By Johnakeshia Thompson
This story is part of a collaborative project between Project: Cold Case and a University of North Florida Journalism class.
It’s been 19 years, but Ricardo Tillman, Sr. still cherishes the memories of his son.
Tillman says not a day goes by that he and his wife don’t think about their son or talk about him. His son, Ricardo Tillman, Jr., was stabbed on March 19, 2000, and died from an infection related to his wounds several weeks later. Ricardo, who went by ‘Rico,’ was 20 years old and a standout football player at Jacksonville University.
Hoping to solve the murder, Tillman Sr. speaks about his son every chance he gets in hopes to find the person responsible. He believes that someone knows who stabbed his son, and he will continue to fight for justice.
Tillman knows nothing he does can change what happened. His son told him before dying that he wouldn’t wish his injury on his worst enemy. He should let the anger go, he admits. “But I want justice,” Senior says.
Memories are treasures for the elder Tillman, especially their mutual love of football. He has video footage of Tillman Jr. stating that he wanted to be a pro-football player. Tillman, Jr. played football from little league to becoming captain of Jacksonville University’s football team. Tillman said his son wanted to attend Jacksonville University because its football team was new. He also wanted to help lead the team to a championship.
The Jacksonville Dolphins played their inaugural football season in 1998. As a team captain, Rico Tillman caught a 65-yard pass from Garrett Cooper to score the first touchdown in Dolphins history. JU defeated Davidson 19-14 in that first game. Tillman led the Dolphins in the 1998 season with 33 receptions for 550 yards and 3 touchdowns. That first touchdown pass held as his career long reception.
Tillman remembers his son for being very protective over people he loved. He believes this overprotective characteristic is part of the reason Rico is no longer living.
Rico was stabbed outside of Jazzco nightclub on March 19, 2000, at 3 a.m. after breaking up a fight involving some of his team members. Rico’s best friend and former quarterback, Gary Cooper, called the Tillmans to notify them of the incident. Over the phone, Rico told his father that he was okay.
He was admitted into Shands Hospital and, according to his father, was released three days later. His mother flew up to Jacksonville from Miami to care for her son. She noticed that his back was swollen and he was running a fever, so she took him back to the hospital.
On April 10, 2000, Rico Tillman passed away due to a staph infection.
The family sued Shands Hospital for negligence. They also sued Jazzco because the onsite cameras weren’t working.
Losing a son, friend, and brother was a hard experience for the Tillman family. Tillman Sr. says that his son was more like his best friend. Rico would often call to get advice. He is glad he had the chance to tell his son that he loved him.
On November 15, 2004, Jacksonville University honored Ricardo Tillman Jr. and retired his #8 jersey. Prior to the retirement ceremony, players handpicked by the coaching staff were awarded the number to wear for the season. Those players selected showcased above average football skills paired with outstanding character. JU hands out the Rico Tillman Award, the highest athletic award at the school, each season.
His younger sister, Prinsetta Myers, was 12 years old at the time of his death. Although she was very young, her brother’s sense of humor, love for football and music will be memories she will never forget.
The family says that they will continue to seek justice for their beloved Rico.
If you have any information on the unsolved murder of Rico Tillman Jr., please call the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office at (904) 630-0500. To remain anonymous and possibly be eligible for a $3,000 reward, call First Coast Crime Stoppers at (866) 845-TIPS.
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