GREAT FALLS – If you’ve spent any time along the Hi-Line of Montana, there’s a good chance you know of Tillman Motor Company or Tilleman Equipment Company.
But it’s not just the dealerships that bring attention to this last name.
From humble beginnings, starting right here in Montana, Mike Tilleman went on to play 12 seasons as a defensive tackle in the National Football League.
Tilleman was born and raised on a ranch near Chinook, and he grew up like any other kid would have during the 1940’s and 50’s.
Of all the Montanans who have played professional football, few have built a resume that can match 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.
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.
By Jason Laird – MTN News