Charles Tillman is known for causing fumbles. The Chicago Bears' cornerback has 25 forced fumbles since 2003, which is the most in the NFL among players at his position. But in 2008, Tillman had his most cherished possession nearly stripped away from him.
Tillman’s then three-month-old daughter Tiana was diagnosed with a rare heart disease. The diagnosis would be fatal unless she received a heart transplant.
“The doctors pulled me aside and said, ‘Your daughter is real sick. She might not make it through the night,’” Tillman recalls in a video posted to YouTube. “It was probably the most horrific thing I’ve ever heard in my life.”
Tiana was placed on the heart-transplant list and three months later, she got the heart she needed, and a second chance at life.
“I’m thankful to that generous family that donated their kid’s organs,” Tillman said in the video. “Her second chance at life has given me new meaning to life. I can see my daughter getting married. I can see he go to prom. I can watch her in her first soccer game. There was a chance I would never get to see that.”
Now, Tillman is devoted to providing sick children all throughout Chicago an opportunity for a better life. Tillman created the Charles Tillman Cornerstone Foundation, which claims to have touched the lives of more than one million Chicago children since 2005.
Tillman’s work with children has given him a reputation as one of the most charitable athletes in the National Football League. He was nominated for the NFL's Walter Payton Man of the Year award in 2005, 2007, 2008 and 2011. He won the Ed Block Courage Award in 2008, Fifth Third Bank’s 2011 Community Leadership Award and was one of only 17 NFL players chosen to be a 2008 NFL Neighborhood MVP for his commitment to the community.
It’s not uncommon for athletes to form charitable organizations that are less than charitable. In an effort to “build their brand,” some athletes are halfway invested in charities that provide little more than parties for celebrities.
But Tillman’s charity seems airtight. He does not have any relatives or girlfriends receiving a salary from the foundation—in fact, no one, not even Tillman, receives a salary from the Cornerstone Foundation, according to tax records.
Last year, the foundation brought in nearly $350,000 in contributions, grants and program-service revenue, according to tax records. The foundation gave more than $115,000 in grants. The Cornerstone Foundation spent a total of $246,196 on program-related expenses, which is 70 percent of its total revenue. Charity Navigator rates the financial stability of charities and notes that an effective charity spends more than one-third of its budget on program-related expenses, which the Cornerstone Foundation greatly exceeds.
The Cornerstone Foundation has five programs related to children in need:
- Charles’ Locker provides critically and chronically ill children and their families with laptops, iPads, DVD players and other electronics to help pass the time during recovery and treatment. The program helps 130,000 children each year.
- Field of Dreams provides sick children and their families with Bears tickets and other sports-related wishes.
- The Holiday Celebration takes place each December and Tillman and his family visit area hospitals to pass out gifts to sick children.
- The TendHER Heart luncheon is a spring program where more than 150 mothers of ill children are invited to attend a brunch, allowing them to take time for themselves and honor their sacrifices.
- The Tiana Fund provides assistance to economically at-risk families in need to improve their quality of life.
Tillman told his story to Oprah Winfrey in 2011, during a filming in which the Tillman family was united for the first time with the mother of the child whose heart was donated to Tiana.
“There’s nothing I can say to thank you enough,” Jackie Tillman, Charles’ wife, said to the donor’s mother. “You gave [Tiana] life.”
“When you have a foundation, and it’s personal…it’s from the heart,” Tillman said at a charity event in 2008. “I’m doing this all for her right now.”