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Tillman Plays Transition Game: Basketball Is Out, Football In : Colleges: At 6 feet 6, 235 pounds, he was a center at Cypress College. But Colorado State prefers him on the defensive line.

HOW THEY'RE DOING: One in a series.

September 17, 1992|ROBYN NORWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The guys at the gym who have been playing football every year since they were knee-high to a referee look at Tim Tillman with envy-tinged disbelief.

A football scholarship to Colorado State? For a guy who spent the last two years competing in a sport you play in shorts? A sport where practicing in full pads means knees and elbows? A Division I football scholarship for a basketball player?

Last season, Tillman was a wide-body center for the Cypress College basketball team, a 6-foot-6, 235-pound sophomore who wanted to be the next Charles Barkley or Karl Malone but instead earned his keep as a rebounder and post defender. One problem was he has arms too short to allow him to play behind the 6-8 and 6-10 guys he guarded. That, and a shot that he says never quite seems to recover from the effects of the weightlifting he loves.

Tillman hadn't played football since he was a junior at Savanna High School. But last week, with 30 new pounds of bulk and muscle on a frame that football coaches covet, he made his major college football debut, playing two downs at defensive tackle for Colorado State in a loss to Idaho.

"I think the thought had occurred to all of us that Tim may have been uncomfortable in a basketball uniform at times," Cypress College Coach Don Johnson said. "But I was quite surprised. I didn't know he had an interest in football anymore."

Tillman didn't really, either. He had gravitated toward basketball because he thought he would be taller--6-9 maybe--after sprouting to 6-5 as a freshman.

When a friend of a friend who is a former football player and now an evaluator of high school talent saw Tillman playing basketball, he sent word that Tillman could play college football if he wanted.

Tillman, who averaged 6.8 points and 5.6 rebounds for Cypress, decided to give it a try.

"I was sort of burned out on basketball," he said. "I'm only 6-6, and it's not like I have NBA talent."

Cal State Bakersfield, Cal State San Bernardino, Texas San Antonio, Ohio University--all the schools who wanted him to play basketball received a polite no-thank you. Then Tillman hooked up with Marv Marinovich, father of Raider quarterback Todd Marinovich, and started working his way into football shape.

"Marv told me he thought I had a lot of talent, and he said if I wanted to play football he'd help me out," Tillman said.

It was through Marinovich that Tillman met Chris Deuchar, a Colorado State linebacker who was also training under Marinovich. Deuchar knew the Rams were short on big defensive linemen, and soon a videotape landed on a desk in Ft. Collins, Colo.

"I saw a 6-7, 270-pound guy," said defensive line coach Craig Wederquist, his interest immediately piqued. "It showed him working out, running, some of his athletic ability, him being able to stuff a basketball."

It was enough for Wederquist to bring Tillman in for a visit, and the coaching staff took to him.

"He's very personable," Wederquist said. "The first thing I think any university has got to look for is people who want to come here and play here. You can get a great athlete, but if he's unmotivated, what good is it? You've got to have someone who likes football, a team player, somebody who's still about two-thirds nasty. You've got to have the grades and the attitude."

And in Tillman's case, he also had that body going for him.

"All I know is that we need defensive linemen," Coach Earle Bruce told the local newspaper after Tillman signed. "I took one look at this kid and knew he was worth signing. He looks like a football player."

Becoming a football player again was another story.

"Many times during those two-a-days I wondered what I was doing," Tillman said. "It's really different. In basketball, you're going constantly; in football, it's bursts of energy. Plus, my shoulders and whole body was one big bruise. I came in for three weeks of two-a-days. They say you don't hit, but everybody was hitting."

Breaking in at defensive line is easier, say, than trying to become a college quarterback or even an offensive lineman after three years away from the game.

"He's very strong, and he has a knack for getting to the football," Wederquist said. "He doesn't always do everything the right way, or the way it's supposed to be done."

Occasionally, those old basketball skills, such as footwork and leaping ability, are quite useful.

"He has an incredible 31-inch vertical jump," Wederquist said. "He can really knock down passes."

As for football skills, Tillman is cramming to catch up.

"It's a lot of technique work," he said. "In high school, they said, 'Put on the pads and go.' They didn't teach anything. I got here and there's all this technique on the defensive line. I was bewildered."

Bewildered, and getting better all the time.

"I think Tim Tillman can contribute," Wederquist said. "Next year, if he has progressed as much as he did from two-a-days to now and does that once again from spring ball to fall camp, I think he could be a solid player."

Tillman has his own plans.

"I'm becoming more and more physical each day in football," he said. "I thought I had better get the technique down before I think about killing people. It would be useless to go out there and just go crazy if I don't know what I'm doing.

"This year, I just want to contribute as much as possible. Next year, I want to start."

Coming in 1993: Charles Barkley in cleats?

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