The Bears won, but linebacker Lance Briggs was heartbroken. As riveting as the 28-20 victory against the 49ers was in Week 2, there were tears for cornerback Charles Tillman.
“I was hoping so much that the MRI [exam] the next day would come out negative,” Briggs told the Sun-Times.
But it didn’t.
Tillman had a ruptured triceps and was put on injured reserve. That game on Sept. 14 could go down as the last game Briggs and Tillman play together.
It’s all part of an unceremonious end for two of the greatest Bears ever. On Nov. 28, Briggs joined Tillman on IR with a groin injury.
“Twelve years ago, we never thought that we’d start our first game together,” Tillman told the Sun-Times. “It’s been a little silly that we’re both on IR and we ended the same way. It’s not how I planned on ending my career in Chicago.”
It’s an end of an era.
Tillman and Briggs, who were drafted in the second and third rounds, respectively, in 2003, are the longest-tenured current Bears.
“We didn’t bring the championship home to Chicago like we should have,” Briggs said. “But we have a lot of great memories. I feel a lot of Chicagoans will remember a lot of great games. It definitely is an end of an era. … But it was a great era in my mind.”
Inspired by ‘The Predator’
Tillman and Briggs made their first start on the same day, Oct. 5, 2003, against the Raiders. But Briggs’ pregame speech emerged years later.
Briggs, being a movie buff, was influenced by “The Predator,” in particular the scene in which Sgt. Mac made his final stand against the alien assassin.
“It’s not an exact line,” Briggs said. “I tweaked it a little bit.”
Tillman can recite it nearly word for word: “I love Susie. She’s so sweet to me. She’s got everything that Uncle John needs. I’m going to have me some fun. Whoo, I’m going to have me some fun.”
A quote from “The Karate Kid” occasionally was added. But Briggs’ Predator bit became a tradition at the urging of linebacker Brian Urlacher, and it grew to include sound bites from other players. Even mild-mannered coach Lovie Smith loved it.
“He would do that every game as we were walking out that tunnel,” Tillman said. “It was always cool to hear him say that because we would get fired up.”
Briggs and Tillman started 147 regular-season games together, and the Bears went 84-63 (.571). They combined for 52 interceptions, 61 forced fumbles and 15 return touchdowns.
From 2005 to ’12, when Tillman and Briggs were in their primes, the Bears’ defense led the NFL with 281 takeaways (the Patriots were next with 247). In 2012, they became the first teammates to score defensive touchdowns in consecutive games.
But they have other favorite memories.
For Tillman, there was the time Briggs ran down Eagles quarterback Michael Vick on a bootleg in Philadelphia on Nov. 7, 2011.
“I didn’t know he was that fast,” Tillman said. “Everyone was teasing him like, ‘Damn, you’re that fast. You’ve been holding out on us. This is Year 10. Nobody knew you were that fast.’ ”
For Briggs, it was Oct. 30, 2005. Tillman returned an interception 22 yards for the game-winning touchdown in a 19-13 overtime victory against the Lions.
“It was a walk-off interception,” Briggs said. “Lovie sprinted from our sideline all the way to the other side where ‘Peanut’ was. We are all jumping.”
Tillman and Briggs were inseparable. In 2004, they started their pregame routine of jogging around the field together and running each other through position drills.
They sat next to each other on the team plane and always rode the same team bus. Tillman kept Briggs up to date on current events. Briggs controlled the music in the locker room with his expansive tastes and was the jokester.
“It’s rare,” Tillman said. “I found a great friend. It was an honor, a privilege. I’ve learned so much from him. I hope he says the same thing about me, the dummy.”
Briggs did learn from Tillman in the toughest of times. The hard-hitting linebacker learned the meaning of true strength when Tillman and his wife were dealing with their daughter’s heart condition in 2008.
“He was coming in and out of practice at that time,” Briggs said. “It was heavy on his heart. Visiting him in the hospital and seeing his wife in tears and at the point where you’re just kind of cried out, she didn’t have tears to cry.
“What I learned is how strong they are, how strong he is as a man and how much stronger they are for the situation. Those are the situations that define human beings, the toughest situations.”
Peanut’s feared hold
Briggs and Tillman will miss plenty about each other, even the most annoying things.
“When [Tillman] wants to be annoying, you can’t stop him,” Briggs said. “If he knows you’re sensitive about something or catches you off on a day, he’s going to ride you.”
Briggs’ most ticklish area is around his neck. Tillman learned that from Briggs’ mother.
It made him a target for the feared “Peanut Headlock.”
“Sometimes I would sit in my locker and before I could make any moves, he would try to choke me out,” Briggs said. “When I’d tell him to stop, of course, he won’t stop.”
Tillman would wrestle his teammates all the time, and he would wait for the right moments to pounce.
“He would wait until [defensive lineman Israel Idonije] was laying down in the locker room, and then he would put Izzy in a headlock,” Briggs said. “He would put Brian in a headlock all the time.
“The guy he was wrestling or trying to choke out, they were pissed off, but everybody else in the locker room, [they] were falling down laughing.”
That said, Tillman knows what he’ll miss about Briggs.
“That dumb laugh,” Tillman said before imitating it.
Briggs said Tillman had it coming from the veterans during their rookie season because he didn’t bite his tongue. Former defensive tackle Ted Washington put Tillman in a laundry bin and made him act like he was driving.
“While Ted is pushing him around, Charles is making car sounds and spinning the wheel like he’s holding a steering wheel,” Briggs said. “He does this for a couple of minutes before he crashes him into the wall and Charles falls.”
On the field, there was the season when Tillman’s “Peanut Punch” forced at least one fumble every day in practice.
“It was unbelievable,” Briggs said.
And there were Briggs’ woes at practice, a chuckling Tillman said.
“Lance will tell you that he’s not the best practice player,” he said. “He’ll even admit that. I’ve never seen anyone who just for whatever reason is just not good at practice. That’s Lance Briggs. If you’d watch him on film at practice, um, no. Game time? He’s a lights-out player.”
But Briggs had his stance.
“It was like the picture-perfect linebacker stance that you’re supposed to have,” Tillman said while trying to mimic it. “[Former linebackers coach Bob] Babich would come over and say, ‘Lance is going to have a good game. I saw the stance. He’s ready.’ ”
They aren’t done, despite spending the last two seasons dealing with injuries. This might be the final chapter of their Bears careers with their contracts expiring, but they want to keep playing.
Much left to offer
“Charles should be remembered as the best cornerback to play for the Bears,” Briggs said. “There is no cornerback that has done the things that he’s done.”
“Mike Singletary, Brian Urlacher, Dick Butkus,” Tillman said. “You can put him in that category of all the other greats.”
Spending the last four games together on the sideline, Briggs said he would call out plays and Tillman would pick out routes.
And they were right more often than not.
“I’m like, there’s no way we can stop playing this game,” Briggs said. “We know way too much. We understand way too much. I don’t see a reason why we have to stop playing this football game when you have too much offer.”