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Family fights to keep son's legacy alive, find killer

Jacksonville University football player's death still unsolved nearly 15 years later

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – As families come together for the holidays, two parents hope one conversation can help solve their child's cold case killing.

Rico Tillman was a 20-year-old football player at Jacksonville University when he was killed while trying to defend his teammates in a nightclub fight. His family hopes someone remembers something about the night he was stabbed back in the spring of 2000, and police believe any information could be useful in finding the killer.

"My son, Rico Tillman, was a great kid. Never been in trouble." said Rico's father Ricardo Tillman Sr.

"A son everyone would love to have. He was no problem," added Rico's mother, Dorothy Tillman.

Rico's parents are still filled with so much pride for their son.  Born Ricardo Tillman Jr., and known as Rico to friends and family, he grew up in a tough Miami neighborhood.  But he had one dream, and everyone knew it.

"He loved sports. At the age of 3 or 4, he was on video declaring himself as a national football player, and he was on his way to making it there," said Ricardo Sr.

The undersized receiver starred at Miami's Northwestern Senior High School. He considered playing football at several colleges when he graduated. His father wanted him to attend Bethune-Cookman but said Rico chose Jacksonville University because the team was brand new and he wanted to be part of a program from the ground up.

"He could have went to several schools but he said, 'Dad, I want to go to Jacksonville University.' So I took off from work and I drove him there," said Ricardo Sr.

It was a new start for Rico and for JU's football team. Practicing for a year before the first game in school history, Rico immediately became a team leader while bonding with the other players.

"Rico was one of a kind. First guy I met coming onto the JU campus, and we hit it off from there," remembered former JU quarterback and friend Gary Cooper. "The day before that first game, I was a nervous wreck, and he was the one who said, 'Hey man, no need to be worried. I'm here for ya. Just throw the ball up, and I'm going to go get it.'"

And that's exactly what he did during JU's inaugural game in 1998. Rico, wearing No. 8, pulled in a 65-yard pass for the first touchdown for the Dolphins.

"We called the play. He said, 'Put it up in the air.' I threw it up, (and) 65 yards later it was a touchdown. First touchdown in JU history," described Cooper.

Rico was named a team captain that season, and it seemed like his dream to make it big would become a reality.

"I was so proud. Anybody, if you know what it feels like to have a son that's a captain of a college football program. I was just so proud," said Ricardo Sr. "We had about three carloads of people from Miami up to Jacksonville to see him play. Everyone in the neighborhood loved my son."

Rico excelled on the field, voted a captain by his teammates twice. He also excelled in the classroom. He was on his way to reaching his goal. But the violence Rico tried to escape from his home in Miami found him in Jacksonville.

In March of 2000, Rico, along with teammates and friends from JU, were having a good time at Jazzco night club in Arlington. While leaving at the end of the night, police said, Rico stepped in to try and help his friends who were in a fight with another group. Rico's father remembers the phone call.

"We got a call late at night on March the 19th that Rico has been stabbed and at the time, Rico got on the phone. He said, 'Dad, I'm straight.'"

Rico walked out of the hospital nearly three weeks later but soon had to go back for emergency surgery.

"He was having fevers, so I took him back to the hospital and he was never, he never did leave," recalled Rico's mom, still filled with emotion.

Rico's loyalty to his friends cost him his life. The 20-year-old died from an infection.

"I had no idea that he was going to pass," said Rico's father. "They took him out and I said, 'Rico, I love you.' And he said, 'Dad, I love you,' and that was the last thing I heard from him."

With Rico's death, the nightclub assault became a homicide case. While police were searching for a killer, his parents were searching for a way to preserve their only son's legacy. Jacksonville University glassed off his locker and retired his jersey. Also, the highest athletic award you can win at JU is the Rico Tillman award.

Years passed and there were no arrests in Rico's death. But at least the family had their son's legacy living on at JU. However, when teammates returned to campus for homecoming years later, they found that it wasn't; his memorial, his personal items and his legacy had been lost.

"You know, it hurts," said Cooper. "It hurts knowing that a school I loved so much, that I could walk back into a locker room just to see my best friend's memory is no longer there."

A change in coaches and school administrators over the next decade and renovations to the team's locker room caused the items in Rico's locker to be misplaced. Rico's teammates and family saw his memory fade on campus.

"I think it's very disrespectful for them to do something like that. Like I said, he loved the school. I buried him in a JU football jersey," said Ricardo Sr. "And for them to do that, right there, I just can't understand it."

Rico's parents said they couldn't get any answers from the school. Because the school their son loved so much had not protected his legacy like they wanted, they called News4Jax.

We sat down with Jacksonville University's new athletic director, Dr. Donnie Horner, who said he understood what needed to be done.

"I want to tell you the first time I heard about it, probably was with the outgoing athletic director, probably the first week of June," said Horner. "Man, my first reaction, how tragic."

Horner spoke with Rico's former coach, Steve Gilbert, as well as others who had been a part of the football program the two years Rico played.

"People have a recollection of him. So, I felt, I empathized with the family and I said, 'Wow, this is such a tragic story. Let's really dig into this.' I saw it as legitimate from the very beginning," added Horner.

He then told school president Tim Cost about Rico's story. Both saw it as an opportunity to honor a student-athlete who meant so much to his teammates, coaches and family.

Horner said, "'You know, Mr. President, if we're going to break ground here and honor the memory of a former player, this is probably the young man to do it for.'"

Since current coach Kerwin Bell took the job at JU, the team has honored Rico's memory by giving the No. 8 to a player of high morals and character. And at halftime at JU's final home game this season, the school welcomed the Tillman family and several of Rico's former teammates back to campus for a special celebration to retire Rico's No. 8 jersey, another first in team history. 

"I am very honored to have him and excited about the possibilities and very grateful and thankful for this ceremony that's honoring our son," said Ricardo Sr.

Also at the ceremony, the family was given a framed white road jersey with the No. 8 for them to keep. As for the green home jersey, Horner said it will now hang in the football team's locker room as a reminder to future players. 

"He came up here and made a difference. And he's still making a difference right here today," they said.

And now that their son's legacy has been given new life, Rico's parents' last wish is to close the final chapter and find the person responsible for taking their son from them. It's considered a cold case that can be solved.

"At present, we are still looking for the suspect to bring the suspect to justice and bring closure to this case and allow the family to continue in their healing," said Chief Mike Bruno, who is in charge of the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office Cold Case Division.

Bruno said there were a lot of people at the club that night and someone knows who stabbed the young man who was just trying to do the right thing. He believes with advances in DNA technology and new eyes looking at the case, time can be an ally, nearly 15 years later.

"It's solvable. There were so many people there that night. I mean, it feels like it's a case that we should be able to solve. It really does," Bruno said.

Rico's parents hope he's right.

"It's been a pain for 14 years," they said. "We need justice. We need justice. This is real painful. That was my only son. His sisters are hurting real bad. He had four sisters and that was their only brother. It's tragic."

Bruno said police just need that one person to come forward with that one piece of evidence. If you can help, call Crime Stoppers at 866-845-TIPS. Remember, you don't have to give your name. Any tip you can provide can be anonymous.