever etched on my soul. I will remember them always.
So, with apologies to my son, no selfies were required.
About the Charles Tillman Cornerstone Foundation:
The Charles Tillman Cornerstone Foundation is a proud member of the Chicago community and was established to fulfill its mission to provide opportunities and resources to children or their families who are in need.
Learn more about their mission at: www.charlestillman.org