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Fencik appreciates Tillman's ball skills
March 20th, 2013

Charles Tillman Cornerstone Foundation, prolanthropyWhen it comes to Charles Tillman’s record-breaking career, one Bears season-ticket holder has a unique perspective—and it isn’t only because he sits in the stands behind the team’s bench.

Gary Fencik, a Chicago area native who played 12 seasons with the Bears from 1976-87, has regularly watched Tillman from his seats near the 40-yard line on the west side of Soldier Field.

“[Tillman] has had a great career with the Bears,” Fencik said. “I think that fans certainly appreciate his contributions and are amazed by his ability to strip the ball. I don’t think there’s been a Bears defensive player who has perfected that technique like Charles Tillman.”

After playing wide receiver at Yale University, Fencik was selected by the Dolphins in the 10th round of the 1976 NFL Draft. After getting cut by Miami, he joined the Bears and became the team’s starting free safety, a position he held for a decade.

Fencik was voted to two Pro Bowls and captained the famed 1985 defense that helped lead the Bears to their first Super Bowl championship. The Barrington native remains the franchise’s all-time leader with 38 interceptions, ahead of Richie Petitbon (37) and Tillman (33).

“It’s longevity,” Fencik said of the record. “You look at guys coming into the league and there have been some great safeties and corners I played with and I’ve watched. It’s just a matter of them staying healthy, staying in the league long enough and staying with the same team.”

Unlike former NFL great Eric Dickerson—who made it clear last season that he didn’t want Vikings star Adrian Peterson to break his single-season rushing record—Fencik would be just fine with Tillman eclipsing his Bears career interception mark.

“Hopefully I’m not like Eric Dickerson,” Fencik said with a laugh. “I think that it would be great. Someone’s going to break it, and if I had to pick, Charles Tillman would be a great representative to hold it for the next 20 or 30 years.”

Appearing in 164 games with 140 starts, Fencik averaged one interception every 4.3 games. His single-season high was six in 1979 and again in 1981, and he had five picks in 1984 and 1985. Fencik returned one interception for a touchdown, a 69-yarder, in a 1981 win over the Broncos.

Playing in 146 games with 142 starts, Tillman has averaged one interception every 4.4 games. At that pace, he would break Fencik’s record in the 11th game of the 2014 season. Tillman’s single-season high is five picks, set in 2005 and matched in 2006 and 2010, which happen to be the last three years the Bears have won the NFC North championship.

Tillman owns the Bears career record with eight interception return touchdowns. He brought back all three of his picks in 2012 for TDs, fueling road wins in Dallas, Jacksonville and Arizona. 

“His season last year kind of reminded me a little bit of Mike Brown’s fantastic year [in 2001] when every time the Bears needed an interception returned for a touchdown, he was there,” Fencik said. “I think Charles had a similar year last year.”

Tillman’s ball skills, of course, extend well beyond his ability to intercept passes. His 10 forced fumbles in 2012 tied for the most in the NFL since the league started tracking the statistic in 1991, and increased his career total to 39, the most by any player since Tillman entered the NFL in 2003.

“He has very good field awareness,” Fencik said. “He’s a veteran player and he has a presence on the field. He seems to always be there when you need him.”