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To Charles Tillman, only the home game matters

TianTillman 3 checks out kitchen cabinets. A look Chicago Bears' Charles Tillman home with his family. He has fundraiser Morton's

Tiana Tillman, 3 checks out the kitchen cabinets. A look at Chicago Bears' Charles Tillman at home with his family. He has a fundraiser at Morton's in Northbrook to benefit his Cornerstone Foundation. His story was highlighted on Oprah, because his daughter needed a heart transplant when she was six months old, and the Tillman's met the mother who donated her son's heart. Photographed on Wednesday, October 12, 2011 in Green Oaks. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

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Updated: January 23, 2012 3:39AM

Bears cornerback Charles Tillman is talking in the living room of his north suburban home when he notices his 3-year-old daughter, Tiana, on the marble countertop in the kitchen, rifling through a cabinet.

‘‘What is she doing?’’ Tillman says. ‘‘I’ve never her seen her
do that.’’

It’s a mischievous moment for Tiana, the middle child of Charles and Jackie Tillman. But the Tillmans are thankful for each day, each milestone, even the naughty ones, because Tiana defies the odds to even be alive.

When she was 3 months old, Tiana was diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy, a disease of the heart that slows the pumping of blood to the body. The Tillmans still vividly recall the months they spent at Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago, where Tiana nearly died several times while awaiting a heart transplant.

‘‘It changes everything,’’ Jackie says. ‘‘What you think is important is far from important.

‘‘For us, it gave us a new purpose. Otherwise, everything she went through — and we went through — was for nothing.’’

So on Monday, Tillman’s Cornerstone Foundation will host a celebrity dinner at Morton’s The Steakhouse in Northbrook. Tillman and his teammates, including Anthony Adams, Lance Briggs, Matt Forte, Johnny Knox and Matt Toeaina, will don aprons and serve appetizers, dinner and drinks to guests. Proceeds will benefit the many programs Cornerstone hosts, from holiday parties to luncheons for mothers of critically and chronically ill children, as well as Charles’ Locker, which provides numerous electronics and gadgets to families during hospital stays.

‘‘There’s a lot of hospitals in Chicago,’’ Charles quietly says, ‘‘so we’ve got a lot of work to do.’’

The test

Life couldn’t have been much better for Charles Tillman in the spring of 2008. He was preparing for his sixth NFL season, and he was the proud father of two daughters: Talya, then 3, and newborn Tiana.

During a routine checkup, the Tillmans’ pediatrician noticed that Tiana was ‘‘breathing funny,’’ but an X-ray didn’t raise any alarms. But later on, Tiana stopped eating and started screaming, requiring a trip to the hospital and pulling her father off the practice field at Halas Hall.

Everything from there was a blur until one of the doctors pulled Tillman aside.

‘‘ ‘Look, I’m going to tell you because I think you can take it,’ ” he recalls the doctor telling him. “ ‘But there’s a chance your daughter might not make it through the night, so if you need to call someone, or get them on a plane, they need to say their goodbyes now because it’s not looking good.’ ”

The usually cool Tillman panicked.

Tiana wasn’t crying, but her heart rate was 220 beats per minute, more than three times normal, and her tiny heart was double in size.

Tillman felt helpless.

‘‘As a man, your No.  1 job is to be that security provider for your family, and there wasn’t anything I could do,’’ he says. ‘‘And that right there hurt me more than anything.

‘‘I’ve had four surgeries, and I’d do anything to take this pain from her. But it definitely wasn’t in [God’s] plan.’’

Tiana was transported from the north suburban hospital to Children’s Memorial, where the Tillmans would spend the next few months, even renting an apartment nearby so they could take turns resting during the nights.

The couple endured what Tillman calls ‘‘a roller coaster.’’

‘‘People always say, ‘I don’t know what I would do if I lost my child.’ But, hell, I didn’t know what I was going to do,’’ he says. ‘‘You just react. You get this extra boost of energy. From where, I do not know.’’

Unforgettable day

Tillman, though, was true to his personality.

He and Jackie have known each other since they were in eighth grade together in Copperas Cove, Texas. They were friends first, initially meeting in a history class for gifted students, and they remained friends even after Jackie moved with her family to an Army base in Germany.

The two didn’t become a couple until Tillman’s second year in the NFL, and both were reluctant to take that step.

‘‘It was a little scary at first because we were such good friends for so long,” Charles recalls. ‘‘If this doesn’t work out, then I lose a great friend.’’

But they married, and during their most trying time, Jackie admired a few of the traits she loves most about Charles: his strength, his humor.

Even in the dark times with Tiana, he remained upbeat, sending regular updates to family and friends with comical anecdotes about the nurses and other patients and families at the hospital.

But he admits that’s the most vulnerable he’s ever been, especially on Father’s Day.

On June 15, 2008, he ran in a 5K charity event at the hospital. Later that night, Tiana was progressively getting sicker, and doctors decided to give her a drug that paralyzed her. She was lifeless, with an assortment of tubes running in and out of her.

‘‘That sucked,’’ he says. ‘‘I said, ‘This has to be the worst Father’s Day ever.’ ”

In the hospital, the Tillmans were motivated to move from room 218 to 201.

‘‘That’s the room you want to be in,’’ Charles says of 201. ‘‘That’s the, ‘I got my organ room,’ and ‘I’m going home room.’ ”

Given her grave state, Tiana was No. 1 on the donor list, and Tillman finally received a phone call from his doctor in July. They found a heart in Minnesota, and they were rushing it back to Chicago for an immediate transplant.

‘‘The hardest thing was, it’s the best day and the worst day at the same time,’’ Tillman says. ‘‘Yeah, my daughter gets to live. But
not-so-yeah, someone else’s kid has to die.’’

After eight hours of surgery, Tiana headed to room 201.

Precious moments

In January, the Tillmans headed to Harpo Studios in Chicago, where they would film an appearance on Oprah Winfrey’s show. It was more chaotic than usual because first lady Michelle Obama was there with her full security team, and Tillman was trying to rein in his son, Tysen, backstage.

On a big screen, the narration of his story came on, and he saw the faces of the people to whom he’s forever indebted.

He hadn’t known anything about the donor: whether it was a boy or a girl, black, white, Asian or Hispanic.

But then he saw a picture of baby Armando and his mother, Magali, and sister, Akary.

‘‘I was frozen,’’ Tillman says.

After the show, the two families headed to dinner. The next day, Magali and Akary visited the Tillmans at their home. They wanted Magali to see Tiana in her element, acting ‘‘goofy and funny,’’ Charles says.

They stay in touch and will continue to, the Tillmans both say.

‘‘I feel I need to do it,’’ Charles says. ‘‘She saved my daughter’s life. They’re a part of this family.’’

Tiana is healthy now, but her body could reject her heart at any time. Her immune system also isn’t as strong, so she may need weeks to recover from a common cold that her brother and sister may beat in days. She spent a lot of time in a hospital last year.

As a result, the Tillmans embrace the present.

‘’Don’t waste a day,’’ Charles says. ‘‘That’s one of the biggest things I’ve learned. Enjoy the precious present. It’s a gift.’’

To that end, he traded in his Bentley for an RV, which the family can drive to visit family and friends in California and Texas. And when his workday ends during the football season, he races home to push his children on the swings in the backyard, guide them on their bikes and scooters in the driveway or cook a healthful dinner.

Their favorite meal by Daddy? Chicken that he pounds and marinates with Grey Poupon mustard, among other ingredients, and grills.

“We’re just like your typical, everyday, average family,’’ Tillman says.

But they never forget.

Before bed, the Tillmans gather to pray. Their eldest, Talya,
often adds her own special prayer.

‘‘Thank you for my sister’s new heart,’’ she says. ‘‘Please keep Armando’s family safe.’’

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