Editor’s Note: Mike Tilleman passed away on September 18, 2020 at the age of 76.
Mike Tilleman’s trademark head slap was so fierce, one opposing NFL offensive lineman once said he’d rather catch flying javelins than be on the receiving end of the behemoth’s legendary force.
When Tilleman first arrived in Missoula, the crowd at Stockman’s Bar told him playing for the Montana Grizzlies was going to be tough. Tilleman didn’t flinch.
“I liked to fight so football wasn’t so tough,” Tilleman said with a laugh years later.
Tilleman used the toughness he cultivated growing up in small-town Montana combined with a once-in-a-generation frame to blaze a trail during a journey that brought him from Zurich to the NFL.
The former Montana Grizzly left school early to enter the NFL Draft. He was selected with the 163rd pick by the Minnesota Vikings in 1965. He played 12 NFL seasons with the Vikings, New Orleans Saints, Houston Oilers and Atlanta Falcons before moving back to Havre, Montana with his wife, Gloria.
From Zurich to Chinook High to the University of Montana to the NFL, Tilleman was always a man among men, a physical specimen rare for his time or any other. His physical prowess and ability to intimidate opposing offensive linemen helped him carve out a spot as one of the Treasure State’s most accomplished products. Tilleman is among the inductees for the Montana Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2017.
“Montana, where I grew up, it was all about work ethic,” Tilleman said. “Strength training was hay bales. I did 20,000 hay bales in the summers. Lift bales all day long, lift weights and run at night.
“This is a great honor. It’s really cool. At this time in my life, the money is spent and the trophies are broke. The kids and grandkids have climbed on them. This is the nightcap honor for my career.”
The 6-foot-7, 275-pound defensive tackle was a standout for the Montana Grizzlies in 1963 and 1964, earning All-Big Sky Conference honors both years. But in a move atypical of the time, particularly for a small school player, the man former Vikings’ head coach Norm Van Brocklin called “Big Timber” struck while his stock was high, foregoing his final season to enter the NFL Draft.
The Denver Broncos of the AFL and the Vikings of the NFL each selected Tilleman. He opted to sign with Minnesota because he felt the NFL was a stronger league. After growing up on a ranch in the middle of nowhere, signing his first NFL contract let Tilleman know he had arrived.
His ‘Welcome to the NFL’ moment?
“Probably when the Vikings gave me an $8,000 signing bonus,” Tilleman said. “That could buy a couple of nice cars in 1965. And I was so young; my dad had to sign my contract for me to get the bonus.”
The Tilleman family did not own a television until 1962. He said he watched “a game or two” of NFL football before arriving in Minneapolis. Back then NFL active rosters had a 40-man limit spread among the 13 teams. Defensive linemen generally battled for five active roster spots and the other five were relegated to the “taxi squad”, Tilleman said.
Van Brocklin noticed Tilleman’s potential right away but also noticed his penchant for fighting. The legendary bruiser had a reputation but Van Brocklin told him if he learned the finer points of football, he could play in the NFL for a long time.
His first year in Minnesota, Tilleman met Gloria, a flight attendant from Winnipeg who remembers the thrill of watching Hall of Fame quarterback Fran Tarkenton during her future husband’s first NFL seasons.
During his second and final year in Minnesota, a friend of Tilleman’s brought him to Houston to check out the upstart AFL. When the Vikings found out, the organization threatened to sue Tilleman for his signing bonus. Tilleman soon realized the team would in fact have to sue his father, Henry, because Mike was too young, so he returned to the Vikings.
In 1967, Tilleman became one of the “original Saints” as he was selected by New Orleans in the NFL’s first expansion draft. He experienced some of his most memorable moments in New Orleans, earning team MVP honors in 1970. That same season, Tom Dempsey kicked an NFL record 63-yard field goal to beat the Detroit Lions at Tulane Stadium. Tilleman blocked perennial All-Pro Alex Karras on the winning kick.
“People would not leave the stadium,” Gloria Tilleman said. “It was emotional pandemonium.”
In 1969, Tilleman suffered a ruptured appendix but returned to the field in 30 days. Following Tilleman’s standout 1970 season and the AFL-NFL merger, New Orleans traded Tilleman to Houston for draft picks. In 1972, he failed his physical exam because of an internal health issue that ended up being a benign tumor.
“When I went for surgery, doctors told me I was getting truth serum instead of anesthetic,” Tilleman laughed. “When I came out of surgery I woke up dreaming of baseball, so I introduced myself to Gloria as Wilbur Wood, the great knuckleballer with the White Sox.”
After the operation, Tilleman returned for a standout season. He notched 15 quarterback sacks, earning NFL Comeback Player of the Year. That off-season, Van Brocklin traded for Tilleman to come to the Atlanta Falcons.
“Coach knew I was one of those people who could not be intimidated,” Tilleman said. “He liked my toughness.”
Tilleman earned All-Pro honors his first season in Atlanta in 1973. He played three more seasons before retiring. Following the 1976 season, a family friend who worked for the Calgary Stampeders offered Tilleman more money than he ever made with the Falcons. Mike was playing with one of the couple’s three children when he pulled a muscle in his back while weighing the offer. He decided it was an omen that his career was indeed over. He still jokes to this day that it was the “best damn muscle I ever pulled.”
Tilleman had business opportunities in Atlanta but opted to move back to Montana. He bought a Chevrolet dealership in Havre in 1979. Last year, their oldest son, Craig, added a Jeep, Chrysler and Dodge dealership to the family business. Tilleman Motor Company is still the primary GM dealership in Havre. He also runs Tilleman Equipment and has worked in the cattle industry.
“I probably paid more in deductibles than I made in the NFL,” Tilleman said with a laugh. “My wife was an airline stewardess and she made more money than I did the first year. It’s really changed. But the jump from Disneyland (the NFL) to the real world wasn’t that bad. We worked in the off-season no matter what so you were ready when you retired.”
Each fall, Tilleman hosts a celebrity pheasant hunt called “Legends for Lights” where former NFL stars come to Havre to hunt each fall. All the money is donated to Montana State-Northern athletics.
Through a career that spanned the U.S. and included plenty of highlights, football laid the foundation for Tilleman’s life and the influence resonates today.
“Competitiveness and people knew who I was, wanted to do business with me so football still helps me today,” Tilleman said. “Even in a small town I’m in, when I first got back, I was a celebrity. It was a calling card for my businesses and has been huge in my life.”