There is solace to be found in discomfort, Aaron Tiller knows that.
Southern’s senior defensive end has made a career out of seeking the edges of his physical limitations and, through force of will, pushing past them. He ranks third among active Football Championship Subdivision players with 29.5 career sacks, and he has not achieved that because of extraordinary gifts.
That is not to call Tiller’s talent ordinary, but the thing that separates him was not bestowed upon him by nature. It was earned, out there on the edges where he turned a deaf ear to misery and kept going.
“That’s the biggest reason — his effort. ... It doesn’t matter who we play against. He’s going to show up and play extremely hard Southern coach Dawson Odums said.
The effort Tiller displays on the field was forged through life’s experiences.
Take an 18-year-old from Columbus, Ohio, plop him down in the middle of a sweltering Baton Rouge summer, let him figure out how far away he really is and guess how long it takes before he starts to miss the cool weather and nights spent in the company of family.
As a freshman, his mind was consumed by fighting on three fronts; school, football and the persistent tug of homesickness — even though his older brother, Trae, had just finished his playing career at Southern.
Aaron struggled to deal with it for several months until it hit him: Like it or not, this was how it was going to be.
“It’s either sink or swim, and I’m not going to sink for nobody,” Tiller said.
To Southern senior quarterback Austin Howard, the best version of the Jaguars has yet to appear.
Tiller sought the comfort of home.
Hundreds of miles away, he found it in work.
“I made up for it by doing stuff I love to do in the weight room,” Tiller said. “I’d make myself feel more comfortable by working. Working makes me feel more comfortable.”
There was something familiar to Tiller about throwing himself full-bore into something difficult when something felt amiss.
He arrived at the realization that home is not only a place, but is also where the heart gets tested.
Effort, for Tiller, is familial.
“We don’t have no choice,” Tiller said. “There’s been times where stuff around the house hasn’t been right, and all we know is work.
“When things aren’t how they’re supposed to be, we come together as one. ... It’s a way of life. It’s effort, and I can put that into anything I do in life.”
Effort is also exhaustible. It requires fuel in the form of motivation.
Tiller can always count on his mother, Tara Rollison, to provide that fuel if his effort is not at the maximum level. The same goes for his father and his grandmother.
On the rare occasions when Tiller is clearly not playing with the reckless abandon he has become known for, his family lets him know about it.
“We’re his biggest critics,” Rollison said. “If nobody else would do it, we had to, to get him motivated.”
The criticism is never biting, though. The message is always grounded in positivity. The goal has always been to illuminate the light on the path that leads Tiller to the best version of himself.
“They instilled all this in me and it would be wrong for me not to give it back to them,” Tiller said.
There’s a renaissance taking place on the Bluff.
He has come a long way since those days in his freshman season when he was unsure if he made the right choice to go so far from home.
He found comfort in the discomfort brought on by hard work. He pushed himself to his limits, then past, discovering he might be able to translate that onto the field.
Tiller led the Southwestern Athletic Conference in sacks as a freshman, then nearly repeated as the league leader in sacks a year ago. Through six games as a senior, he leads the SWAC again with six sacks.
Yes, Tiller is a special talent. But natural ability, he said, is something he keeps in his “back pocket.”
“Instead of being your main punch, your talent is a counter,” Tiller said. “Your effort is something they’ve got to deal with all game. All throughout your life, anybody that’s got to deal with you has got to deal with your effort.”
Growing up, Rollison said Tiller was usually one of the smaller players on the field — something that is often still true for the generously listed 6-foot-1, 265-pound Tiller.
“After being told he was undersized for so long, he had to find a way to prove someone wrong,” Rollison said.
Tiller found it.
“Heart beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard,” Tiller said. “If you’ve got the effort, the heart and the talent? You’re something serious. You can’t be stopped.”
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