Bears season-ticket holder Dan Hull always watches his favorite team from the first row in a section that has dubbed itself “The Peanut Gallery,” an homage to cornerback Charles “Peanut” Tillman.
But that’s not why Hull was at Soldier Field Saturday. Hull and about 600 others braved wintry weather conditions to participate in the inaugural Charles Tillman 5K Run/Walk. The event benefitted Tillman’s Cornerstone Foundation, which he and his wife Jackie created in 2005.
Asked why he was there to support Tillman, Hull said: “Charles has just given so much to the city and to the Bears, the entertainment he’s just given playing for the Bears. He’s been fantastic. We sit in the ‘Peanut Gallery’ and he comes over after every game win or lose. He’s just a great man.”
The 5K run/walk was held in conjunction with Universal Sole, a running store with two Chicago locations that often hosts races and fun runs. Tillman was out on the course in the snow and wind and later took center stage, literally, to thank the runners and present raffle prizes that included autographed helmets and footballs as well as gift certificates.
“Charles stole the show,” said Universal Sole race director Rhonda Anderson. “He was out there high-fiving everybody. He started off running and then came back and encouraged everybody to finish. He even stayed out there for the kids’ dash. He’s a trooper. It’s pretty impressive.
“Honestly, he and his family are the nicest people, the nicest celebrities that I’ve ever dealt with in my life. He’s truly salt of the earth and I just wish that more people could be exposed to him to see that because a lot of people think of athletes as arrogant and he’s the antithesis of that.”
Driving to Soldier Field in heavy snow showers Saturday morning, Jackie Tillman never dreamed that so many people would participate in the charitable event.
“To be honest, I can’t believe how many people did come out because it was like a blizzard on the way in,” said Jackie, an avid runner who ran the 5K course. “The weather wasn’t the best, but it went really well. It’s neat because 100 percent of the money goes to the foundation. Everybody who put this together donated their time and their resources, so this was a really big deal for us.”
Since its inception, the Cornerstone Foundation has impacted over one million children and raised more than $1 million. The foundation initially provided children with educational opportunities and resources to excel in the classroom. But after Tillman’s three-month-old daughter, Tiana, was diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy and received a life-saving heart transplant in 2008, the mission was changed to improving the lives of critically and chronically ill children.
Registration for the 5K run/walk cost $40 in advance and $50 on the day of the race. Entry into the kids’ dash was $20. Many of the participants donned Bears gear, including Tillman’s No. 33 jersey.
The post-race party was held inside Soldier Field’s United Club and included free pizza from Papa John’s. Prizes were awarded to the top three male and female finishers in 13 different age categories. In addition, the overall male and female winners of the race won an all-expenses-paid trip to Denver to compete in the Wings for Life World Run on May 4.
While up on stage after the race, Tillman got emotional when he was surprised by Katy Stephens, a Chicago high school student Tillman had helped after she was bullied by classmates. The story was part of a recent “NFL Characters Unite” documentary on USA Network that featured NFL stars discussing their own personal stories of overcoming prejudice, bullying and discrimination with the goal of helping young people who are currently facing the same types of challenges.
Katy gave Tillman a hug, but she clearly isn’t the only one who appreciates his efforts.
"I was shocked that so many people showed up with this weather," said Hull, the Bears' season-ticket holder. "It just speaks to how many people respect what he does."