With time running down on the game clock, the Vikings had driven into the red zone and were poised for a comeback victory, or at least a game-tying field goal to send the contest into overtime.
Minnesota quarterback Daunte Culpepper took a snap from under center and lobbed a fade pass to Randy Moss, who was in the midst of one of the most dominant stretches by a wide receiver in NFL history.
Moss leaped up in the back right corner of the end zone and snatched the ball out of the air. Yet as he came down, a little-known rookie cornerback named Charles Tillman grabbed the football and ripped it out of the Hall-of-Fame receiver’s hands, preserving the Bears victory.
It was Tillman’s coming-out moment, one that precluded the greatest career of any cornerback in franchise history.
Tillman was drafted in the second round (35th overall) in 2003 out of Louisiana-Lafayette and started 13 games as a rookie. He was a big, tall cornerback (6-3, 198) who was aggressive and fearless on the field.
During his heyday, Moss routinely had his way with opposing cornerbacks, yet Tillman was fearless against one of the greatest receivers to ever play the game. After that, he quickly earned a reputation as one of the top shutdown cornerbacks in the NFL.
Even well into his 30s, Tillman still had the ability to lock-down the best wideouts in the game, including Detroit’s Calvin Johnson, one of the most-physically dominant receivers of all-time.
Tillman was an intelligent, vocal leader on the field, and was one of the main cogs of Lovie Smith’s defense during the Super Bowl run in 2006. He was an instinctual player who always rose to the occasion in the biggest games and at the biggest moments.
Yet the most impressive aspect of his immense skillset was his penchant for creating game-changing turnovers.
Tillman ranks third in franchise history with 36 interceptions, first in interception return yards (675) and holds team records for defensive TDs (9) and INT return TDs (8). He started 152 of 156 career games played, recording 957 tackles, 36 INTs, 113 PBUs, 42 forced fumbles, 3.0 sacks, and 8 fumble recoveries. His 42 forced fumbles since 2003 are the most in the NFL.
He ranks tied for fifth in the NFL overall and tied for third among cornerbacks in INTs since his rookie season. His nine defensive return TDs are tied for fourth most in the NFL since 2003 and his 8 interception return TDs are tied for second most. His 957 tackles since 2003 are the most in Chicago’s secondary and rank third on the Bears trailing only Brian Urlacher (1,779) and Lance Briggs (1,501). He stands as Chicago’s active leader with 113 career PBUs after leading the team in 2003 (10), 2006 (11), 2008 (16), 2009 (7) and 2011 (13) and tying for the team lead in 2007 (5) and 2005 (18).
Despite his year-in, year-out production, Tillman was routinely passed over for Pro Bowl consideration his first eight seasons. Yet in 2011 and 2012, during which he combined for seven interceptions and 14 forced fumbles, he was awarded back-to-back trips to Hawaii.
Even more impressive than his on-field accolades has been Tillman’s efforts off the field, which have earned him numerous league awards, including the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year (2013), the Ed Block Courage Award (2009) and the Salute to Service Award (2012). He’s also a three-time winner of the team’s Brian Piccolo Award (2003, 2008, 2013), voted on by his teammates.
Based on his statistics, his service to the team and his substantial impact during a long stretch of defensive brilliance under Lovie Smith, Tillman is hands down the top cornerback to ever play in the Windy City. When you add in the work he’s done through the Charles Tillman Cornerstone Foundation, which helps children in need, one could make the case for Tillman as the greatest Bears player ever, no matter the position.
New Bears brass informed Tillman months ago his time in Chicago, which includes just 10 games played the last two years combined, had come to an end. He’ll now finish his career in Carolina but he’ll always have a special place in the hearts of Bears fan.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fifth season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter.