Mike Tilleman, one of the legends of Montana football, died Friday morning at the age of 76.
Tilleman was born and raised near Zurich and attended Chinook High School in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He became an all-American for the Sugarbeeters and played in the 1961 Shrine Game, which Tilleman’s East Team won 13-6.
A 6-foot-7, 270-pound defensive tackle, Tilleman continued his career at 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.
Tilleman has long been an ardent supporter of the Montana State-Northern football program and was honored last month at a ribbon-cutting ceremony celebrating the Lights' new football field, which will be named Tilleman Field. According to the university, Tilleman played an instrumental role in helping bring back the Northern football program 20 years ago. He also founded the Northern Lights Athletic Scholarship Foundation.
Tilleman struggled with health issues this year and had passed along many of his duties and philanthropic efforts to his son Craig.
“It's been a little tough. He’s in the hospital the last five months and he just got out of the hospital here three weeks ago and got back to Havre about two weeks ago,” Craig said at the ribbon-cutting ceremony on Aug. 28. “So it's really nice that he's been able to see this stadium and he kind of wishes he could watch some football this fall. But Northern means a lot to my dad, and it's been a very wonderful event today."