Commentary

Heart of the matter

Bears' Tillman a leader on field and in push to publicize life-saving technology

Originally Published: October 28, 2009
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

One can imagine all kinds of activities Bears players took part in on their off day Tuesday.

Staying in bed with the shades drawn, covers over their heads is one. Perhaps a day-long massage to put them into a heightened state of relaxation. Or a mindless video game marathon.

Charles Tillman had other business to attend to, flying to Washington, D.C., with his wife Jackie.

Tillman called it his "little speech to Congress" but he obviously appreciated the gravity of the trip. Eighteen months ago, the couple's daughter, Tiana, was born with a form of cardiomyopathy, a weakening of the heart and its pumping system, that would require a heart transplant. Keeping the baby alive until a donor heart was available, Tiana became Illinois' first recipient of the Berlin Heart, a computerized device located largely outside the patient's body that helps the heart function.

"It was disbelief, it was shock, it was 'whoa,'" Tillman said of his reaction when his newborn daughter was diagnosed, news that had Bears coach Lovie Smith pulling the veteran cornerback off the practice field to tell him that the baby was being rushed by helicopter to Children's Memorial Hospital.

The purpose of his trip to Washington, Tillman explained, was to make Congress aware of the newest medical technologies and the smaller companies manufacturing them to improve and, in many cases, save the lives of patients such as Tiana.

Charles Tillman
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesBears cornerback Charles Tillman "is a great leader. He keeps us together when we're down," rookie safety Al Afalava said.

"Going to Washington, it was a good experience, a first-time experience," Tillman said. "I saw the world's smallest heart pump, [the approximate size of a pen cap] and it works, it saves lives. It saved a pregnant woman and her baby."

It is clear that giving up 10 passes for 118 yards and two touchdowns to Chad Ochocinco in the Bengals' whitewash of the Bears on Sunday was at least several thousand miles away.

"I wasn't thinking of the Bengals game," Tillman said. "That was in the past once I was in Washington. What I do on the field is on the field, and once I'm off the field, it's family time or it's something to do with something else."

But on the practice field Wednesday, Tillman was engrossed in conversation with coaches and teammates, staying longer to do a little one-on-one work with receiver Rashied Davis.

"That's an everyday thing, just trying to get better," Tillman said.

Obviously, there is plenty of that required from every phase this week if the Bears are to avoid a potentially fatal downward spiral. All day Wednesday, when they weren't avoiding the media altogether, they talked about correcting the many mistakes evident on Sunday.

"We're young but that's not an excuse because we've got a great leader," rookie safety Al Afalava said. "Charles Tillman is a great leader. He keeps us together when we're down."

Tillman's profile is high on the Bears and beyond because of Tiana. If the Bears are to rebound, it will be because of leaders like Tillman and Lance Briggs and Jay Cutler. And if the world is to learn of the Berlin Heart, it will also be because of a certain Bears cornerback, though he does not like the message that sends.

"That's the thing that sucks about the situation because there are plenty of parents out there who have similar stories who could share them, but I think people aren't as interested in them just because of maybe what they do," Tillman said.

"I met a couple moms out there and I told them, 'You should be speaking. Your stories are just as good as mine.' What makes mine better? Just because I play football? I don't think so. It's sad that just because of what I do and who I am that people want to listen more. That shouldn't be a factor. If you have a good story, I think everybody should listen."

Waiting for Tillman on Wednesday were all three of his kids in costume -- "I think [Tiana's] a cat, my son's a dog and my other daughter's a mermaid," he said. "But I'm not in charge of costumes."

Full pads, dirt caked, Tillman was off to clean up and make it to the team Halloween party. Football was done for the day. His baby is healthy. And for a little while once again, he didn't give a damn about the Bengals.

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

MORE NFL HEADLINES