Some questioned the football drive of Jerry Tillery, an economics major with 18 passport stamps before he graduated early at Notre Dame. But not the Chargers.
COSTA MESA, Calif. — For Jerry Tillery, it’s time move on.
Asked about his globetrotting as a student at Notre Dame — something he’s answered numerous times before — Tillery turned a bit prickly.
“It’s helped me a lot, it really has,” Tillery said. “But right now I’m focused on trying to be the best football player I can be, and that’s where I’m at mentally and physically.”
Tillery, who had traveled to 18 countries before the Los Angeles Chargers made him a first-round pick this spring, understandably wants the attention to be on football, not how many stamps he’s collected on his passport during his time in college.
But Tillery’s wide range of interests — including travel — had some observers questioning his commitment to football, a game that will pay him $10.5 million on his rookie deal.
Chargers defensive line coach Gif Smith said he never thought Tillery’s outside pursuits were an impediment to his production in football.
Smith said Tillery commanded his attention early the pre-draft process, and he viewed Tillery’s various off-the-field interests as an asset, not a crutch.
“When you talk to Jerry, you understand that he’s extremely passionate about football,” Smith said. “Outside of not talking to him, you could get distracted because he is well-versed. He’s had the opportunity to go to places outside the country and do a lot of things other people might not be able to do.
“But it never took away from his love of the game, and how he wanted to play the game at the highest level. After speaking to him early in the process, that was a non-factor.”
Smith met with Tillery at the combine and later at the team’s facility during a pre-draft visit. He learned about the Notre Dame graduate’s interest the stock market, his internship for the hedge fund Abbey Capital in Dublin, Ireland, and travels to places like South Africa and Japan.
Tillery held his draft party in one of his favorite places — Hawaii. He studied Japanese and took poetry classes. He watches the Barefoot Contessa and likes to cook.
An economics major who graduated early at Notre Dame, Tillery fiercely denied his off-the-field interests affected his love for football during a conference call with reporters after the Chargers selected him on draft day.
“The people that say things, they don’t know,” Tillery said. “They don’t know Jerry Tillery. They haven’t seen me working in practice. They don’t know everything I’ve put in to what I do. I’m going to show them. I’m going to show them pretty soon.”
Soon likely will be Sunday, when Tillery should see his first game action in the Chargers’ second preseason game against the New Orleans Saints.
Tillery’s been held out of contact drills during the offseason and the start of training camp to let his body heal from shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum he suffered during his final season at Notre Dame.
Tillery began working in team drills this week, however, and the 6-6, 295-pound pass-rusher has shown some explosiveness and power.
“We saw flashes of it,” Chargers defensive coordinator Gus Bradley said. “You’re like, ‘Oh, OK! We just saw a flash of Jerry Tillery.’ He’s mentally [strong], but he just needs the physical part of it now — the lining up, the block-reaction and things like that.”
Rochell said Tillery is motivated and cares about getting better at his craft.
“He’s going to excel at anything he does,” Rochell said. “He happens to be a first-round pick for the Chargers, so he’s going to excel at that and attack that 100 percent. He’s a smart dude. I appreciate how many layers he has and the different things that he does. But at the end of the day, that doesn’t take away from his ability to play ball.”
Added Tillery: “I’m someone who’s really well-rounded. I use my skills and life experiences — I put them to good use. I think I’m someone who can adapt in any situation, any circumstance. Everything I’ve done, all the experiences I’ve had up to this point have really helped me.”
Tillery’s roommate in training camp is fellow Notre Dame graduate Drue Tranquill, a linebacker selected in the fourth round this year by the Chargers.
“He’s awesome,” Tranquil said about Tillery. “He enjoys so many different aspects of life. He’s a hard worker, a guy who takes his game very seriously. A lot of times he’s beating me to bed at night, which is hard to do. I’m a pretty disciplined guy about getting my eight hours. He’s just really committed to his craft and getting better.”
Tillery is just another unique player in an eclectic defensive line room for the Chargers. Joey Bosa fancies Star Wars and 1990s alternative music. Brandon Mebane is an old-school, pro wrestling buff and pugilist fanatic whose favorite boxer is Floyd Mayweather.
Smith said Tillery just adds another interesting personality to the mix.
“We’re all unique in our own way, especially D-lineman,” Smith said. “How boring would it be if they were all the same? He’s different. We always try and give him and Isaac a hard time — Notre Dame and all of that. They’re all a little different, and that makes it interesting, makes it fun in the room — you look for their triggers and whatever gets them going on the practice field and on game day.”
Tillery also is the latest example of a player who some NFL teams pinch their noses over but the Chargers covet — smart players who are looking to achieve a healthy balance between life and football.
“We don’t shy away from that,” Chargers GM Tom Telesco said. “I don’t mind players having other interests off the field. All of these guys, they play football right now for their career, but football doesn’t last forever, either.
“We did a lot of work on Jerry. He loves to play the game. He loves football. He knows this is his primary job, but yeah, he has interests off the field.”
Chargers special teams coordinator George Stewart coached at Notre Dame during the Lou Holtz era, and has an intimate understanding of what type of athlete it takes to make it through the private school.
“That’s one thing that our head coach, Coach Lynn, talks about is having a plan B,” Stewart said. “Plan A is football in terms of what they do. Plan B is what you’re going to do after football.
“It’s very rare that you have guys — sometimes it’s late in their career before they look at a plan B. To get a guy like Jerry Tillery that has a plan B already, it’s outstanding for him. That’s what we try to do with our players so once they leave this organization, they’re able to go out in the real world and have a chance to be successful in other endeavors.”