Hours after he coached his Maryland men’s lacrosse team to a victory over Michigan on the afternoon of April 1, John Tillman hopped into his car and drove five hours north to his home town of Corning, N.Y. He joined his brothers there to visit their mother, Elizabeth Tillman, whose health had deteriorated from a long battle with Parkinson’s disease. Tillman knew it was the last time he would see her.
About two weeks later, she died at age 78. Tillman got the call in the middle of a routine Thursday while preparing his team for a crucial road trip to Ohio State, and he chose not to tell his players right away out of fear that it might create a distraction. But he was grieving and reflecting on his loss. He took his time to tell his players. In Maryland’s locker room, perhaps nobody understood this better than senior captain Isaiah Davis-Allen, whose mother died in late May 2013.
“It made me, and the rest of the team, just want to try to win and play our best,” Davis-Allen said.
As word spread of Tillman’s mother’s death, he was overwhelmed with support from Maryland’s players, staff and boosters. But he was also struck on Mother’s Day, when his phone rang before 7 a.m. It was Davis-Allen, checking on his coach, reinforcing a bond that started four years earlier when Tillman had helped him cope with his own family tragedy.
“I got up and made some coffee. I’m usually up pretty early. I was going to call Isaiah, just to see how he was doing on Mother’s Day . . . and he actually beat me to the punch,” said Tillman, whose Terrapins (14-3) will meet Denver (13-3) on Saturday in the national men’s lacrosse semifinals in Foxborough, Mass. It will mark the fourth consecutive Final Four appearance for top-seeded Maryland, and each trip has been preceded with familiar questions about when the program will break a national championship drought that now stands at 42 years.
But Memorial Day weekend carries much more significance for Davis-Allen, whose mother, Audrey Davis, died a day after the holiday weekend four years ago. He graduated from St. Stephen’s/St. Agnes School in Alexandria days after the funeral. Tillman had shown up there to support his freshman recruit before Davis-Allen had even set foot on campus. Tillman was approached by the headmistress of the school at the service.
“She said, ‘You better take care of [Davis-Allen], because he’s very special,’ ” said Davis-Allen’s aunt, Claire Davis. “And obviously, Tillman took it to heart.”
Davis-Allen struggled with his grief early on in his time in College Park, according to his aunt, and Tillman didn’t give him preferential treatment over other players. While dealing with the loss of his mother and trying to provide support for his younger sister, Davis-Allen was also forced to adjust to a challenging academic load and played in 16 games as a freshman. There were rough days when he was forced to lean on his new teammates — and on Tillman, who had become a “second father” in his life.
“He held me to a very high standard, and for me, that was very comforting,” Davis-Allen said.
Tillman often refers to each of his players as sons, striving to show unconditional love whether they want it or not. But not every player requires his counsel after losing a loved one like Davis-Allen, and not every player communicates as candidly with their coach like Davis-Allen. There was one striking example this spring, when Davis-Allen noticed his team was burned out in practices during a week of midterm exams. Along with another captain, he approached Tillman and informed him of the mood of the group. Tillman responded by cutting practices a half-hour short for a few days, hoping that it would improve morale.
Those are the kind of detailed contributions that Tillman has come to expect of Davis-Allen as he has matured into a key player each of the past three seasons. The midfielder started all 19 games as a sophomore and won all-American honors as a captain during his junior and senior seasons, when he also set aside time to coach youth teams in Prince George’s County.
Perhaps his most cherished decoration came this month, when he won the 2017 Senior Class Award, which the school gives to a student who shows the best in class, character, competition and community. The only other athlete at the school to win the award was Juan Dixon in 2002.
So it wasn’t necessarily a surprise to Tillman when he received a call from Davis-Allen as he awoke for his first Mother’s Day without his mom this month. Even though he has remained quiet about her death, preferring to throw himself into his team and focus on its chase for a national championship, that gesture was not lost on Tillman.
He got into the coaching largely because of those kind of moments. He sees parallels between his job and his mother’s long career as a schoolteacher in Corning. “She was at every game. She was at every recital . . . she was awesome,” said Tillman, whose family will hold a memorial service in July. Davis-Allen plans to be there.