Jamir Tillman learned early on not to overlook life after football.
Tillman, a sophomore wide receiver at Navy, heard how his father Cedric began working as an accountant in Las Vegas during a six-year career in the National Football League that ended prematurely because of a back injury.
"You never know when your last down of football is going to be," Tillman said. "I know coming here, it's not just about football, it's about your future and about being put around men that are going to develop you as a leader."
While playing for a nationally ranked program at Bishop Gorman High in Las Vegas, Tillman had hopes of doing the same in college.
He had an offer to play at Tulsa and thought he was going to have one at California before coach Jeff Tedford was fired, but Tillman knew where his future would be when he took his recruiting visit to Annapolis.
"When I took my visit here, there's something different about this place," said Tillman, who caught a team-high 58 passes for 958 yards and 12 touchdowns as a high school senior. "I knew that this was the place for me. I knew the challenges here would make me a better person."
After playing behind seniors Matt Aiken and Shawn Lynch as a freshman, catching two passs for 12 yards, Tilllman is expected to play a much bigger role for the Midshipmen in the 2014 season.
The 6-foott-3, 190-pound Tillman could add a big-play threat to an offense built around rising junior quarterback Keenan Reynolds and the run-oriented triple option offense.
Tillman showed some of that potential during Navy's recently concluded spring practices. Friday, he was named the winner of the Vice Admiral William P. Mack Award, given to the player who shows the most improvement during spring drills.
"I hope I can be a big part of the team," Tillman said. "If they're going to put me in the [starting receiver] spot, I'm going to do my job. If that means making big catches or making a big block, I'm going to do whatever I can do."
Offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper said that Tillman could be a "game-changer" for the Midshipmen. Reynolds said that Tillman is "not what you usually expect at the Naval Academy" for a wide receiver.
"You got a guy [who] you can get it to in the red zone [and] just throw it up in the end zone for him," Reynolds said.
Wide receiver coach Mick Yokitis said there are a lot of similarities between Tillman and former Navy wide receiver Brandon Turner, aside from the No. 86 jersey.
"He is two years ahead of where Brandon was," Yokitis said. "He's Brandon Turner going into his senior season or junior season. His skill set is almost to the T, just faster."
Yokitis gives a lot of credit to Tillman's father, who also played wide receiver, as well as the coaches at Gorman.
"He understands the game. He knows how to practice. He plays hard all the time. He just grew up that way with his dad," Yokitis said. "He played at a high school where they coach them hard, they grind them."
Cedric Tillman, who starred at Alcorn State before going on to play with the Denver Broncos and Jacksonville Jaguars, said that he's "always pushed [Jamir] kind of hard on a lot of things. But he has that want-to."
The elder Tillman said he and his wife always tried to get their son to look beyond football. Tillman got an internship at a Denver accounting firm after his second season and then went to work for the firm between his third and fourth seasons.
"When I got to the NFL, I thought I was going to retire with millions of dollars and never have to work," Cedric Tillman recalled. "Then I started hearing horror stories about these guys who played in the league were broke.
"I always prided myself on education first, and to look for a career, make sure you have a game plan. We told [Jamir] that at least after you graduate Navy you'll have a job for four years. After that, it's on you."
Not that the younger Tillman has given up on his dream of following his father to the NFL.
"Knowing he made it to the highest level, it's more inspiration for me," he said. "I want to make him proud. It's a little competition. 'I want to be better than you.' That's what I always say to him. It's good to have a role model like that."
twitter.com/sportsprof56Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun