June 2nd 2015
Last year, when the Chicago Bears came to town to play the Philadelphia Eagles, celebrated Bears cornerback Charles Tillman wasn’t on the field for the pregame warm-up.
Instead, injured and not required to even be on the East Coast, Tillman was at Ruth’s Chris Steak House with a group of students from Camden’s UrbanPromise school. The evening was about more than a good steak. It was important to Tillman that the teens place cloth napkins on their laps and start with the outermost fork.
“There are stereotypes about Camden, and my goal is to have these kids prove them wrong,” he says. “I’m trying to give them culture so when someone looks at them and doubts them, they can say, ‘I may be from Camden, but I’ve been in nice places. Don’t look down on me.’”
Tillman, 34, and his wife Jackie have been supporters of UrbanPromise since 2007, when Jackie saw Diane Sawyer’s 20/20 special “Waiting on the World to Change,” which highlighted the organization.
“My wife was hooked,” Tillman says. “She told me about what she saw and how she felt we could do something about it. We could help them out, be a part of this. The next day we called and said, ‘What can we do?’”
The Tillmans sponsor UrbanPromise students, assisting with tuition and covering education-related costs even after their beneficiaries head off to college. Their hands-on work with the school has brought them to Camden several times over the past few years. Their most recent visit was at the beginning of this year, when the couple spent time in the city and hosted a breakfast with students.
It may seem strange that Tillman – an Army brat who attended 11 schools all over the world before college at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette – would champion staying in one place, but that’s his one hope for many of UrbanPromise’s students.
“One of the best things that happens is kids who’ve been there since they were 2 or 3 grow up, graduate and end up coming back to work for UrbanPromise,” Tillman says. “This cycle is really what Jackie and I are drawn to and what we want to support. My thought process is if you can get a kid early enough – pull them into your life and teach them leadership, respect and hard work, that’s the recipe. Those kids go out and learn, then come back and teach. They’re telling students, ‘Hey, I stuck to the plan, stayed on the path, and now I have a degree and I’m the vice principal.’ It takes time, but that’s how things get better.”
The faculty at UrbanPromise is one of the things Tillman finds most impressive about the school, and he hopes to see the model replicated in as many cities as possible.
“After coming to Camden, seeing the community and meeting the students, I can say UrbanPromise isn’t like any other school I’ve ever seen,” he says. “It’s so much more than a job for these teachers. They choose to be here because they want to be, because they love these kids and are passionate about what they do. Some of them left really high-powered positions to come and teach in Camden, where they probably make way less money. I think these kids know that, and I think that helps them understand how much they matter.”
Tillman, drafted by the Bears in 2003, recently signed a one-year deal with the Carolina Panthers after being plagued by injury during the past two seasons.
In his 12 seasons with the Bears, the 6-foot-5-inch defenseman has played in two Pro Bowls and was first-team All-Pro in 2012. That’s no surprise, considering he holds the league record for most fumbles forced in a single game (four, against the Tennessee Titans in 2012). He also owns the Bears’ franchise records for most defensive touchdowns, most interception-return touchdowns and most interceptions by a cornerback.
More meaningful to Tillman than his player’s stats are the awards and recognition he’s received for his work in the community. The NFL standout has long been involved in philanthropic efforts. Since 2005, his Cornerstone Foundation has been working to improve the lives of chronically ill children in Chicago. The Tillmans’ dedication to that cause became even more poignant in 2008, when their 3-month-old daughter Tiana was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy and received a heart transplant. In 2013, Tillman’s work for his community, and communities like Camden, earned him the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award, for which he’d been nominated in 2007 and 2011.
Despite the accolades, Tillman remains humble. His goal is simple: he wants to use his personal experience to help kids find a path to success.
“I just try to have some kind of positive influence,” he says. “I was blessed and fortunate to have both parents in my house growing up, and they taught me manners and respect. I traveled and got to know other cultures. I had a great life, and I want all other kids to have that. I don’t have to know you to care about you. I want you to succeed just like I want my own kids to succeed.”
Tillman attributes his attitude of commitment and perseverance to a college football coach who became one of his earliest mentors.
“Our coach would always say, ‘Football is the game of life,’ and at the time I didn’t know what the hell he meant,” Tillman says. “We probably won six games my entire college football career. We had guys who quit, because they couldn’t take losing. The coach would say, ‘Let’s say you’re in construction and you get laid off; your kids don’t care that you lost your job – they want to eat. You gonna quit on your team? You gonna quit on your family?’ That’s when I thought, ‘Damn, this really is the game of life.’”
Now when Tillman meets with student groups, he says the conversation typically begins with questions about his football career and with young people asking how they too can make it to the NFL. He’s unflinchingly honest with his audience and manages to impart life lessons while speaking about the game.
“I’m real with them,” he says. “I say, ‘I was your age once. I liked to go out and party and kick it, but I knew when to grow up.’ I talk about decisions and consequences, and I make no bones about how hard it was to get where I am. If you’ve got 1.2 million high school kids in the U.S., only about 79 of them are going to make it to the league every year. It’s like walking through the rainforest without any rain touching you. It’s not impossible, but it’s hard. If you want to succeed at anything, you have to do the work. Sometimes you’ll fail, but you can’t be discouraged by failure. You have to get up and keep working. If you work hard early in life and pay that price, the reward is sweeter in the end.”
It’s a message he’s shared with the students at UrbanPromise, who continue to impress Tillman every time he visits.
“There are high school seniors building an airplane,” he says. “They’re working with retired airline pilots. The 10th graders are building canoes. Teenagers from the poorest city in the country are building airplanes and boats, getting ready for college and becoming really incredible people at the same time. I feel blessed that I get to do my part and help these students and their families, but this not about what I’m doing. This is about what Camden is doing.”
By Kate Morgan
Photography by David Michael Howarth