Still Scoring in the Red Zone

Written by Kevin Miller

Profile: Spencer Tillman, successful sports broadcaster for CBS, former NFL player and captain of a Super Bowl team

faith_tillmanWhen the man who was about to end the life of Spencer Tillman’s mother entered her hospital room on January 23, 2002, the thirty people who were crammed around her bedside fell silent. All that could be heard was the rhythmic wheezing of the respirator as it kept what was left of LaRue Helen Tillman alive. Mother, wife, missionary, friend of rich and poor alike, now there was nothing left of her but an empty vessel, a shell.

Long, difficult road

The road leading up to this point had been long and difficult. For years, Spencer and his siblings had stood alongside their mother as she fought against diabetes which had systematically cut her down. Nine years earlier, the disease had taken one of her legs. A few years later, they amputated her second leg. Then the disease attacked her kidneys, and she was forced to go on dialysis. In June 2001, she had a stroke. Seven months later, she had a massive heart attack. A second one struck the following day, leaving only twenty percent of her heart operative. Twenty-four hours later, it was all but over.

After confirming the family’s wishes one last time, the man in the white uniform put his hand on the ventilator tube and pulled it out of Mrs. Tillman’s mouth. Her reaction was immediate. Her eyes opened wide and she let out a cough.

Even though everyone knew her response was merely an involuntary reaction, a final gasp from a dying body, they could not help but hope for a final miracle,” says Spencer.

After that brief spark of life, however, Mrs. Tillman lapsed back into her former comatose state. A few minutes later, she was gone.

Identity crisis

For Spencer, his mother’s death represented far more than the loss of a parent. For him, it marked the beginning of an identity crisis.

“I could not escape some nagging questions about my life. Here I was, a former NFL player who had been the captain of a Super Bowl team; a successful sports broadcaster for CBS – one of a few African American men to reach such a level – a businessman jetting around the country making deals; and a husband and father of four beautiful girls. I had a good life, a great life in comparison to most. And yet, something was missing, something right at the core of my being.”

Similar thoughts plagued Spencer for the next two months. Then one morning as he was meditating and praying in his office, Spencer felt an impulse to go for a walk. Having no idea where he was headed or why, he got up and went outside. Little did he realize where this walk would lead, both physically and spiritually. Over the next several hours, Spencer covered a distance of twenty-six miles. In his heart and spirit, however, he traveled even farther.

God speaks

Midway into his marathon, Spencer began to sense God speaking to him. Specifically, he began to understand what had caused that gaping hole he felt at the core of his being. When he was young, Spencer had always put God first in his life. But he realized the more successful he became, the less he relied on God, to the point where lately, he had been pretty much relying on himself. Sure, he still gave lip service to God, but when the chips came down, Spencer’s number one source of wisdom and guidance was still himself. That thought was extremely troubling, because Spencer was all too aware of a particular verse from Proverbs:

“There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death” (Proverbs 14:12).

My path was not leading to death – at least not yet. However, it was quickly racking up an abundance of anxiety, fear, and uncertainty,” says Spencer.

Spencer likened his life to the story of Mary and Joseph when they left Jesus behind at the temple when he was just a young boy. They were a couple of days into their journey home before they even realized he was missing. After rushing back to Jerusalem, they were relieved to find him in the temple talking to the teachers of the law. As Spencer reflected on that story, he wondered where he had left Jesus behind. More importantly, how would he find him again?

Spiritual download

That question was answered a short time later as Spencer came across a train stopped on the railway tracks blocking his path. As Spencer chatted with the engineer, he suddenly began to feel what he refers to as a “spiritual download” from God. For virtually everything the engineer told him about the train, God began to show Spencer a parallel in the spiritual world.

For example, the engineer explained that even though the train only traveled short distances – keeping within the state of Texas – it still had two fuel tanks with a total 5,000 gallon capacity, one on either side, that were kept full at all times,” says Spencer.

On these tanks, the engineer said the train could travel from coast to coast without refuelling. So why keep them full on such short hauls? The weight of the fuel was needed to keep the wheels from slipping. Steel wheels on steel rails do not make for good traction. Thus, the heavier the load; the greater the traction. I began to sense a life principle hidden somewhere here….”

The engineer went on to demonstrate how he could increase traction even further on an uphill grade or during icy conditions by pressing a button and spraying sand onto the rails through a pneumatic hose. Once again, Spencer saw an analogy, this time for prayer as a way to increase our ability to get a grip when we feel the wheels of life beginning to slip.

Finally, realizing the reason God had prompted him to go on this marathon walk, Spencer thanked the engineer and then quickly turned toward home, his mind reeling with new ideas.

When I entered our house, I went straight into my home office. For the next few hours, I poured over my Bible, the Internet and any other source of information that would help me flesh out the ideas churning in my mind. Everything was coming to me in real time: Ideas for a book, for an interactive CD, for speaking engagements, you name it.”

Leadership calling

Throughout all of this, God was making one thing abundantly clear: He was calling Spencer to be a leader.

Having been a leader all my life, that should have been a ‘no-brainer.’ However, God also insisted that business as usual would no longer cut it. I had to do things his way. No more being Mr. Dealmaker and flying all over the place. God wanted me to spend time with Him learning what He had called and equipped me to do; not what I had called and equipped myself to do.”

Spencer also sensed that this call to leadership was not for him alone. He was to share it with his family, his peers and with the world at large. He felt a special burden for other African-Americans. Due to God’s grace, Spencer had managed to rise to a level in his career that few African-Americans had achieved. Thus, he felt a duty to be an example to those who would follow him, to make the most of all he had been given.

Throughout all of this excitement, Spencer was searching for a biblical model for what God was telling him, someone who exemplified the attributes God had been speaking about.

As I prayed about it, God revealed the name ‘Nehemiah,’ one of the so-called ‘minor prophets’ of the Old Testament. Having never really studied Nehemiah’s life, I turned to my Bible and read about his drive to rebuild Jerusalem and her people after they returned from captivity in Babylon and Persia. It was a tremendous story of perseverance, obedience and leadership. I knew I had found my man.”

At the end of the day, Spencer sat back in his chair and shook his head in wonder. Little did he realize when he woke up that morning all that God had prepared for him that day. He had started out dissatisfied with my life, worrying about the future and unable to see a way out of his circumstances. But God had lifted Spencer out of his chair, transported him twenty-six miles through town, and then brought him home with a fully realized vision of what he wanted Spencer to direct his energies toward for the foreseeable future.

Scoring in the red zone

It was a remarkable day, a day which is still bearing much fruit, most recently in Spencer’s book, Scoring In the Red Zone: How to Lead Successfully Under Pressure. Inside, readers will find a richly detailed description of the leadership concepts and principles God taught Spencer that day and throughout his life, even though he did not realize he was employing them at the time. But Spencer notes that you will also find something more:

The testimony of two men – Spencer Tillman and Nehemiah, both of whom have striven to expend their lives in service of God and his people. I pray that both testimonies will inspire you to become the leader God has called you to be as well.”

Does it feel like you’ve been leaning too much on your own understanding sometimes? Perhaps it’s time you asked Jesus to reveal the path you should walk. If you don’t know Jesus, we encourage you to pray the following prayer:

Lord Jesus, I want to know You personally. Thank You for dying on the cross for my sins. I open the door of my life and receive You as my Savior and Lord. Thank You for forgiving my sins and giving me eternal life. Take control of my life. Make me be the person You want me to be. Amen.

Spencer Tillman joined CBS Sports in 1999 as lead studio analyst for COLLEGE FOOTBALL TODAY, the CBS Television Network’s pre-game studio show. Tillman, who had served as WABC-TV’s sports anchor in New York from 1997 to 1999 and spent 10 years as a sports anchor for KPRC-TV Houston, is paired with Tim Brando at the COLLEGE FOOTBALL TODAY desk.

He has also served for four years as a reporter for the Network’s NCAA tournament coverage and is an anchor for regional broadcasts on Fox Sports Net. He also served as host of “NFL Sunday Ticket.”

After being drafted by the Houston Oilers in 1987, Tillman worked as an anchor and reporter at KPRC-TV during the seven-month off-season. He played for the Oilers for two seasons (1987-88) before being traded to the San Francisco 49ers for three seasons (1989-91). He served as the 49ers captain in 1990. In 1992, he was traded back to Houston, where he completed his playing career (1992-94). His football and broadcasting careers developed in tandem as he hosted two radio sports-talk shows and was a reporter and anchor for a radio PM magazine in Oklahoma City prior to his television jobs.

Tillman was an All-America running back for Oklahoma University (1982-86) and was the captain of the 1985 National Championship team when it defeated Penn State, 25-10, in the Orange Bowl.

He received several awards during his playing career, including UPI Player of the Year in the Big Eight Conference in 1982, Big Eight Football Newcomer of the Year in 1983 and MVP of the 1987 Orange Bowl. He placed fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting in 1983.

Tillman earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism in 1986 and a bachelor’s degree in communications in 1988 from Oklahoma University. He was born April 21, 1964, in Tulsa, Okla., and lives in Sugarland, Texas, with his wife, Rita, and their three daughters, Alisa, Blair and Mir.

22 Responses to “Still Scoring in the Red Zone”

  • Sharon says:

    good testimony thank you for posting it

  • Thank you for sharing your story of life and how God can and will direct to the place that he desires us to arrive at. The most important part to me was how you shared your families stories and those who influenced you. I loved what you said your mother, Missionary Tillman said that FAITH IS THE CURRENCY IN HEAVEN, “WITHOUT IT WE CAN NOT PLEASE GOD.” Thank you my brother. Also the story of you brother was touching, we must love people were they are. Thanks again !!!

  • Nate Lewis says:

    As a native Houstonian, I knew Spencer Tillman was a great and articulate person. I am amazed at how far he has come. Last year and this year I am in awe of his ability to give insight into what has just happened on every play. He is like Madden in his prime with more of a teacher’s enthusiasm and also with depth of experience on the field and in the locker room. And then to read his story above he is suddenly an inspiration even to a 59 year old Longhorn like me. Thanks also for his insightful comments on local TV about Case Keenum getting cut. All of us in Houston loved Case and were pulling for him but Pro Football, like capitalism is creative destruction in search of perfection. I wonder if Spencer got some negative feedback on that analysis but from my point of view it helped me to understand what happened and why and it also gives us hope knowing that it is perhaps a fixable problem for Case. Please keep up the good work Spencer.

  • Doris Beck Doris Beck says:

    That is so awesome Donato!Thanks for sharing your blessing!

  • Donato Parra says:

    I had the blessing and the opportunity to minister, interpret and preach the word of our Lord with Spencer in the island of Cuba and seen many come to the Lord.It was until now that I had this chance to have access to Internet (in our country we have not access) and thanks the Lord for Spencer’s heart for the lost.I was deeply impressed by his testimony as a believer.Spencer may the Lord richly bless you and your family.


  • Sharon says:

    good article i get in my head sometimes proverbs 3.56 lean not on your understanding because i think i can lean on my own understanding and not on God thank you for posting this article

  • Fount Holland says:

    I also was in journalism class with Spencer Tillman at the University of Oklahoma.
    I did not know him well, but he was always kind and decent in the few interactions
    I had with him. Everyone who knew him well had nothing but the best to say about him.
    Praise God he’s still being used in such a mighty way. I hope to read his book soon.

  • Doris Beck Doris says:

    Glad you enjoyed hearing Mr Tillman speak Ondray.It is always neat when we can be encouraged in our faith by someone who is in the public eye like he is.

  • Ondray Reno says:

    I had the pleasure to hear Mr Tillman speak today at a Brotherhood Prayer breakfast, it was a word to be herard. What a wonderful speaker and Man of God. Keep up the good work.

  • Reggie Ellis says:

    i saw Mr. Tillman once when he did a broadcast of a Ravens game in Baltimore. I was seated near the booth where he and his colleague were just finishing up the broadcast, the game had been over for several minutes. I had a group of youth league football players with and upon seeing Mr. Tillman, I told the players about his extraordinary dive from the five yard line vs. Nebraska. I spoke to him and said, ” I was telling my players about your” he cut me off and gave me the hand to wait, so we waited 20 minutes before leaving. I thought he was very rude that day and I lost a little respect for him.

  • Lee says:

    I had the great opportunity to meet Spencer and his wife at an area wide prayer breakfast in Prescott, Arizona about five years ago. Reminding him of the pitch out he took from Jamelle Holiway, running for a 78 yard touchdown during that championship game against Penn State in 1985. That was a super play. Spencer is a incredible speaker, truly used of God to share a very meaningful message and touch many lives. God bless you Spencer and your family.

  • Susie says:

    WHAT??? Mia Parker? I don’t understand at ALL where your venom is coming from!!!! Mr. Spencer Tillman is TOTALLY “A” CLASS!!!! I NEVER EVER have said he was perfect!! That would NOT be possible unless he was GOD!!! I just don’t understand YOUR post at all!!! I have known this GREAT man since 1977, and from EVERYTHING I have known and experienced about Spencer as a person he is MORE than upstanding!!! I am so sorry for your bitterness!!!!! I went to school with Spencer ever since he was in 7th Grade!!!! He is a GREAT, GREAT man!!!! He is VERY smart, funny, compassionate, caring and just a GREAT, GREAT person!!!! He is a TRUE friend!!! I will pray for you Mia Parker Smith and your bitterness!!!

  • Gus Walsh says:

    I met Spencer last nite at my grandaughters volley ball tournament.What a pleasureable conversation I had with him. I love my family, life and sports. I just started (bostonsports4life) to communicate with nice people about all things, sports. I mentioned to Spencer how negative people spoil my reading of sports on the internet. I truly feel sorry for these folks who live this life. I hope I meet Spencer again.

  • John Russo says:

    I live and work in Sugar Land. I work at a local supermarket there and have seen Spencer there several times. He had always seemed to be very friendly–stopping to chat with people and being very personable. I have also observed Spencer at a local vitamin store being very genuine. This morning I ran into him at another area supermarket and had an opportunity to speak to him for the first time.He was friendly and genuine with me. I don’t know who Mia Parker is but I can tell you that I am proud to have Spencer as both customer and neighbor.

  • As a african american I have always been impressed by Mr. Tillman. So well spoken, his mother must have been a great women to raise such a great man. We need more Mr. Tillmans to inspire the black youths in this country.

  • A.T says:

    Follow Spencer on Twitter: @Spencetillman

  • Daniele Olivarez Cunningham says:

    After reading the remark by the woman above, I felt compelled to post a response. Honestly, I think some people just get a kick out of being a nay-sayer.

    Spencer and I attended the University of Oklahoma many years ago and he was always kind and wonderful to be around. I was a young journalism student and he took time to answer my questions and help me practice an introductory speech, which we taped so I could continue working on it until the time I had to present it in front of the class. Anyway, though many years have passed, we’ve kept in touch through friends and family.

    Bottom line. As the saying goes, good things happen to good people…and he’s a perfect example.


    Daniele Olivarez Cunningham
    University of Oklahoma
    Journalism School

    My presentation earned an A.

  • Spencer says:

    To the folks who wrote the kind comments above; you’re too kind. However, I must confess, I’m far from perfect, just ask my wife. I do fear the lord and attempt to walk in an upright manner evey day.

    I’m in the Boston Airport, having completed classes at Harvard. One of my professors was doing some research and e-mailed me and asked if I I knew who Mia Parker was…..He feferred this link to me and said I should write just to see if she is accountable. So here goes nothing.

    I’m not sure about what he meant exactly but I can tell you that I don’t know a Mia Parker. It is amazing how people can be so careless and down right evil. I can’t imagine making that sort of statement about someone I don’t even know. Amazing.


    Spencer Tillman

  • Mia Parker says:

    I have known Spencer my entire life. He is a fake !!!! He’s not a kind or friendly person.

  • Sal Felice says:

    This is funny, I did the exact same thing as the two above me, saw Spencer Tillman and thought, “WOW, this guy is a college sports broadcaster?” Man is a smart guy! After listening to him and JC Watts, I am incredibly impressed with U of O and the men they create! I wish the guy had a Twitter page or something so I could follow him! Please bring him back Sean, love the guy!

  • sue goggans says:


  • 01/21/2010–I saw Spencer on Sean Hannity’s evening show on Fox News and was impressed with his articulateness, how well he handled himself, how knowledgeable he is. I remembered he has played for Oklahoma University. From there I knew nothing about what he was doing, so I came to my computer and “Binged” him. His life story is so refreshing. I can understand why God is using him and his life. Continue to do the “Good Work” and to daily amazed that of all the people in the world, God picked you. It is an awesome and humbling experience when one realizes he or she is being used by God. Manuel H. Godwin

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