JACKSON, Miss. — Lewis Tillman will always be known as the player who broke Walter Payton's single-season rushing record at Jackson State, but through it all he hasn't lost sight of himself.
"You can call me a star if you want, but I have to take it one step at a time," said Tillman, who rushed for 1,357 yards this season, surpassing the mark of 1,139 set by Payton in 1973. "If I make it (to the NFL) fine, if not I have other things I can do."
His is an attitude of someone who is used to adversity.
A year ago as a 6-foot, 191-pound junior, he showed up in training camp ready to do some damage. But the only damage done was a dislocated elbow in the first game, ending his season.
"My expectations were so great for him last year because he had worked so hard in the off-season and we had a more experienced offensive line coming back," said Jackson State coach W.C. Gorden said.
"And then he suffered the dislocated elbow in the first quarter of the first game. It was a crushing blow for the guy, really for all of us. We were wondering if this guy was too fragile to play college football."
And that's the way it had been for Tillman.
He began his college career with a 154-yard debut against Alabama State, but he hurt his ankle in the next game and gained only 258 yards his freshman year. As a sophomore, he showed promise gaining 808 yards to lead the conference, but it was a season full of nagging aches.
This year Tillman put injuries behind him. He closed out the season in flurry, rushing for 182 yards against Northwestern Louisiana to break Payton's record and adding 116 yards in the season-finale against Alcorn State to give the Tigers the Southwestern Athletic Conference Championship and a third straight trip to the NCAA Division I-AA playoffs.
Oddly enough, you won't hear any what-ifs out of Tillman.
"I think it was to my benefit that I missed last season," he said. "I don't know why but I believe the Lord does everything for a reason. If I had played last year, who knows what might have happened. I think missing last year gave me the incentive to come out and play this year."
Tillman survived one injury scare early this season, partially dislocating his shoulder in the second game of the year, and Gorden noticed a change.
"I think he has matured," Gorden said. "When he suffered that injury in the second game he didn't go into a deep despair. He had cautiously prepared himself the he might suffer another injury."
Tillman takes the same approach when people try to compare him with Payton.
"The only way I can compare myself to him is to compare what he did in college to what I've done," Tillman said."I see a lot of things he's doing, like contributing to the passing game, that I haven't been able to do, but I know I can do."
Gorden, who was defensive coordinator when Payton attended Jackson State, said Tillman finishes a run, gaining that extra yard, better than anyone he has ever coached.
"He's still in the learning stage," Gorden said. "He's not a pass receiver like Payton, or a passer like Payton. The thing with Walter was you didn't have to coach him at all, he had all that ability already"