Pat Tillman – Service
“A lot of my family has gone and fought in wars, and I haven’t really done a damn thing as far as laying myself on the line like that.”
On December 7, 1941, “a date which will live in infamy”, Japan launched a sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. The next day America declared war on Japan. Angry American citizens began signing up to serve their country in the armed services. Professional athletes were no exception. Among the eight million Americans who served were 500 major league baseball players and 638 professional football players. Baseball hall of famers Joe DiMaggio, Warren Spahn, Hank Greenberg, and Bob Feller proudly served in the military. Professional football players also felt a call to duty. Heisman Trophy winner Nile Kinnick died while serving in the military when his plane crashed just short of the aircraft carrier Lexington. Maurice Britt and Jack Lummus fought so valiantly that each received our country’s highest honor, The Congressional Medal of Honor.
Nearly sixty years after the attack on Pearl Harbor, on September 11, 2001, al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked four airplanes and crashed them into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and into a field in rural Pennsylvania. A combined 2,992 people were killed in these attacks, compared to 2,388 people who were killed at Pearl Harbor. Americans were once again outraged by an attack on U.S. soil. President George W. Bush immediately called for a “War on Terror” and Congress passed a resolution authorizing the president to use military force. And, just like in 1941, many people began to enlist in the armed forces. There was, however, one notable difference this time around. Only two professional athletes signed up to fight for their country —Pat and Kevin Tillman.
When the brothers enlisted, Pat Tillman was a starting safety for the Arizona Cardinals. His little brother, Kevin, was a minor league pitcher in the Cleveland Indians organization. In recognition of their desire to serve a greater good outside the world of sports, both brothers were recipients of the Arthur Ashe Courage Award, presented during the 2003 ESPY Awards.
Pat Tillman left behind a $3.6 million pro football contract when he enlisted. Many people could not understand why he would sacrifice his dream of playing in the NFL for an annual salary of $17,316 in the armed forces. Tillman declined all interview requests once he joined the Army, but judging from his emotional reaction on September 11, 2001, it is safe to assume this event played a significant role. On that terrible Tuesday morning, Tillman watched the events unfold from the Phoenix Cardinals media lounge. He watched the towers collapse and his fellow Americans perish in the rubble left behind. In the ensuing days, Tillman seemed profoundly influenced by the terrorist attacks. “I was dumbfounded by everything that was going on,” he said. “A lot of my family has gone and fought in wars, and I haven’t really done a damn thing as far as laying myself on the line like that.”
Eight months later, in May 2002, Tillman joined the Army. Eighteen months after that, Tillman completed a grueling training program at the Army Ranger School to become a member of the world’s best light-infantry fighting force. In April 2004 Tillman found himself in Osama bin Laden’s backyard fighting terrorists. Three weeks later, on April 22, 2004, Tillman was accidentally killed by someone in his own platoon during a firefight, leaving behind a grieving widow and thousands of fans.
Pat Tillman lived life to the fullest. He was a man of substance who had that “it” quality—something intangible that you can’t quite put your finger on, but you know it when you see it. Jake Plummer, a former teammate, tried to define this elusive quality in Tillman. “He was something special… He had an intensity you can’t describe. It was an inspiration for everybody who played with Pat.” Pat marched to the beat of his own drum. It was widely reported that his favorite word was “dude,” and his attire usually consisted of a pair of cutoff shorts, a T-shirt, and a pair of flip-flops.
Pat’s competitive edge served him well when he began playing sports at Leland High School, a large school with a strong history of athletic achievement. In one playoff game, for example, Leland was ahead 55-0 at halftime. Before the second half kickoff, the coach told his star player, “Pat you’re done for the day, and I don’t want you playing any offense or to play any defense.” A few seconds later, Pat ran onto the field to take his place as the kick-returner on special teams. He returned the kick-off for a touchdown. As he walked to the sidelines, Pat confidently looked his coach in the eye and said, “You mentioned nothing about special teams.” By the time Pat was a high school senior he was a legitimate football star. He averaged 10.9 yards a carry as a fullback and led the team in tackles.
Despite his dominance on the football field, only three Division 1-A schools expressed any interest in Pat. One of those schools was Arizona State University. Head coach Bruce Snyder later explained his initial reluctance to offer Pat a scholarship. “I kept looking at this guy that did not fit the physical profile. He was too short, too slow, and didn’t weigh enough. But whenever I watched tape, he was always the best player on the field. During a campus visit, however, the coaches were struck by Pat’s personality and ambition. Without a doubt, his potential could not be measured with a scale, a yardstick, or a stopwatch. The Arizona State coaches became convinced that Pat had what it took to succeed at the collegiate level. They offered him the last scholarship of 1994.
Tillman was unusual in many ways. During training camp the team would head to the mountains and hold twice-a-day practices. During the breaks, most players were so exhausted that they found a quiet place to relax. Not Tillman. He spent his leisure time climbing fifty-foot cliffs and jumping into the water below. During the season, he would regularly climb a 200-foot tower—in his flip-flops no less—just to clear his mind and contemplate the future. He also read everything he could get his hands on. He would then test his knowledge by choosing controversial sides of an issue and debate his friends just for the fun of it.
On the field, Tillman was becoming one of the best linebackers in the country and making a significant impact on the ASU team. The highlight of his college career was the team’s upset of the defending national champion Nebraska Cornhuskers, ending their twenty-six-game winning streak. ASU finished the regular season undefeated at 11-0, but lost the Rose Bowl when the Ohio State Buckeyes scored a go-ahead touchdown with nineteen seconds remaining on the clock. It was a heartbreaking way to lose the national championship.
While the ASU football team did not fare as well during Tillman’s senior year—finishing the season at 9-3—he led the team in tackles and was named Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year. Pat Tillman was also named the Sporting News Honda Scholar-Athlete of the Year and was named to several Academic All-American teams. Tillman graduated in three-and-a-half years with a GPA of 3.84.
If people thought Pat Tillman was too small and too slow for college football, imagine what the pros thought of him. He would have to prove them wrong too. In the 1998 NFL draft, 243 players were selected over the course of seven rounds. The Arizona Cardinals selected Pat Tillman as the 228th pick in that final round.
Tillman did not care what round he was drafted—he just wanted an opportunity to prove himself. And he did. The first thing the Cardinals did was move him to free safety, a position he had never played. Without missing a beat, Tillman became the team’s leading tackler during the pre-season. Apparently, that’s all the maturation he needed because the Cardinals named him as the starter for the first game of the season. Tillman ended up being the spark that set fire to the team.
His head coach said, “I had an affinity for Pat because his toughness was contagious. Other players fed off of him, and that’s not just a line.”
The Cardinals made the playoffs that year for the first time in fifteen years and won their first playoff game in fifty-one years. In 2000, Tillman set a team record with 224 tackles. It was about this time that Tillman began to get attention from other NFL teams. The St. Louis Rams reportedly offered Tillman a contract worth $9 million. He turned down the opportunity to make more money, opting to stay with the Cardinals. His reasons were simple.
“I felt loyalty to the coaches,” he explained. “I’ve come a long way, and it’s because of them.” Tillman added later, “I try not to make decisions based on money.”
While many people talk about leading a principled life, Tillman lived one. According to one of Tillman’s former professors at ASU, Michael Mokwa, “If you look at Pat’s life, his theme always was to look deep into himself and determine what was right or wrong, good or bad, appropriate or not appropriate, and then to generate his values through this.” Mokwa added, “Once he grabbed a value, he just relentlessly stuck with it and turned it into action.”
Material possessions did not mean much to Tillman. When other NFL players were buying flashy cars and living in mansions, he was still driving his old Volvo station wagon and living in a modest home. Not only that, he frequently rode his beat-up Schwinn bicycle to work in the stifling 115-degree Arizona heat. For most professional football players, the rigor of an NFL season is demanding enough. Not so for Tillman. He challenged himself by competing in triathlons and marathons in his spare time. He thrived on competition and loved to push himself to the limit.
“Doing stuff like this gives me something to focus on,” he said. “I feel like a bum not doing anything in the off-season.”
If Pat Tillman had not been killed in Afghanistan, there is no limit to what he might have accomplished. His former college roommate thought Pat’s life was going to lead to something big. “If Pat were still alive and had made it out of that thing in Afghanistan, he would be back here trying to change stuff, trying to make things better by running for office or something like that,” he said. “I believe he was going to run for some high office, if not president.” Tillman possessed the power to change people, according to his brother-in-law, Alex Garwood. “Man, I spent just a few hours with that guy having a couple of beers, and he changed the way I think about life. He made me want to be a better person.”
Radio broadcaster Jim Rome, master of ceremonies at Tillman’s memorial service, put things into perspective. He said,
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“Pat is a hero…I can’t wait to sit my son down and tell him how much I admire Pat and tell him about the legendary Tillman intensity, his hunger, his desire… I don’t want to be like Mike [Jordan]. I want to be like Pat. I wish I would have spent more time with Pat because Pat’s the man I want to be. Pat’s the man we should all want to be.”
Pat Tillman is one of the 144 “Wednesday Role Models” featured in the Student Athlete Program. This program is designed to improve the character, leadership and sportsmanship of high school athletes. To learn more about this program and how you can implement it in your school: