Havre car dealer Mike Tilleman had a lot of stories to tell about football Wednesday, although it's been a long time since he's been in the NFL.
"The money's all gone, the trophies are broke and coffee costs me a buck," he said.
Tilleman, the speaker at the last of three celebrity luncheons sponsored by the Clack Foundation this fall, talked about his beginnings and his 12-year NFL career to about 35 people in the old courtroom on the third floor of the Heritage Center.
Tilleman, or "Big Mike," "Big Timber Mike" or "Tilly," as he was often called in the NFL, said people had to have a particular mindset to play professional football in his day.
"All these guys are really driven," he said.
The situation was quite different from today when Tilleman started playing for the Minnesota Vikings in 1965. The rules were different, the pay was lower, and players generally only had one-year contracts. People had to work harder to make first string, even to stay on the team.
"It's tough," he said. "You've really got to be tough, got to be in shape."
He said new rules make it easier to do the job, and less training is required. He blamed those changes for the death of Korey Stringer, a lineman for the Minnesota Vikings who died of heatstroke in training camp this year. Tilleman used to practice in the South in 90- to 100-degree heat with 98 percent humidity, and was in good enough shape to handle it, he said.
"The rules are really what killed Stringer," he said.
Tilleman credited his upbringing with his success in the league the work ethic instilled in him by his parents, who farmed and raised beef and dairy cattle outside of Zurich and south of Chinook. But they didn't believe in sports, he said. Listening to Dodgers' baseball games on the radio probably launched his dream of being in professional sports. He wanted to pitch in the Major League, and would throw baseballs to anyone who would catch them.
When he got to high school in Chinook, he said, he still wasn't involved in athletics. Then, "I kept growing and growing," he said, and the coaches suggested he play. Tilleman earned All American honors playing for the Sugarbeeters his senior year, when he was 16.
Tilleman credits his brother with making him tough enough to play.
"He beat me up every other day 'til I was 15," he said. "Then I beat him up and he wouldn't fight me anymore. I figured he's smarter than I am I guess it goes both ways."
After playing for the University of Montana for a quarter on a scholarship that was "full ride but wasn't full ride," he played two quarters for Northern Montana College, then returned to UM. His junior year, he was a future draft pick of the Minnesota Vikings of the NFL and the Denver Broncos of the AFL. He joined the Vikings in 1965 after he graduated, passing up his final year of eligibility for college ball, and started to really learn the rules.
Tilleman said that after watching him hit a quarterback with a little extra roughness, Vikings head coach Norm VanBrocklin told him, "Big Timber, you ever learn to play football, you've got a job."
It wasn't that great a living at first, Tilleman said. He earned $5,500 a year with the Vikings. He said Exxon offered him a job paying $6,700 a year, but he would have had to work 12 months a year there. "You have to work six in football."
Tilleman said one time he was given a better offer in the middle of a game. A recruiter for the Houston Oilers came up while he was sitting on the bench and offered him $125,000 a year to come to Houston, so he got up and went to Houston in mid-game. Because of his contract, he had to return to Minnesota, "but I had a few days there."
Tilleman, who was a starting player every year after he left the Vikings to join the New Orleans Saints, earned numerous awards, including NFL All-Pro and the Brian Piccolo Award after he came back from cancer surgery to lead the NFL in sacks in 1972. Even that wasn't a guarantee of being liked, though.
"They hated me all week but loved me on Sunday 'cause I did the job," said Tilleman, who was traded by two teams while he was their most valuable player.
He quit in 1977 after he got only six sacks as a nose tackle with the Atlanta Falcons, an impressive number in today's league. Tilleman said he was told he was over the hill.
Tilleman said the comradeship in the league is tremendous. He has friends all over the country because of the time he spent in professional football.
Some of those friends recently came to Havre for the Pheasants for Lights fund-raiser. Former pro players had a team pheasant-hunting competition and appeared at events to raise money for the Montana State University-Northern football team and other local teams and organizations. Tilleman, who played pro football at 6 foot 6 and about 290 pounds, said seeing other pro player-sized people was nice.
"I was smiling," he said. "It made me feel good. I was a normal guy."
The former players loved Havre, Tilleman said. A couple even said that if they could talk their wives into it, they would love to move here.
Tilleman and his wife, Gloria, came back to the Hi-Line when he retired. The education it offers, the people in the community, the place itself drew them here. Tilleman returned to Chinook to buy Taylor Chevrolet, and at the direction of General Motors bought out Angstman's in Havre and moved his dealership there.
Tilleman said there were many reasons he decided to leave at the top of his game, including his growing family and changes he saw in the league.
"It was time to get out of the game. It was time to leave," he said.