Charles Tillman
Photo: Lisa Predko

On September 2, the former Bears cornerback is rowing across Lake Michigan with marketing executive Jacob Beckley in a boat they built themselves. The purpose? To raise funds for Tillman’s Cornerstone Foundation, which helps families of children with serious illnesses, and the childhood-cancer-focused Beckley Foundation. Here’s how Tillman sculpted his body into sculling shape.

Fighting fears

“I’m a wimp when it comes to the water. Big creatures live there — fish, sharks. I saw somewhere bull sharks can live in freshwater, so in the back of my mind, they’re swimming around Lake Michigan. To get over that, I put it in perspective. Look at kids with cancer, kids who get heart transplants or have deadly terminal illnesses. Kids are resilient. They don’t complain. So how dare I?”

Training routine

“I work out five days a week, rowing three days and lifting two. Rowing is more legs than shoulders, so I’m trying to strengthen my lower body. I do tons of leg curls and squats. And I do anything and everything pulling, because that’s the motion I’ll be using.”

Nautical lessons

“The other day, I wanted to scratch my nose, and Jake goes, ‘If you do that, don’t let the oar go, because it’ll fly forward and the boat will flip. Hold both oars with one hand, then use your other hand to do whatever you have to do.’ He learned that the hard way. We go to the Row House, where coaches help us out. Hardest for me is feathering, where you flip the oar on its side and then turn it down as it hits the water. If I master it, it’ll make the row a lot easier.”

Dietary philosophy

“My daughter Tiana was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy back in ’08 and got a heart transplant, so we eat organic and non-GMO foods. I’m not a vegetarian. My intestines were meant to swallow mammal flesh. We get our meat from a farmer in Iowa — a large portion of grass-fed beef, free-range chicken, pork, and eggs.”

Gene mapping

“I checked my DNA on and I have Kenyan and Ghanaian in me. But I don’t have them Ghanaian lungs. I’m a sprinter. I just want to be done, so I speed up and then tire out. On the row I’m going to have to try to slow myself down, tell myself: Hey, it’s a marathon, pump your brakes.”

Making weight

“In the league we got fined for being overweight. I’m a creature of habit, so I still step on the scale every day. If I stay between 210 and 215, I’m good. If I get to 216, I feel like I’m the fattest thing ever. When that happens, I’ll sit in my sauna or work out with a ton of clothes to sweat more, then go weigh myself again. My wife, Jackie, is like, ‘Why are you so worried about your damn weight?’ I know it’s dumb, but I want to look like I can still play football, even if I’m not quite in playing shape.”