SAN JOSE, Calif. — Charles Tillman has only one accomplishment left to chase.
Tillman, who was drafted in the second round out of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette in 2003, has been to the Pro Bowl twice, been named an All-Pro once, named the Walter Payton Man of the Year in 2013 and been to the Super Bowl. In 13 seasons, Tillman has forced 44 fumbles and picked off 38 passes, putting together the kind of career that may leave him just shy of the Hall of Fame but establishes himself as one of the best cornerbacks of his era.
All he’s missing is a ring.
“That’s the last thing on my checklist,” Tillman said. “Winning the Super Bowl. Pro Bowls, All-Pro, there’s a lot of cool things I’ve done from an individual level, but I think the ultimate goal, why we play this game, is to win a Super Bowl. That would seal it right there.”
The only problem is that Tillman won’t be able to do anything about it on the field Sunday.
Tillman tore his ACL in the regular-season finale, forcing him to watch this playoff run from the sideline. When the ACL tore, the injury didn’t come as a surprise. Tillman had been playing with a partial tear in the ligament since November.
But even with that, he wasn’t about to leave the lineup, not with Carolina rolling along undefeated and a chance at the sport’s ultimate prize still in his sights. Tillman, who spent 12 seasons in Chicago with the Bears before rejoining Ron Rivera in Carolina this season, has been to the Super Bowl only once, dropping a 29-17 decision to Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts nine years ago.
“I knew there was a chance of me tearing it, but again, you never know when you’re going to make it to the Super Bowl,” Tillman said. “At that point in time, we had a great shot. And did I know it could possibly tear? Yeah. But I’m all in. I’m in for my teammates. If it was going to tear, hey, so be it. But if it could help us get to this point right now, I’d do it 10 times out of 10 times.”
Tillman is also the rare teammate who can still help the Panthers’ playoff run while standing on crutches.
During Carolina’s two blowout wins in the playoffs, Tillman could be seen on the sidelines, waving his crutches and cheering wildly as his adopted defense produced turnover after back-breaking turnover to roll into the Super Bowl.
The crutches are gone this week, and Tillman has spent his Super Bowl week doing everything he can to get the Panthers ready for the Peyton Manning challenge he faced with the Bears.
“I’m slightly disappointed that I’m not playing, but at the same time, I’m enjoying the process with my teammates,” Tillman said. “Just trying to be the best teammate I can be, whether it’s getting water, getting some towels, running errands, helping cats out on the sideline, coaching them up. Whatever I can do.”
Bringing in a veteran like Tillman rarely works to perfection in today’s NFL.
But Tillman is much more valuable than just his spot on the field, where he started 12 games opposite breakout star Josh Norman at cornerback. When Carolina signed Tillman in the offseason, the Panthers instantly added a strong presence in the locker room.
“Peanut has been a leader since day one,” Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson said. “When you have a guy that’s been through so much, and he sees everything, and from experience, he knows a lot, you can’t do anything but take his advice, listen to the guy and just follow him, because he’s been there and done that.”
Tillman also brought his nose for the football to a Panthers defense that has produced an NFL-best 39 turnovers in the regular season and nine more in the playoffs. Always a ballhawk, Tillman is partly famous for the hacking motion he uses to strip the football from opposing ball carriers, a move that has its own name.
“When he came, he brought leadership, he brought personality,” Panthers safety Tre Boston said. “The famous Peanut Punch, that helped us lead the league in turnovers.”
If Carolina beats Denver on Sunday, Tillman’s checklist will be complete. He turns 35 at the end of this month, and Carolina signed him to a one-year deal, leaving his future a little uncertain.
But Tillman doesn’t sound like he’s thinking about retirement right now.
“I still love this game, and I’m green,” Tillman said. “When I say I’m green, meaning, I’m always wanting to learn something else. I’m always wanting to learn more. That’s how I view myself. ... Right now, my whole focus has been getting this ACL right.”
Even if he gets a ring this season, there’s no harm in chasing another one.