It was hard for me to decide how best to approach this article. Pat Tillman is a legend and a hero across the country. But what he has meant to the state of Arizona is immeasurable. How do you capture that kind of life with words on a screen? I can’t, but if there is a story worth telling over and over, it is this one.
I am a huge football fan and no secret that I have a love for the Cardinals that some would describe as unhealthy. I am not a big fan of ASU athletics, but as a Phoenix native and my wife being an alumni, they have been something I am more than familiar with.
This is how I learned about Pat Tillman. For a few hours a week, I would watch him work. How he handled himself on the sidelines and sprinted on and off the field regardless of circumstance. The announcers constantly touting his academic prowess as well as his hard hitting attitude.
From my perspective, the best way to describe the Pat Tillman I watched, is an underrated star. Even as he was coming out of high school where he was great and helped lead his team to a division I title. He was told he was too small to play at the next level. Not only did he play, but he excelled and not at a small Division 2 school, but a major PAC-10 (at the time) school. Of course as he ended his college career he was not high on many teams draft boards and once again was told he was too small to play at the pro level.
But again, Pat defied his critics and was drafted by the Cardinals keeping the local star in the valley, but as the seventh round pick he was not ensured of even making the roster. He continued to fly around and make plays like he always had in high school and college, and so he made the roster.
However, making the roster also meant he would be buried on the depth chart and never see the field, but that changed quickly getting 10 starts in his rookie season. In 2001 he set a team record with 224 tackles in a single season.
This is where the story becomes legend. Many players have silenced doubters and overcome long odds to make it to the NFL. But Pat Tillman truly was unique. He was more introspective and intellectual than he was jock or brute. He didn’t let football define who he was or who he was going to be. After the Cardinals were set to extend his existing rookie contract to give him millions of dollars, Pat walked away. He walked away from a career that millions of people envy, to join the military.
In the wake of September 11th Pat Tillman was inspired. He wanted something bigger and more meaningful than playing a game on Sundays.
Pat told a reporter, “At times like this you stop and think about just how good we have it, what kind of system we live in, and the freedoms we are allowed. A lot of my family has gone and fought in wars and I really haven’t done a damn thing.”
Joining the military or Army doesn’t really describe what he did though. Pat was an Army Ranger. He wanted to be on the front lines with his brother Kevin that joined with him to fight for our country. He served in Iraq and Afghanistan fighting for the freedoms that he cherished.
Pat was shot and killed by friendly fire on April 22nd of 2004. I was sworn into the Air Force 6 days after that on April 28th, 2004. The news didn’t reach me until a few months later after I had completed basic training and technical school in Texas. I was home assisting my local recruiter before heading to my permanent duty station in Las Vegas when I remember thinking about the tragedy and how it could have been different. The coward in me was thankful that I picked the Air Force. For the most part, I would be safe from that type of firefight in a canyon in the Middle East that took Pat’s life. At the time I found out, it was not disclosed that it was friendly fire and speculation of an attempt to cover up the incident by high ranking Army officials was rumored, but it didn’t matter to me.
What I knew was the guy I grew up watching and admiring was gone. In the service of his country and all that he held dear, he gave the ultimate sacrifice. Pat was a hero the day that he swore this oath;
“I, Pat Tillman, having been appointed an officer in the Army of the United States, as indicated above in the grade of Second Lieutenant do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office upon which I am about to enter; So help me God.”
But out of this tragedy his legend grew. He lives on through the Pat Tillman Foundation, the annual Pat’s Run, the PT42 mantra adopted by ASU football, but most importantly his family.
I am really looking forward to watching “A Football Life: Pat Tillman” airing October 28th of this year. I think this story is worth remembering and worth retelling to our kids and their kids and their kids.
Thank you Pat.