When JoJo Tillery steps on to the field at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton, Ohio, this Saturday night for a United States Football League semifinal round game, the former East Ridge High School star will do his best to make his hometown proud.
From starring as an All-Southern Conference defensive back with Wofford to intercepting a pass in the NFL preseason with the Tennessee Titans, Tillery plays with a passion to represent Chattanooga to the best of his ability.
"My city means everything to me. Any chance I get I am always holding up a 4 - for the area code 423," Tillery said. "I also play with a chain with the No. 4 on it. That's my favorite number. There are a lot of younger guys coming up in Chattanooga who want to make a name for themselves as well. So if I am from the city and can do it, why can't they? Making it out of the city and breaking into professional sports is a big thing because there are not a lot of us who have done it."
Tillery looks to help the Birmingham Stallions (9-1) advance to the USFL championship game as Skip Holtz's team will try to beat the New Orleans Breakers (6-4) for a third time this season in Saturday's 8 ET game that will be televised by NBC.
Playing in the national spotlight is an opportunity Tillery is extremely grateful to have.
In early March Tillery was lifting couches, beds and boxes for a moving company before Birmingham selected him in the second round of the supplemental draft on March 10. He took a week off work before moving down to train with the Stallions, who started their inaugural season on April 16 in front of a sold-out home crowd of more than 30,000 fans at Protective Stadium.
"I have been playing this game since I was 4 years old. This week I turned 25 on Wednesday, so that's 21 years of dedication," Tillery said. "I am looking at some of my football pictures on the wall now. I love this game too much to just let it slide out of the way. I want to get back to the NFL and this was a great place to start."
The 6-foot-2, 210-pound nickel back has sparked Birmingham's defense, which has only allowed 14.6 points per game and 74 yards rushing (3.3 yards per carry) over their its eight games. He is second on the team in tackles behind DeMarquis Gates (68 tackles, 11 TFL) with 63 stops and earned USFL defensive player of the week honors in Week 6 as he had 10 tackles and a sack in a 33-17 win over the Michigan Panthers.
"I pride myself on not missing tackles to go with my play recognition and leadership skills," said Tillery, who gives major credit to Birmingham's stout defensive line for the unit's success this season. "I would rather drop an interception then miss a tackle. I feel like I am one of the big hitters in the league. I like hitting people and letting them know after, 'Yeah I hit you and I am going to keep coming back.'"
Tillery finished his college career leading the Wofford Terriers to back-to-back SoCon championships. Despite playing through a broken wrist as a senior in 2018, he was able to come away with a team-high three interceptions and nine pass deflections while starring at free safety. In April of 2019 he signed with the Tennessee Titans as an undrafted free agent.
At East Ridge he was a two-way star with eight interceptions and over 4,500 yards of offense over his final two seasons with the Pioneers.
"From the moment I met JoJo you could tell there was something special about him," said former East Ridge head coach Tracy Malone. "The thing that stood out to me was how competitive he was. He could do everything on the field and people gravitated to him. He had the physical talent and drive to be great.
"He is tearing it up in the USFL, just like I expected him to. Hopefully he will get another shot in the NFL. I am so dang proud of the player he is, but more importantly of the man he is."
Tillery certainly has made his hometown proud.
"To see him play at such a high level still is awesome," former East Ridge teammate and current University of the Cumberlands linebackers coach Jeremiah McKibben said. "Just a kid from East Ridge making it and constantly finding his way. To have someone like JoJo giving Chattanooga a place on the pro football map is awesome."
Tillery and his teammates have enjoyed their dominant season and hope it ends with a championship back in Canton on Sunday, July 3.
"Coming into the USFL I didn't know what to expect," Tillery said. "The biggest surprise to me has been the fans. I had no idea they would show out like they have. We will be at a restaurant or go bowling and the fans will come up to us and say things like, 'You give our city such inspiration and hope.' This has been a memorable ride and we want to win a championship for our fans."
Contact Patrick MacCoon at email@example.com.