CHICAGO — Former Bears cornerback Charles “Peanut” Tillman’s life couldn’t be better these days.
His daughter Tiana, born with a life-threatening heart condition, continues to thrive after having a heart transplant. She’s 7 years old now; the only sign of her struggle is the scar on her chest that inspired the nickname her father gave her, “Zipper.”
After 12 seasons with the Bears, Tillman scored a second life in the NFL as a starting defensive back for the still-undefeated Carolina Panthers.
And this month, Tillman’s kid-friendly biography “The Middle School Rules of Charles 'Peanut' Tillman” — a collection of life lessons the two-time Pro Bowler learned before was a famous athlete as told to former Bears beat writer turned author Sean Jensen — hit bookstores nationwide.
But when you ask Tillman about Chicago, the city where he was born, well …
“It pisses me off,” he said.
“I get so mad at reading there were 75 shootings over a weekend. It’s so bad you get numb to it. It’s like, ‘Last week there were 100 [shootings], this is just 75.' Maybe that’s a good thing. … It’s a war zone. There’s a war out there. Kids are scared. There’s a baby dismembered in Garfield Park. Come on, man. That’s not the Chicago I remember. It’s a beautiful city. We’ve got great culture. We’ve got great people.”
In some ways, “The Middle School Rules” speaks directly to Chicago kids navigating the harsh realities of urban life here.
In the second installment of the “Middle School Rules” brand illustrated biographies — the first book highlighted former Brian Urlacher’s childhood — Tillman and Jensen focused on coming-of-age lessons the NFL star learned growing up in a military family that lived near army bases in Chicago, Louisiana, Texas, California and Germany.
“We wanted to write a book that’s geared toward kids. I was a kid. I’m from the South Side [of Chicago]. I lived on the South Side. There were things that happened to me in childhood,” Tillman said.
“I had my struggles — and not all my struggles were on the South Side, let me make that clear — and some of those struggles kids can identify with. … We wrote the book for kids who are dealing with real things I dealt with … their parents divorce. They’re dealing with death.”
Death. Tillman touches on that subject in Chapter 18, a story that aims to explain how Tillman first learned about grieving — “It’s OK for a man to cry,” his father, a soldier, told him — when “Uncle Charlie” from Chicago died.
But there’s more to the story than what’s in the book, details kids in violent parts of Chicago can relate to: Uncle Charlie was shot and killed, Tillman told me.
“He was a victim of gun violence. He got shot in a drive-by. He got murdered on the South Side. That happened when I was in seventh grade,” Tillman said. “And it’s only gotten worse in Chicago.”
Overcoming loss and failure, whether it’s getting demoted to the junior varsity basketball team or the end of his parents' marriage, Tillman’s “Middle School Rules” all seem to stem from a lesson his parents beat into him — sometimes literally, according to the book.
“Think before you act. That’s the main thing from my dad that always stuck with me every time a situation happened,” Tillman said.
“‘CDC,’ dad would say, ‘Choices, decisions and consequences.’ Whatever situation you’re in there’s always a choice. You gotta make a decision. And there’s always going to be a consequence. For me, hopefully I’m on the right side of the consequence, the decision that I’ve made.
The book offers plenty of examples of how vital that advice was to Tillman during his globetrotting childhood, including a chapter titled, ‘Fireworks in Germany.' ”
Tillman was 11 years old the night his pals from the Army base scored a backpack filled with Roman candles and invited “Peanut” and his brother “Duck” to join them for a makeshift fireworks show.
Remembering his father’s advice, Tillman thought about worst-case scenarios — injury, arrest and, possibly worst of all, facing the wrath of his father.
He told his brother, “We better not go.” And they didn’t. The next afternoon, Duck ran home with news: The boys stuck fireworks in car tailpipes, shot colorful balls of fire at houses and got busted by German police.
“The guys made a bad choice. … And I was like, ‘Man I’m glad I stayed back. And I stayed back because I was more scared of my dad than I was the cops,” Tillman told me.
“I did bad stuff. But when I did bad things I feared my parents. I mean feared, terrified of my parents, my mom and dad when I did things wrong. Maybe there’s not a lot of that today.”
Tillman wishes more kids were afraid of their parents.
Heck, the NFL player wishes more people would live by the mantra from his boyhood — “choices, decisions, consequences” — especially after hearing about the execution-style murder of 9-year-old Tyshawn Lee and the lack of cooperation police have received to catch the boy’s killer.
He wishes for more Chicagoans to do the right thing, for kids’ sake.
“I still got people on the South Side. I feel like people in these communities have the voice to take back your streets. … Let’s be real, you know who’s doing the dirt in the neighborhood. You know who is doing the bad stuff and doing the shadiness. You know what’s going on. You have power, you have a voice,” Tillman said.
“When a white police officer kills a black person there’s a huge protest. Yet, there’s a 9-year-old kid who got executed and people know who did it, they just don’t want to say nothing. People know who killed this kid or people might have an idea or they might have a tip [for police]. Whether there’s a reward or not — do the right thing. Make the phone call. Get this person who killed this kid. They need to go to jail. They need to be behind bars. I get mad about that. We have an opportunity. … We’re all important. We all matter. I’m not trying to be a snitch, but man if you know somebody killed people, that person doesn’t need to be on the street. … I don’t look at it as snitching. That person is killing people, man.”
“Sorry. … I just get so mad,” he said.
Tillman said he has empathy for police officers patrolling violent parts of town.
“I’ve been around police officers, and what they have to go through to patrol these streets, it’s dangerous,” Tillman said.
But he also is well aware of the long-standing mistrust of police in the African American community fueled by generations of racism, segregation that manifests itself in racial profiling and wrongful prosecution. The reasons some people say witnesses, good people living in war zones, won’t cooperate with police investigations.
Indeed, Tillman has encountered racial profiling many times in his life, and included in the book the lesson he learned the first time he was targeted by authorities due to the color of his skin.
While Tillman, his brother and a few of his African American friends stopped to visit a white girl from school who lived in a California subdivision filled with big houses with wide yards, six white police officers arrived and ordered the boys to “get on your knees and put your hands behind your head.”
Tillman’s arms and knees were sore when the police finally let them go. He and his brother sprinted home and told his parents. The news made their mother sad. She knew about racial profiling but never brought it up because she thought the boys were too young to encounter it themselves.
His momma told him that day, “When police come to you don’t do anything to make the situation worse. Keep your cool. Get a badge number, and come tell us when it’s all over. We’ll help sort it out.”
Today, Tillman thinks of that unfair confrontation with police this way, “You never win in the moment. You win in a courtroom.”
And you win by standing up for yourself, people you care about and the community you live in, Tillman says just before our chat ends.
“Some people choose not to say something [about a crime they witness] because they fear for their life. I get it. Maybe they don’t want to be labeled a snitch. Man, we could talk about this all day,” he said.
“There’s a lot to say about the violence in Chicago. I get so mad when I hear there have been 700 shootings in two months. We’re killing ourselves. … It can be avoided. It really can.”
For Tillman, the secret to overcoming obstacles boils down to his father’s best advice: “Think before you act.”
“That’s what I want kids to get out of this book,” Tillman said. “Make the right choice.”
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