It was a typical Saturday afternoon on the Army base at Fort Ord in California. After a pickup basketball game, middle school-aged Charles Tillman and his brother were hanging out with friends outside the townhome of a girl from their neighborhood.
Another boy showed up and started mouthing off to Tillman, his brother and their buddies, all of whom were black. Tillman said his group yelled back at the boy, a white kid Tillman didn’t know.
Within minutes a police cruiser pulled up, and the cops ordered Tillman and his crew to get on their knees and put their hands behind their heads.
They remained on the ground for 20 to 30 minutes while the cops asked them where they lived and what they were doing, and threatening to call their parents.
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“Oh yeah, call my mom,” Tillman recalls saying. “She’d love to come down here because we didn’t do anything wrong.”
Eventually the officers told the boys they were free to go. When Tillman and his older brother got home and told their mom what happened, she explained racial profiling to her two middle school-aged sons.
“Sometimes the cops are good. There are some bad ones out there. But there are more good ones than bad ones,” Arbria Tillman told the boys.
She said if it happened again, they should be respectful toward the cops and try to get their names or badge numbers.
“I never had any ill will or hatred toward police officers or anything like that,” Tillman said this week. “I think I just grew up a little bit quicker in sixth grade when that particular event happened.”
Tillman, a Carolina Panthers cornerback and 13-year NFL veteran, shares the racial profiling story and other experiences from his youth in “The Middle School Rules of Charles ‘Peanut’ Tillman,” which hits bookstores Tuesday.
Lessons to share
Tillman wrote the book, geared toward young readers, with Sean Jensen, a former NFL beat writer who covered Tillman in Chicago. It’s the second installment in a series that began with “The Middle School Rules of Brian Urlacher.”
Tillman read the book by Urlacher, his former Bears teammate, and thought he had his own messages he could share with kids.
“I wasn’t always Charles Tillman, the NFL player. I was Charles Tillman, the little scrawny, short kid trying to keep up with my brother,” Tillman said. “There are lessons that we all have learned in our lives that have helped us out.”
Tillman’s book touches on adjusting to new schools and surroundings after the many moves he made as the son of a career Army man, coping with the divorce of his parents and learning from the “dumb stuff” he did as a kid.
“This book is a combination of childhood life lessons. I don’t think it’s just one lesson,” Tillman said. “It’s a bunch of different events that we go through as kids, adolescents or pre-teens and we learn from. You can’t be good until you make a mistake. That’s how you become good is after you learn from that mistake. And I made a ton of mistakes.”
‘Think before you act’
Another story Tillman included in the book involved a time he made a good decision.
His family was living in Germany while his dad, Donald Tillman Jr., was stationed on a base near in Pirmasens.
A couple friends had a bag of fireworks and invited Tillman to join them.
“I knew what that meant. Going around throwing them at each other, throwing them wherever – into crowds, thinking it was cool and it was fun,” Tillman said. “My dad used to always tell us think before you act.”
Tillman told his friends to go on without him. Sure enough, his buddies ended up getting in trouble with the police.
Tillman said his father, a staff sergeant who retired after 20 years in the Army, instilled discipline in his two sons.
“In the military when your kids get in trouble your sponsor gets in trouble. And I just knew if we ever got in any trouble with the law, my dad was going to get in trouble from his (commanding officers). And then we were going to get in trouble,” Tillman said. “And I was more scared of my dad than I was police.”
Tillman attended 11 different schools as his dad bounced around bases in the U.S. and Germany, eventually settling at Fort Hood in Texas. Making new friends and learning the ropes at each of those stops wasn’t easy, but Tillman always had his brother, Donald III, to lean on.
Tillman, whose aunt nicknamed him “Peanut” because of the slight point at the top of his head when he was born, recalled a time he was being picked on at one of his new schools.
His brother confronted the bully and said: “Only I can beat him up, not you.”
But the brotherly love was real and could be traced to a rule established by the boys’ grandfather: Family sticks together.
A sense of family
Tillman felt a sense of family when he joined the Panthers during the offseason after spending his first 12 years with Chicago, where he was born in 1981.
“Coming to Charlotte, it was such a warm reception. I knew the team would be great, just receiving me,” Tillman said. “But the way the other wives were so receptive to my wife and communicating and passing along phone numbers and information.”
Kara Olsen, wife of tight end Greg Olsen, and Kelly Davis, who’s married to linebacker Thomas Davis, contacted Jacqueline Tillman and gave her the names of babysitters, nannies and a cardiologist.
“I know some places you hear, ‘We’re team. We’re family.’ Sometimes it’s lip service. But here in Charlotte, it’s not lip service,” Tillman said. “That’s the truth. That’s the attitude. That’s the organization.”
Tillman’s 7-year-old daughter, Tiana, received a heart transplant in 2008 after she was diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy, a condition in which the ability to pump blood is decreased because the left ventricle is enlarged and weakened.
Tiana is doing well but still has her blood checked monthly and visits a heart doctor several times a year. Other than the scar that runs up her chest – her family lovingly calls it her “zipper” – Tiana looks like a normal 7-year-old.
“She’s great. She’s alive and thriving,” Tillman said. “We don’t let her heart transplant hinder her in any way, shape or form.”
Tillman and his wife have three other children ranging in age from 3 to 10. Talya, the oldest, read her dad’s book and enjoyed it.
‘A mentor to guys’
Panthers cornerback Bené Benwikere said he’s waiting for Tillman to give him a copy.
“He’s a guy that’s been through life,” Benwikere said. “He’s also got kids of his own that are around that age. So he’s kind of seen it from two perspectives. Then he’s been kind of a mentor to guys in the NFL for a while.”
Linebacker Luke Kuechly said Tillman’s worldly experiences would make for interesting reading.
“I think he traveled a lot when he was a kid. His dad’s military,” Kuechly said. “I’m sure he’s got stories from all over the place.”
Tillman said his wife asked him how he remembered all the stories to fill 176 pages and 37 chapters, including kid-friendly drawings and an easy-to-read font.
Tillman is finalizing his schedule for signings and school visits to promote the book.
“Fingers crossed,” Tillman said Thursday in the Panthers’ locker room. “I don’t know if you can be a New York Times best-seller with a kid’s book. But hey man, I’m optimistic.”