Student Assistant Turned Kicker The Joe Tillman Story
Joe Tillman’s dream of being a college kicker was in jeopardy. Tillman had just strained his hip flexor and groin muscles, essentially a death sentence to a kicker. “It hit me hard. I might not get my chance. I kept thinking, man this really could be it, it could be over,” he said.
With his dream hanging in the balance and his future uncertain, he knew he wanted to still be around football. A call from Old Dominion Graduate Assistant Craig Wilkins changed everything. Tillman enrolled at ODU last fall after stints at Bridgewater college and various junior colleges. Wilkins posted a job opportunity and needed an assistant. Tillman was the first to apply.
The everyday grind as a student assistant was not always easy. Tillman would wake up every day about 5:15 a.m. and arrive the office not long after. “You have to wait until every single player is finished eating until you can grab a bite to eat,” he says with a grin.
Tillman would start by printing out a schedule, one for himself and then for his players. He would then make sure all the players for his position group were present, and run a pre-meeting. Then, at practice, he helped run and set up drills. “Afterwards we are up in the office for about two hours cutting up film, labeling it, getting the stats ready, and of course, breaking down opponent film. I was at the office for about 7 hours a day,” he said.
His typical day at the office has since changed. With a late summer injury to starting kicker Chris Kirtley, Tillman saw an opportunity. Just a few weeks before the home opener, he went to special teams coordinator Charles Bankins and asked for a chance.
“Going to Coach Mankins was the most nerve-wracking part. You never want to hear you can’t do this or you can’t do that. Asking them was the hardest part, being on the field was easy in comparison,” he said.
From Bridgewater, to junior colleges, to teaching youth kicking camps, Tillman’s dream had come alive. With a little bit of luck, he could now say he was a division one kicker. After a week of compiling all of his ventures together, it was determined that Tillman had one year of eligibility left. He hasn’t looked back since.
“I don’t think there has been a night since I joined the team where I haven’t thought about hitting a field goal. I’ve been staying awake way later than I should be. I am so anxious for the next practice, the next game,” Tillman said.
On Sep. 4, all the uncertainty and doubt became a distant memory. In the second half of the victory against Hampton, Tillman was called upon. He nailed what to most was just a normal PAT, but to Tillman was the fulfillment of his long journey. “I just thought, man this is wicked awesome. I couldn’t wait to get back out there and do it again. It was euphoric I really can’t explain it much better than that,” he said.
With Kirtley’s status still unclear Tillman will be ready if his workload were to increase.
“I’ll be ready. Nervous of course. Not knowing what’s going to happen next is kind of what makes this fun,” he said. Kirtley and Tillman have a good relationship, and have spent a lot of time together over the last few weeks. Tillman cited Super Smash Bros as the only rivalry that brews between the two kickers.
Tillman’s rise from student assistant to a player has created a buzz outside the locker room as well. Tillman frequently draws a comparison to Rudy Ruteger, a beloved underdog character who played one snap for Notre Dame football. “I am definitely taller than him and better looking I would say. It is getting a little old but its funny at times people have been hitting me up on twitter about it for weeks,” Tillman said.
He is certainly writing his own story and is poised to get more chances to show people just how hard he has worked to get to this point. He admits that he fell into a situation most division one hopefuls do not get. “While I have been training for years, this time, I got lucky. I seriously did. There are guys that come into the office all the time who want to practice and play for us. I just got put in a unique situation,”
Regardless of how unique it may be, Tillman’s Cinderella story is far from over. Even now that he has been able to suit up and show people what he can do, he hasn’t lost sight of his dream and his love for football.
“I love the game that’s never going to change. My dream was to kick again after I got hurt, and at times it seemed pretty stupid to some. It’s not so stupid now,”