From get-go, Charles Tillman ‘quintessential player’

SHARE From get-go, Charles Tillman ‘quintessential player’
SHARE From get-go, Charles Tillman ‘quintessential player’

Drafting Charles Tillman took hustle and Bustle.

In 2003, Louisiana-Lafayette head coach Rickey Bustle — who had experience with stars as a major-college coordinator — told the Bears his cornerback was the greatest player his staff had ever been around.

“He wasn’t just talking about from an athletic standpoint, but the whole package,” former Bears GM Jerry Angelo said after Tillman ended his 12-year Bears career Thursday by signing a one-year deal with the Panthers. “How he conducted his business off the field; how he approached the game; his preparation; obviously, what he did on the field.”

That led the Bears to select Tillman with the 35th overall pick of the 2003 draft.

“He was the quintessential player,” Angelo said. “We felt very fortunate getting him where we did. His career speaks for himself.”

If he wasn’t the best draft pick of Angelo’s 10-plus-year tenure, he was a close second; the team’s very next selection, in the third round, was Lance Briggs.

As the Bears’ new regime prepares for its first draft, lessons learned from finding Tillman are worth repeating.

“We put him in the first round, but we put him in, a lot, on traits,” said Greg Gabriel, the Bears’ former director of college scouting. “Teams were drafting big, tall corners and moving them to safety.”

Chris Ballard, then the Bears’ southwest area scout, “did an excellent job scouting Peanut,” Gabriel said. A dozen years before Ballard would be a finalist for the GM job that went to Ryan Pace, he did more than track Tillman — he sold his bosses on him.

“Chris loved him,” Angelo said. “And did a great job of representing him to us.”

The Bears were interested in Illinois safety Eugene Wilson — who the Patriots would select with the very next pick after Chicago’s — but preferred Tillman.

“We liked (Tillman’s) workout,” Angelo said. “Other people saw the same thing we did. I don’t think anybody loved him.”

Angelo could overlook that Louisiana-Lafayette’s level of competition wasn’t on par with LSU — or, he said, even Tulane. Tillman’s knack for turnovers wasn’t apparent in college; he’d yet to develop the “Peanut Punch.” The Bears didn’t have enough film to be sure he’d shine at cornerback, but knew they could always move the 6-2 Tillman to safety.

“I’m not sure that if we didn’t play him at safety that he would have been one of the finest safeties to ever play the game,” Angelo said. “I think that really was his most natural position.”

Before drafting Tillman, Angelo thought back to Bustle’s endorsement.

“Not the best athlete, not the best hitter, not the smartest player,” he said. “The best football player …

“Talent creates the feeling of a player, and he had good talent. But character determines if he’s going to get to it and if he’s going to have a career, and that’s what we look at.

“When we invest in draft picks, we want players that certainly have talent, but ones that are going to have careers, relative to their talent. That’s what we saw with him. What was not to like? He was big. He was smart.

He was fast. He was athletic.

“When you do your hit chart in evaluation, he rates high in every area.”

He proved it quickly, Gabriel said, working on his footwork and turning himself into a corner. He won over coach Lovie Smith, who Gabriel said early on wondered if the front office should trade him.

Tillman should get Pro Football Hall of Fame consideration, Angelo said, but admitted he won’t. For one, he said, Tillman only made two Pro Bowls.

In the end, Angelo said, Tillman’s old college coach was right.

“So I’m going to say, probably 12-13 years later, the same thing Bustle said,” Angelo said. “Best football player we had.”

Contributing: Mark Potash

Email: pfinley@suntimes.com

Twitter: @patrickfinley

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