CHICAGO – Zack Bowman had no time to ask questions.
The Bears defense was about to take the field halfway through the second quarter, and Charles Tillman was beyond gassed. All Tillman had done in the first four series was pick off two passes and weave downfield on a wild 41-yard interception return.
Now, Tillman reportedly was suffering from dehydration on the sidelines.
“We had punted the ball,” said Bowman, who is Tillman’s backup. “And when I came off to the sidelines from the punt, it was like, ‘Hey, you’re in.’ I was like, ‘OK.’
“I didn’t ask any questions because, at that point in time, I’ve got to switch my mind. They said that he was going through a little something. I didn’t know it was.”
Hmm. I think it rhymes with curling and starts with an h.
On the next series, Tillman came back.
Eventually, so did the Bears.
No player symbolized the Bears’ 24-21 win against the Cincinnati Bengals more than Tillman, the greatest cornerback in franchise history. In a span of three hours, Tillman and Bengals star receiver A.J. Green traded so many knockout-caliber blows that the only things missing were Don King and a square of canvas.
Tillman jumped Green’s route to pick off a pass by Andy Dalton. Green dazzled with a double move that bordered on bullying. Tillman recovered with another takeaway on a pass that Green let slip. Green stretched the field with unfair speed.
By the end of the game, reporters were ready to hear from the winning veteran.
But Tillman’s locker was empty.
On its top shelf sat an empty green cup with a Gatorade logo. On a steel rod dangled three plain white hangers. On a bench, for some reason, rested the Bears Gameday magazine with a photo illustration of Jay Cutler on the cover.
Tillman was sick. Tillman was gone. But Tillman’s teammates were talking.
“I hope that not just people watching the game on television but the people in this organization know what kind of player No. 33 is,” Bears linebacker Lance Briggs said in a not-so-subtle nod to Tillman’s expiring contract. “He battled an elite receiver. … To get the ball out and create turnovers and get interceptions and stuff like that, that’s what we’re all about, and Peanut is the pinnacle of it.”
Perhaps playing at a high level is like playing at a high altitude.
You play your heart out on the field. You get sick on the sidelines.
Take it from Bears cornerback Tim Jennings. There’s no shame in the struggle.
“We all have,” Jennings said. “And Peanut, he’s been battling that his whole career.”
So in came Bowman. Jennings moved across the field to try to cover Green.
“I didn’t know what [Tillman] was going through physically,” Jennings said. “But I just know he wasn’t out there. Guys knew that. And Cincinnati knew that.”
Yes, they did.
Eight plays and 91 yards later, the Bengals had grabbed a 14-7 lead. Green beat Jennings deep down the right sideline and hauled in a 45-yard pass for the score.
Jennings said the series was a struggle without his Pro Bowl counterpart.
“That’s just the impact he has on the secondary, man,” Jennings said. “We definitely don’t want him out in situations like that. Good thing it wasn’t serious. He just had to catch his wind, and he came back out there and made some plays for us.”
He missed some, too.
“It’s going to be like that,” Bowman said. “[A.J.] gets paid on the other side of the ball, too. He’s a good player.
“Peanut is going to win some battles. A.J. is going to win some battles. At the end of the day, you’ve just got to keep fighting, and that’s what Peanut did.”
After the game, Green heaped praise on Tillman. Green finished the game with nine catches for 162 yards and two touchdowns, and it’s scary to imagine what he might have done against a less talented defender.
“[He’s] good,” Green said. “[He’s] a great corner, man. Very crafty. Probably one of the best in the game. One of the best I’ve went up against.”
Bengals left tackle Anthony Collins shook his head at Tillman’s perseverance.
“I was just telling my teammate [Domata Peko], he’s good,” Collins said. “He’s a ball hawk. Everything they write up on him is true. And I’ve seen it first hand.”
We all have.
We’re pretty spoiled.
• Northwest Herald sports columnist Tom Musick can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @tcmusick.