Spencer Tillman calls himself an “amalgamation” of the seminal moments in his life, some good and some bad.
He's the lead studio analyst for CBS Sports' college football pregame show, and he was a captain on OU's 1985 national-title team and a co-captain on the San Francisco 49ers' 1990 Super Bowl-winning squad.
But Tillman and his wife lost a child shortly after he was born. His mother lost both of her legs in an unthinkably difficult battle with diabetes, and his brother died of AIDS-related lymphoma after a lifetime of heinous abuse.
I grew up in north Tulsa, when we were still in the throes of integration in schools. We were broke as the Ten Commandments. I didn't have much, but I had a lot of love. My parents intact, values that were strong. My mother was a missionary. My home upbringing was great. Five brothers and sisters. We longed for nothing that really mattered.
It reminds me of what Malcolm Gladwell points out in his book, ‘Outliers.' There's a stanza in there in the first couple pages where he says, ‘The tallest oak in the forest not just because it grew from the hardiest acorn; it is the tallest also because no other trees blocked its sunlight, the soil around it was deep and rich, no rabbit chewed through its bark as a sapling, and no lumberjack cut it down before it matured.'
We owe something to parentage and patronage, and influences like mentors. And that certainly holds true for me. I didn't get here by myself alone. I continue to learn. Vin Vivito, who's my producer at CBS and has been the last 14 years. He beats me up, shapes me, corrects me like a good coach would.
Even at 48 years of age, it still goes on. All great mentors, and great people who would be led, allow themselves to be coached that way and are OK with it.
Graduating from college was huge. There was no guarantee that I would make it to the NFL. You have no idea, and if you do, you're probably a little bit jaded. The chances of you making it are just unbelievably small. Ultimately, it's a miracle if a guy can make it.
I think there are seminal moments. Our lives are nothing more than a collection of events and circumstances. For me, seminal moments like winning Super Bowls, being named captain of a championship team with Ronnie Lott and Joe Montana. Winning a national title ... all that stuff are significant moments.
There's some negative things as well. We lost a child. Watching my mother go through a difficult battle with diabetes and losing both legs. Losing a brother, who dies to AIDS-related lymphoma. Things like that are tragic, but they all go in this big pot and make you who you are. That's kind of where I am.
I've got four girls. I love my girls. But he was born and died shortly thereafter. To see something that looks like you, is built like you and totally dependent upon you, and physically is a spitting image of who you are, and not to be able to pour into their life ... maybe it's selfish to say this, but I was so looking forward to being a father to a son.
I've been able to be that to my girls, no question about that, but I would've loved to pal around with my little boy and do some of the things fathers get a chance to do. It was not to be. But I've got a special place in my heart for him. Blake is his name.
When my brother died, I was 28 years old and in the prime of my NFL career. I was with the San Francisco 49ers, and my sister called and told me what happened. I immediately flew to Oklahoma and was there at his deathbed.
I listened to him articulate the events that led up to that moment, and the individual who abused him, and basically told him that if he'd told anyone about it, he would kill everybody in our family. It absolutely shaped him and crushed him.
That's the reason why when this Jerry Sandusky garbage came out, I didn't hold back because I'd seen what it could do to the lives of the people involved. It was tragic because it had happened to my brother.
My family was in New York City, and some couple remembered that I worked at WABC, the ABC affiliate, and they asked me for my autograph. My 9-year-old — at the time — was looking up at me, and I caught her out of my peripheral, running back vision. When they left, she looked at me and said, ‘Why do they want your autograph? You ain't nobody.' I was like, ‘Well, you know that, and I know that. But they didn't know that.' My family keeps me grounded.