JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Ricardo "Rico'' Tillman, Jr., is gone, but the Jacksonville University football team will make sure his honor and memory will be safeguarded forever this weekend.
Tillman, who made history for the Dolphins years ago, will make it again as the team, for the first time, will retire a jersey and it will be the number 8 Tillman, from Miami, Fla., wore. The ceremony will take place at halftime of Saturday's final home game against Campbell.
Tillman was stabbed on March 19, 2000, at an area nightclub when he and some other players confronted a group of men harassing some of the players' female friends inside the club. The harassing ceased, but started again in the parking lot and Tillman went to check on his friends. That is when he got stabbed in what is still an unsolved murder.
His father, Rico, remembers all too well that time in his life.
"It was early in the morning, about 2:30 or 3, when (former JU quarterback) Gary Cooper called and said Rico had been stabbed,'' the senior Tillman said this week. It was Cooper who threw a 65-yard touchdown pass to Tillman for the first touchdown in JU football history.
After the stabbing, Tillman spent a few days in the hospital, was released, but a short time later his mother, Dorothy, noticed her son's back didn't look right and insisted he return to the hospital.
"He went back in and everybody thought he would be OK,'' Tillman's father said.
At some point, Tillman Sr., recalls, he was heading to get some pizza and all heck broke loose in the hospital.
His son was being rushed into surgery; Mr. Tillman rushed back to see his son off.
"On his way in, the family said 'I love you' and he said the same back,'' Tillman said. "I never imagined he would pass.''
On April 10, 2000, Rico Tillman Jr. did pass and the hurt, according to his father, doesn't leave.
"Oh, no,'' he said. "He's all I think about and all I talk about. I'm happy about this (the jersey retirement) because he's my only son and he's going to make history again. I have grand kids (from his daughters) who never met him.''
Through the years, the JU football team has consciously reserved the number for above average football players with outstanding character.
"The school is putting together this great day to represent this fine young man,'' JU coach Kerwin Bell said. "We've always tried to honor him by putting one of our best players, great student-athletes, wearing that jersey. It's going to be a special day for a special person.''
JU Director of Athletics Dr. Donnie Horner said the school s putting forth a fitting tribute and the Tillman family is happy with the decision.
"The family is overwhelmed with joy and excitement. If you judge by the volume of folks that are attending, between 35-50 people, they are delighted with what we are doing,'' he said. "They know our intent is to honor the memory of Rico Tillman. They know we want to demonstrate not only the love and affection we have for his memory but what he represented for Jacksonville University football.''
Horner noted the young Tillman was of highest character.
"He was the first team captain in history,'' he said. "This was a kid from Miami Northwestern High School who showed up here undersized, but had more heart than most, scored the first touchdown in JU history, caught the first touchdown pass. He met an untimely, tragic death when he was trying to help somebody else at a night club. And, again, it's meant to treat his memory with as much dignity and respect as we can muster.''
- Jim Nasella