Haugh: Tillman’s high school coach planted ball-punch seed

(MCT) — CHICAGO — Turnover Tuesday at Belton (Texas) High School football practice this week figures to begin with a story coach Rodney Southern hopes will resonate with players as well as his words once did with Charles Tillman.

Now that Tillman publicly gave him props, Southern will tell his team before its weekly ball-stripping drills about the day 13 years ago he gave the future Bears cornerback a tip he later turned into an art form.

“We practice the same things every week, but mentioning ‘Peanut’ should get their attention, especially after Sunday,” Southern said Monday over the phone. “What an amazing year.”

If Belton High players don’t believe Southern played a role in helping Tillman become one of the best ball-punchers in NFL history, he can cite Tillman’s postgame comments after four more forced fumbles against the Titans. Asked the umpteenth question about when he developed such a knack for knocking the football loose, Tillman — for the first time longtime observers could recall — related a specific conversation he had with Southern his freshman year at Louisiana-Lafayette.

It happened Nov. 20, 1999, after Tillman’s team needed overtime to beat Wofford 37-34 in the season finale. Southern had been in his home state of Louisiana and decided to go watch Tillman and visit buddy Gary Bartel, who was Tillman’s position coach. The defensive coordinator at Copperas Cove (Texas) when Tillman attended, Southern felt comfortable enough to offer some constructive criticism after his former player endured a long day.

The Ragin’ Cajuns’ stat sheet credited Tillman with 20 tackles, nine solo, suggesting he made many plays downfield on receivers who had caught passes. On several Wofford receptions in front of Tillman, Southern recalled the cornerback “was coming in from behind or the side and they had the ball exposed where he could have punched the ball out.”

He didn’t. So after the game, Southern simply shared his observation in a playful way.

“He came to a game and he told me, ‘You know, you could have forced a lot of balls out if you could just punch it,’ ” Tillman recalled in Nashville, Tenn., pausing slightly for effect. “Light bulb!”

From that moment, dark days loomed for wide receivers who dared to carry the ball loosely against the cornerback who committed his career to popping it loose. By now, Tillman intuitively reacts to a tucked football as the voice in his head provides a sense of Southern comfort. Just punch it.

Given the upcoming schedule, no team will command more national attention in the next two weeks than the 7-1 Bears. At the center of it all will be a midseason NFL defensive player of the year candidate who struggles to grasp people’s fascination over how he makes it so hard for ball carriers to keep their grip.

“I don’t think it is difficult,” Tillman said of what T-shirts call the “Peanut Punch.” “It is always on my mind. I am very conscious of it. I speak it. I believe it. I practice it. It happens.”

Every student goes to college hoping to hone a skill. Tillman, who won only nine games in four seasons at Louisiana-Lafayette, had plenty of practice on bad teams perfecting the act of punching the football out of a player’s arms — though patent rights still trace back to Copperas Cove.

“Every defensive coach preaches it, but we really coached it when Charles was there,” said Southern, coaching in his 27th year. “He had long arms and was athletic with big hands. I remember a playoff game where one of Charles’ ball punches swung the momentum.”

It seems each week Tillman produces a similar memory for the Bears, who emphasize the takeaway under Lovie Smith even more than Tillman’s prep defensive coordinator. Since 2003, Tillman’s 36 forced fumbles rank second behind Robert Mathis of the Colts. Of the top eight players in the category, only Tillman plays defensive back — why teammates speak with reverence and in a historical context.

“I’m like everyone else,” Smith said Monday. “I’m amazed too.”

From a fundamental standpoint, the most amazing aspect of Tillman’s unique talent might be it seldom compromises his tackling ability. Securing tackles appears as instinctive as stripping the ball, something reinforced from the first time Tillman poked a football out of an enemy’s arms.

“Charles may not say it, but we taught him to secure the tackle first,” Southern said. “But at their level, as fast as those guys are moving, sometimes you take a chance and punching the ball out is going to work.”

Since getting some good advice from an old friend one day 13 years ago, nobody in the NFL has made it work any better than Tillman.