(Editor’s note: MTN Sports began recognizing some of the best football players in Montana history on July 2 with the launch of the #MTTop40. The series started with defensive backs and will run eight weeks, featuring one position each week, concluding with quarterbacks the week of Aug. 20-24 to coincide with Montana’s high school football season opener. This week, we profile the defensive linemen.)
No. 1 defensive lineman – Mike Tilleman, Chinook
Of all the Montanans who have played professional football, few have built a resume that can match Mike Tilleman. Though many key defensive stats were not kept in the 1960s and ‘70s, the former Chinook Sugarbeeter and Montana Grizzly put together one of the most impressive football careers in Montana history.
Mike Tilleman stat sheet
Tilleman, who was born and raised near Zurich, attended Chinook High School in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He didn’t start playing football until his junior year of high school, but he became an all-American for the Sugarbeeters and played in the 1961 Shrine Game, which Tilleman’s East Team won 13-6.
The 6-foot-7, 270-pound defensive tackle drew college interest from programs around the country, but he ultimately went to the University of Montana, where he became a two-time all-conference selection. After two seasons with the Grizzlies, Tilleman pursued a professional football career. He was selected in both the AFL and NFL drafts in 1965, and, though he was selected earlier in the AFL draft, Tilleman elected to sign with the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings, who selected him with 163rd overall pick. He started his career in Minnesota, but the New Orleans Saints selected Tilleman in the expansion draft in 1967, and he spent four years in New Orleans, capping his Saints tenure with team MVP honors in 1970. He was traded to the Houston Oilers prior to the 1971 season and was awarded the NFL’s comeback player of the year in 1972 when he led the league with 15 quarterback sacks. He was then traded to the Atlanta Falcons, where he became an all-Pro selection in 1973. Tilleman finished out his career with the Falcons, retiring in 1976 and returning home to Montana.
All told, Tilleman had an 11-year NFL career playing for four different teams. He played in 149 games, starting 137, according to www.pro-football-reference.com, and recovered five fumbles. Sacks and tackles were not official stats at the time.
Sports Illustrated ranked Tilleman the No. 26 greatest sports figure from Montana in its Dec. 27, 1999 issue. He was inducted into Montana’s Grizzly Sports Hall of Fame in 2003 and the Montana Football Hall of Fame in 2017.
… on Tilleman:
Mike Tilleman: “I noticed right away (the competition was greater) because we had a lot of guys that were 21 or 22 years old, while I had just turned 17. A lot of them were out of the military, it was a feeder house for the Canadian Football League at the time. We were playing in the Skyline Conference with Utah, Utah State, BYU, New Mexico, Idaho, Colorado State and that was our conference. It was a step up in competition. In the two years that I played, we won three games total. In that era you couldn’t play as a freshman in college, so I played my junior and senior year and was drafted as an underclassman, third round by Denver and 11th round by Minnesota. There were 13 teams in the NFL at that time. I got drafted there. I was young, I could fight and I could use my hands real well. … I went to rookie camp and whipped up on everybody, so the coach, Norm Van Brocklin says, ‘Hey, Big Timber,’ he used to go to Big Timber fishing, but he said, ‘Hey, Big Timber, if you want to learn how to play football, you have a job.’
“I was there four years in New Orleans and started all four years there. In 1970 I was their MVP and I got traded to Houston for a second- and third-round pick and a couple of players. … Anyway, I had a cancer operation on July 31 of (1972) and was starting in September where I ended up being (Houston’s) MVP, the comeback player of the year in the NFL and led the league in sacks and tackles. I had 15 sacks and I think it was 126 tackles.
“The year I retired, 1977, they disallowed (head slaps). All these guys, these offensive guards and centers that have dementia and CTE, when they did that study on those 111 brains and 110 of them had dementia or CTE, a lot of those guys I played against. That’s why they disallowed it. I played left defensive tackle most of my career, I played some defensive end and the last three years I played nose tackle, the human battering ram, but you reach out there and touch them, you know? I would work on that the entire offseason. I might work on a tree, OK? I could get a lot of leverage and speed on that, hit those guys and in two or three plays you would have them leaning against it. When you put it up there and they lean against it, you run by the other side of them.
“Probably the hardest I ever hit a guy, that was in New Orleans, right after they traded me to Houston, and they played the last exhibition game, Houston and New Orleans, it was a rivalry. I remember this guy, Bobby Olson was his name, I don’t know if he’s still alive or not, but he was the center and long snapper for New Orleans. He was snapping and evidently I hit him just right with his head down or something, but I put this poor guy airborne and the helmet beat the ball back and he hit on the holder. That was a pretty good shot. Then Archie Manning was the quarterback, he thought he was still at Ole Miss, I guess, and when he threw an interception he didn’t realize that he was bait. I put him airborne over the bench a couple times and the next morning as we were going to the airport in New Orleans to go back to Houston with the team, and they had on the front page, it said, ‘Tilleman cheap-shot artist returned.’ Hey, they remembered me.”