By Billy Watkins
Lewis Tillman couldn’t figure out what he had done wrong.
In his first two games as a rookie with the New York Giants in 1989, he rushed for nearly 150 yards against the New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs. But then he didn’t get a single carry in the third exhibition game.
His head coach, the rough and rowdy Bill Parcells, pulled him aside in the locker room the next week.
“He asked me ‘What’s going on with you? You seem down,’ ” Tillman recalls. “I said, ‘Coach, when I don’t get a chance to run the ball at all, I pretty much know what that means — I’m about to get cut. I just need some more chances to show you what I can do.’
“He looked at me and said, ‘Son, you’ve already made this team. I just need you to keep it up on special teams. But if I find out you’ve told one person, I can always change my mind.’ Man, I didn’t tell a soul — not even my mama. But I was walking on my toes for the rest of camp. I was some kind of happy.”
Tillman has made another team — the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame’s Class of 2023. The induction ceremony is set for Saturday at 7 p.m. at the Jackson Convention Complex.
Other inductees are: Linebacker Jeff Herrod (Ole Miss); Pitcher Paul Maholm (Mississippi State); Magee native John Mangum (defensive back who played at Alabama); Jim Page (player and coach at Millsaps); Carol Ross (basketball player and coach at Ole Miss); Tony Rosetti, a world champion marksman; and defensive back Patrick Surtain (Southern Miss).
“I’ll be honest, I’d just about given up hope of getting in,” says Tillman, who grew up in Hazlehurst. “But I’m very grateful to have been chosen this year and to know that my name will be in there with so many great athletes from Mississippi.”
Tillman, 57, is a story machine. He spits them out one after another.
He talked of his recruitment out of high school: “I wasn’t highly recruited. You know, coaches can look at this and that, but there is no way they can tell what’s inside a man — his heart, his competitive nature.
“I’d received a few letters from Ole Miss and Mississippi State. Jackson State had told me they wanted to sign me, and I was like, ‘OK, that’s cool.’ Well, I didn’t hear a word from them that morning or afternoon of signing day. I knew they’d signed some other players and one of them was a running back.
“Finally, a Jackson State coach showed up at our house about 9:30 that night and signed me. It must’ve been like the coaches were talking and somebody said, ‘Wait a minute, did anybody go sign Tillman?’ I’m just glad they finally realized it.”
So is JSU. At 6-foot, 204 pounds, he rushed for 3,989 yards and surpassed Walter Payton’s school record. Tillman helped lead the Tigers to three SWAC championships and one co-championship.
He gave pro scouts a little extra to consider by winning the MVP awards of the East-West Shrine game and he Blue-Gray all-star game.
The Giants selected him in the fourth round of the 1989 draft.
“Four running backs went in the first round that year and Barry Sanders was one of them. I think all four were underclassmen,” Tillman says and begins to laugh. “They should’ve thought more of their education and stayed in school. Maybe I would’ve gone a little higher.”
In five seasons with the Giants, he rushed for 1,406 yards and five touchdowns. He was stuck behind standouts O.J. Anderson, Joe Morris and Rodney Hampton.
Tillman made his money on special teams. He even made a little extra.
“We had this thing where you would get $100 for making big plays on special teams — stuff like making a tackle inside the 20 on kickoffs,” Tillman says. “There would be days when I walked out of our special teams meeting with $600 in my pocket.
“And Coach Parcells was always there to hand out the money. It was his way of showing how much he valued special teams.”
Tillman won a Super Bowl ring in 1991 with the Giants, and he also was a teammate of defensive end/linebacker Lawrence Taylor, one of the greatest in NFL history.
“It amazed me that he was able to dominate the league when he wasn’t really that big (6-3, 240),” Tillman says.”But he was so strong.”
Tillman signed with the Bears in 1994 and led them in rushing with 899 yards. He retired after injuries plagued him the next season.
One of the people Tillman wishes could be there Saturday night is his JSU head coach, the late W.C. Gorden.
“He was a nicer version of Bill Parcells,” Tillman says. “One year, I sorta needed some discipline. He brought me and a teammate into his office and talked to us. And then he made us spend the entire practice walking around the track holding hands. We didn’t mess up again.
“And to this day, I listen to smooth jazz, just like Coach Gorden. He had a tremendous impact on me.”
Tillman lives with his wife, Kathy, just north of Dallas. They have two grown children, Tricia and Lewis Jr.
And Tillman recently retired after 18 years in coaching — from Madison Central to Texas Southern to Mississippi College to Callaway and Jim Hill.
“Helping kids, that was a calling from God,” Tillman says.
Football came with a price tag. Tillman has undergone two back surgeries, three knee surgeries and one on his ankle.
He channels his drive to compete into cycling now. “It’s easy on my body and when I’m on my bike I don’t think about anything else but riding,” he says. “I ride four days a week and I look forward to every one of them.”