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Grateful Peanut Tillman leaves a legacy with some punch to it

Bears cornerback Charles Tillman forced this fumble by Vikings wide receiver Randy Moss in the Bears' 24-14 victory at Soldier Field in 2004. It was one of 44 fumbles forced by Tillman in his 13-year NFL career. (Jeff Roberson/AP)

Charles “Peanut” Tillman is leaving the NFL with few regrets (“I was two picks away from being the first one to make the 40-40 club”), a cheery disposition (“Y’all don’t look so sad. Good Lord! This ain’t a funeral.”) and a unique legacy as an NFL playmaker — the “Peanut Punch,” which produced 44 forced fumbles in his 13-year career.

“It’s cool,” the two-time Pro Bowl cornerback said of being known for the Peanut Punch. “A lot of people ask me how I came up with it. I was not Brian Urlacher. I’m not Lance Briggs [or] Thomas Davis or Luke Kuechly. I don’t hit like those guys, so I’m just going to separate the man from the ball the best way I know how and that’s not with my shoulder pads, that’s with my fist. I did it a couple of times in college, it carried over into the league and 44 forced fumbles later, it was a patented move.”

Unfortunately for Tillman, not officially patented.

“I don’t know who coined the name,” he said. “I wish I had gotten into some of that [Peanut Punch] stock so I could have reserved the right to use that for myself. But it worked out and I’m very blessed that people recognize that and I was able to leave my mark on the game of football.”

Tillman’s first forced fumble actually was on special teams — against 49ers punt returner Jimmy Williams in Tillman’s NFL debut in 2003 — which long-snapper Pat Mannelly recovered. Among Tillman’s victims were some of the best players in the game — Adrian Peterson, Randy Moss, Marvin Harrison, Brett Favre, Frank Gore, DeSean Jackson (twice), Chris Johnson and Marshawn Lynch.

Even when players knew it was coming, they were unable to avoid getting “punched.” Tillman got Packers receiver James Jones on back-to-back touches in 2007. He got Lions tight end Brandon Pettigrew twice in a span of three plays in 2012. He had four in one game against the Titans in 2012. In all, 24 of his 42 forced fumbles with the Bears became takeaways. Teammates from Mannelly to Mike Green to Adam Archuleta to Anthony Adams to Chris Conte recovered Peanut Punches. Tillman got three himself. So did Brian Urlacher. Hunter Hillenmeyer and Adewale Ogunleye recovered two each.

The 35-year-old Tillman, a second-round draft pick from Louisiana-Lafayette in 2003, did much more than force fumbles, of course. In 12 seasons with the Bears, he was one of the cornerstones of a Bears resurgence under Lovie Smith that included back-to-back NFC North titles in 2005-06, a Super Bowl berth in 2006 and a berth in the NFC Championship Game in 2010. He had 42 of his 44 forced fumbles and 36 of his 38 interceptions with the Bears, plus nine defensive touchdowns.

In his rookie season in 2003, Tillman’s end-zone theft from the Vikings’ Randy Moss — at the peak of his powers as the best receiver in the game — in the final minute that save a 13-10 victory and signaled the coming of a new era.

Tillman had a game-turning 95-yard interception return against Brett Favre and the Packers in a 19-7 victory in 2005. Tillman’s 40-yard fumble return for a touchdown sparked the “Miracle in the Desert” against the Cardinals in the glorious 2006 season. He blocked two punts in 2007, including one that Corey Graham returned for a touchdown in a 35-7 rout of the Packers. And he made the Pro Bowl in 2011 and 2012.

But as proud as he is of his accomplishments, Tillman was even more appreciative of the people who helped put him in position to make it happen. “The man you see today, I didn’t do this all by myself,” he said. He thanks his parents, his relatives, high school and college coaches and supportive friends and fans. He thanked Dwayne Joseph, the Bears’ director of player development when Tillman was a rookie in 2003, for instilling in him that “you’re the president of Charles Tillman, Inc.” He thanked the staff at Halas Hall, Bears fans, his family and his foundation.

And he was most effusive in his appreciation for his coaches and teammates with the Bears. He knows he was the beneficiary of near-perfect timing, coming to the Bears a year before Lovie Smith, with Brian Urlacher in his prime and Lance Briggs and Tommie Harris among others on board. It’s unlikely he would have been as impactful elsewhere.

“Absolutely not,” Tillman said. “Lance Briggs, Brian Urlacher, Israel Idonije, Tommie Harris, Alex Brown, Big Toe [Matt Toeaina], Stephen Paea, Phillip Daniels, Anthony Adams … Nathan Vasher, Mike Brown, Chris Harris — I could name a whole slew of guys. Julius Peppers. They helped me become a better football player. I did none of this by myself.”

Tillman gave former defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli (2009-12) credit for building defensive lines that made Tillman’s job easier. But it was Smith’s Cover-2 defense — which was in its hey-day in Tillman’s prime but has gone out of vogue in recent years — that had the biggest impact on Tillman’s career.

“Things happen for a reason,” Tillman said. “When coach Smith came here, the Tampa-2 was a great defense for me. It fit my strength. Coach Smith was all about turnovers. That was our history. That’s what this organization was built on.

“I’m not saying people don’t care about offense here, but it was really built on defense. When you think about the Chicago Bears, you think about defense. And that’s what we had. If you have to do a top-10 defense in the last 50 years, the Chicago Bears would be on that list. I’m just glad to have my name associated with greatness.”

Tillman, who won the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year Award in 2013, won’t be idle in retirement. He plans on doting on his four children. He will be a commentator on Fox’s pre-game show, “Fox NFL Kickoff” this season. Asked if he was interested in coaching, he quickly replied, “Absolutely not. Coaches, they work too hard, man.”

He has heard talk about the Hall of Fame. Tillman is a long shot, but is comfortable with being a sure-fire Hall of Very Good inductee.

“People bring [the Hall of Fame] up,” he said. “But whether I get in or not, I think I left my mark on [the game]. I’m happy with both my career and what I’ve been able to accomplish. If there is one regret, it’s that I wasn’t the first one to make the 40-40 club [40 forced fumbles, 40 interceptions]. I was two picks away. That was a goal of mine that I fell short. Other than that, I have no regrets at all.”