By Alex Flanagan
Panthers cornerback Charles Tillman knows what it’s like to be racially profiled. It first happened to him and a group of friends in California when he was in middle school. Long before Giants defensive end Jason Pierre Paul lost part of a finger in a fireworks accident, Tillman learned his own valuable lesson about the consequences of playing with explosives. The two-time Pro Bowler hopes sharing some of these experiences, that defined his upbringing, might help other pre-teens navigate their own challenges.
The 13-year NFL veteran’s real life childhood stories are the focus of author Sean Jensen’s second installation of The Middle School Rules book series (The first was about Brian Urlacher
It’s an open and authentic book filled with relatable life lessons for young readers. The Middle School Rules of Charles “Peanut” Tillman as told by Sean Jensen is written at an advanced third grade level and is aimed at children 9-14 years old, but I read it with my 7-year-old, Declan, and it immediately rose to the top of his list of favorite sports books.
On of my favorite ways of relating to my son is reading sports books with him. Most of the books we find at the library though are filled with statistics and are written in an adult tone. It doesn’t bother Declan since he loves quizzing me on the top 10 wide receivers, top 10 greatest rushers of all time, or the history of whatever NFL team he’s reading about that week, but this is one of the first sports books we have read that actually seemed to speak directly to him.
While this is a book about a famous sports figure, it’s not really at all a book about sports, but instead about the challenges young people encounter growing up. “I had to make mistakes in order to become smarter, get better and be a better person,” says Tillman. “It was because of all those dumb things I did as a kid that kind of helped shape and form who I am today.”
One of the best parts about The Middle School Rules of Charles “Peanut” Tillman is it feels like it’s written by a 12-year-old Charles Tillman, not the 34-year-old he is now. As Jensen (a former NFL beat writer) and Tillman recount in the book the difficulty of his parents’ divorce, the embarrassment of failing a test or the devastation of dealing with a death in the family, the NFL star suddenly feels very normal. As if he were just like any other regular middle school kid.
He’s not, of course. The 2013 NFL Man of the Year is one of the best corners in the NFL, both on and off the field. This season Tillman is bringing veteran leadership to the unbeaten Carolina Panthers.
Once an undersized Army brat, Tillman was nick-named Peanut at birth by his aunt because of the slight point at the top of his head. He didn’t mind “Peanut,” but didn’t much like being called “little,” even though it taught him one of his many important life rules, which are listed throughout the book: Regardless of your size, play with heart.
When I spoke to Tillman this week, he told me that when he and Jensen began working on the book he was surprised at how much of his childhood he remembered. Recalling his run-in with police was easy, but as he often has done in life, Peanut turned a negative into a positive. “Hopefully situations like that can help other kids of color say, ‘wow, I thought I was the only one that got profiled. Oh no, Charles Tillman got profiled too and he had a positive approach and a positive attitude about it,’” Tillman says. “I love cops to this day, I don’t think that put a sour taste in my mouth about our law enforcement officers. Hell, I got a degree in criminal justice.”
As Jensen writes in The Middle School Rules of Charles “Peanut” Tillman the rule Tillman learned from being racially profiled was this: “When police come to you don’t do anything to make the situation worse … keep your cool.” Some of Tillman’s other rules, which are helpfully explained using more of his own unique anecdotes …
- Stand up for your family;
- Don’t be afraid to try something new;
- The best player plays, no matter how old he is;
- If you see someone being bullied or mistreated, then you should step in and stop it;
- Your decisions impact others;
- Don’t be afraid to make history;
- It’s okay for a man to cry;
- All choices – good and bad – matter
I used the rules we read each night as a way to start a dialogue with my own kids about many of the book’s life lessons. Initiating those conversation was much easier using Peanut’s stories as a springboard. So much so, that my son actually kept wanting to hear more! Now we can’t wait to see who will be featured in Jensen’s third middle school rules book! Buy the book here.
Alex Flanagan co-founded I love to watch you play in 2015. She was flying home from an NFL work assignment when a learning specialist, who was sitting next to her, shared 5 reasons she shouldn’t feel guilty missing her son’s game. She shared their conversation on her own website alexflanagan.com and the response was so overwhelming it inspired her to co-create ILTWYP to help parents like herself navigate youth sports.