IOWA CITY — Lance Tillison gets quiet when he talks about the past.
Last year he left Iowa for Texas Southern, hoping for a fresh start and more playing time. Instead, moments before the 2009 season opener, he found out he was ineligible.
“It was tough, it was really tough,” Tillison said. “I don’t even like to think about it because it’s a dark place in my life.”
Without a scholarship, he spent the fall of 2009 working in Houston. He thought about his life. He wasn’t playing football, and he was at least 1 1/2 years from finishing college. He decided to give Iowa another shot.
“I just kind of tucked my pride,” said Tillison, now a senior outside linebacker. “I knew what I wanted to do, and the thing I was kind of worried about was the response of my teammates. But everybody was very receptive. They accepted me back.”
Tillison met with Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz to discuss a return. Initially it was difficult for Tillison, who wasn’t sure how Ferentz would greet him.
“I just explained to him my situation, and he accepted me with open arms,” Tillison said. “I couldn’t ask for more than that.
“Bottom line this staff is just phenomenal for every taking me back. It’s just been everything I’ve every dreamed of.”
There were stipulations on his return. He needed to take 18 credits last spring to become eligible, and Tillison had to pay his own way.
“That’s fine with me,” Tillison said.
Ferentz called Tillison’s return “a good story.”
“To Lance’s credit he’s worked extremely hard, and he’s eligible to play this year,” Ferentz said. “He’s had a great attitude. He really has been a great addition. It’s good to get him back.”
Since last playing for Iowa, Tillison has bulked up to 235 pounds, about 20 more than in 2008. Tillison now participates on Iowa’s kickoff and kick return units and backs up Jeremiha Hunter at weakside linebacker. Last week he registered two tackles on kickoffs.
“He’s one of those guys who’s kind of unsung and definitely does his job,” Iowa defensive lineman Christian Ballard said. “When you look on the kickoff team from last week, you see him flying around making plays. He’s one of the guys we’d like to have here, and he’s definitely one of the guys who’s just a play away from making that start and making a big play.”
Tillison has come a long way in the last five years. He was displaced in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina ravaged his hometown of Slidell, La. He transferred to a Florida high school in midseason and lost the state championship to Tim Tebow’s squad in the title game.
Tillison came to Iowa in 2006 and red-shirted. Then he played sparingly. In 2008, he competed for playing time at safety but was suspended for two games after a drunken driving charge. He fought his way back on the field in special teams and third-down formations but clearly was behind Tyler Sash at strong safety before 2009 spring practice.
That wasn’t good enough for Tillison.
“Any time you’re in a program like this you want to play more,” Tillison said. “Our off-season programs were really tough and guys work really hard and you put them to work and if you’re not playing as much as you want to it’s kind of a disappointment. All the work you do in the winter and the spring, come camp you find out you’re not going to be that guy, it’s tough.
“Mentally I just wasn’t mature enough then to see what the coaching staff planned down the road for me and just kind of blew it.”
Since returning to Iowa, he’s made strides academically. He’s on track to graduate next spring with a degree in interdepartmental studies. He sees his future clearly and he’s determined to not slip up again.
“It’s all mental for me at this point in my life,” he said. “I just feel like there’s nothing that I can’t do. I’ve been through the worst. I’ve been at the bottom …
“I’m unbreakable right now.”