Forever one of the Big Sky's best
Local legend Mike Tilleman goes into the Montana Football Hall of Fame
Last updated 3/24/2017 at 11:23am
On a list of the best football players ever to come from the state of Montana, there is no doubt, Mike Tilleman’s name is near the top.
So it’s fitting, that Saturday in Billings, the former NFL star, who started his football career at Chinook High School and continued it at the University of Montana, will be inducted into the Montana Football Hall of Fame. The ceremony will take place Saturday night at 6 p.m., inside the Red Lion Hotel.
“The money is gone and the trophies are broken,” Tilleman said jokingly. “But, no, it’s a real honor. Not everybody gets that. Not everybody gets to play college or play pro football.”
The Montana Football Hall of Fame, which was created in 2016, inducted its first class last fall. Now, it will induct an 11-person class that features Tilleman, former Miami Hurricanes, San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks head coach Dennis Erickson and current Carolina Panthers player Dwan Edwards. The rest of the class includes Bob O’Billovich, Bill Kolar, Tim Hauck, Kirk Tippett Scrafford, Harley Lewis, Naseby Rhinehart, William Kelly and Aldo Forte.
“For me, I think it was the desire to play that helped me so much,” Tilleman said. “We worked so damn hard on the ranch and I wanted to play baseball, but I couldn’t play baseball because I had to work. I wanted to play football, but I couldn’t play football because I had to work. My parents were immigrants you see and they believed in hard work. So when I got a chance, I think it was that desire I had that really pushed me.”
Yet, even though Tilleman didn’t get to play football during his first two years of high school, he got to play for Chinook as a junior and senior. Then, he went on to play three seasons for the University of Montana, but for a time, it looked like he was headed toward military service.
“My parents came here back in 1921 and they homesteaded. They were all about hard work and patriotism,” Tilleman said, “so they wanted me to go into the service after I got done with high school. But when they found out I could get a scholarship for playing football, I didn’t have to go into the service anymore.”
Tilleman said he had offers from across the country and at 6-foot-7 and nearly 300 pounds, it’s easy to see why. However, he settled on the University of Montana, before moving on to play professional football. He was drafted by both the Denver Broncos of the American Football League and Minnesota Vikings of the National Football League, but chose to sign with the Vikings, who rewarded him with a signing bonus of $8,000.
“I was so young back then, my dad had to sign for me to get my bonus,” Tilleman said. “I skipped the eighth grade, so I was barely 20 years old when I started playing professional football.”
For whatever day or age, Tilleman is a mountain of a man. And if there was ever a guy that can be described as country strong, it was him and throughout his career, he used that strength to wreak havoc on opposing linemen and quarterbacks they were trying to protect.
“I remember working on the ranch all day,” Tilleman said. “Then lifting weights and running at night.”
Tilleman, who was playing in the NFL before the “sack” was even an official statistic, played in 149 games beginning in 1966. By the time his career ended with the Falcons in 1976, he had started 81 games. He was also named NFL Comeback Player of the Year after notching 15 sacks in 1972 and earned All-Pro honors in 1973 after being traded to Atlanta from Houston for a first-round pick.
During his career, Tilleman played with and against many great players, such as Bart Starr, Sonny Jurgensen, Johnny Unitas, Terry Bradshaw, Jim Plunkett and others. And when asked which player he was most fond of sacking in his career, Tilleman responded: “Well, I knocked out Terry Bradshaw about five times. I also got Plunkett a few times, although Sonny Jurgensen, he was probably the hardest to get because he was so fast.”
Of course, Tilleman played at a different time, when hits on the quarterback weren’t regulated and clotheslines or his patented “head slap” were perfectly legal.
“Back then, you could clothesline people,” Tilleman said. “You could do pretty much whatever you wanted. You can’t do those kinds of things anymore. The game is so much different now. I know I could still play it, but it’s different.”
While Tilleman said he had a lot of great memories playing football, his best was being part of Tom Dempsey’s game-winning, record-setting, 63-yard field-goal, which helped the Saints beat the Detroit Lions back in 1970. Tilleman, who was an original Saint after getting picked up by the team in the expansion draft, was the team’s MVP that same season, his final one in New Orleans.
“I blocked on Tom Dempsey’s 63-yard field goal,” Tilleman said. “And back in those days, the goal post was near the goal line, so he was kicking around his own 35. People just went crazy, so that was cool.”
After playing 12 NFL seasons, Tilleman moved back to Havre and started Tilleman Motors, because as he put it, “I always liked Havre and I thought it was a really good place to raise a family.”
Now, Tilleman, who is 72 years old, will get recognized one last time for what he is: one of the greatest football players to ever come out of Big Sky Country.
The Hall of Fame induction ceremony will take place Saturday night at the Red Lion Hotel in Billings.