Pat Tillman, a True American Hero
The word "hero" gets thrown around a lot to describe people. Sometimes, it fits. Most of the time, it doesn’t. With Pat Tillman, it might not be a strong enough distinction.
Tillman walked away from the NFL to become a soldier in the United States Army after September 11. He died in combat in Afghanistan at the age of 27 in 2004.
Every day, his legend grows bigger.
He Was a Man Among Boys Early.
Pat Tillman went to Leland High School in San Jose, California, and was a highlight machine on the football field as a safety, running back and kick returner.
Although he ran a 4.55 in the 40, he was only 5-foot-11, 195 pounds and didn’t draw a lot of interest from college recruiters.
Three Division I schools offered him a scholarship: Brigham Young, San Jose State and Arizona State. He chose Arizona State.
He Had a Nose for the Football.
He played linebacker at Arizona State and excelled.
He led the Sun Devils to the 1997 Rose Bowl in his junior season.
His senior season, he was named Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year.
But Pat Tillman Wasn’t Your Average Football Player.
Tillman was different. He had guts, like all great football players do. But he also had brains. And we’re not just talking about football IQ.
Tim Layden explained Tillman’s uniqueness in a 1997 Sports Illustrated article:
“Most football players fit into a box. They're big, fast and strong (duh); they submit to authority without resistance; and if asked to define introspection, they would say it's what happens when the defense picks off a pass. Those who don't fit into the box rarely succeed at a major program. Then there is Arizona State senior linebacker Pat Tillman, who not only doesn't fit into the box but also would have to consult a travel agent to find it.”
The SI article was titled “A Cut Above Pat Tillman, Arizona State’s Height-Loving, Tree-Swinging, Book-Cracking Linebacker, Is the Best Player You’ve Never Heard Of.” The height part referred to Tillman’s love of jumping from high places like bridges and cliffs into water starting at a young age. Tree-swinging was a hobby he developed while jumping from tree to tree like Tarzan during walks in the woods. And he liked to sit, read and think, sometimes on a light tower overlooking Sun Devil Stadium (which was captured in a photograph by photographer Paul Gero for the SI article).
The athletic director at Leland High, Barbara Beard, summed up Tillman’s individualism this way: "He's driving on the same highway as everybody else, but he's on the other side of the road."
He Was a Humble Overachiever.
He had a ferocious will to be the best he could be and squeezed out every last drop of his talent. A marketing major at Arizona State, he graduated in 3 1/2 years with a 3.84 GPA and took nothing for granted.
"Dude, I'm proud of the things I've done, my schoolwork — because I'm not smart; I just worked hard — and this award [Pac-10 defensive player honor],” Tillman told Sports Illustrated. “But it doesn't do me any good to be proud. It's better to just force myself to be naive about things, because otherwise I'll start being happy with myself, and then I'll stand still, and then I'm old news.”
The NFL Took Notice.
Tillman faced the same kind of doubters coming out of college that he faced coming out of high school. They thought he's too small, too slow to play in the NFL. But Tillman’s heart, mind and toughness were off the charts.
New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick remembers meeting with Tillman during a pre-draft visit.
"I spent a day with Pat Tillman," Belichick said in a 2016 NFL Films’ documentary on Tillman’s life. "Very intelligent. Really smart. Understood everything about the defense, what everybody was doing. He was a very instinctive player."
The Arizona Cardinals drafted Tillman in the seventh round of the 1998 NFL draft with the 226th overall pick.
He Was an Instant Fan Favorite and Turned Into a Star.
Tillman bulked up to 202 pounds in the pros, but he still was not big by NFL standards. It didn’t matter. He played safety for the Cardinals and played big, becoming a team leader who was always around the ball making plays.
In four seasons, he appeared in 60 games (starting 39) and recorded 331 tackles, three interceptions, and 2 1/2 sacks.
In 2000, he started all 16 games and was named to Sports Illustrated's All-Pro Team after recording 155 tackles (118 solo), 1 1/2 sacks, 2 fumble recoveries and an interception.
He Stayed Loyal to Arizona.
Tillman never forgot the people who believed in him.
After his NFL success, the St. Louis Rams offered him a five-year, $9 million contract in 2000. He turned it down to stay with the Cardinals and play for the league minimum because they drafted him and gave his first NFL shot.
He was a throwback with a lot of character and a phenomenal football player.
Another Duty Called.
Tillman played four seasons in the NFL with the Arizona Cardinals and retired from football to join the United States Army in May 2002, eight months after the September 11 attacks.
"This is very serious with Pat," Cardinals coach Dave McGinnis told The Associated Press. "It's very personal, and I honor that. I honor the integrity of that. It was not a snap decision he woke up and made yesterday. This has been an ongoing process, and he feels very strongly about it."
He could have kept playing in the NFL, with the Cardinals or another team, but he turned down every proposal.
"He told me to quit worrying so much about him," Tillman’s agent, Frank Bauer, told ESPN.com. "He said he had a definite blueprint for his life, everything mapped out, and that things would be fine."
Pat’s brother Kevin joined him in the Army, and they went to Iraq as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. They returned and became Army Rangers. Then, they were sent to fight in Afghanistan.
"Somewhere inside, we hear a voice," Pat Tillman said. "It leads us in the direction of who we wish to become. But it is up to us whether or not to follow."
He Lost His Life.
Pat Tillman was killed by friendly fire in Spera, Afghanistan, on April 22, 2004.
Tillman walked away from millions of dollars to serve his country and paid the ultimate price.
He was the first professional football player killed in combat since Bob Kalsu, who died in the Vietnam War in 1970.
Controversy Swirled After His Death.
The military attempted to cover up how Tillman died, first reporting that he was killed by enemy combatants. A subsequent U.S. Army investigation concluded Tillman died from friendly fire.
Jon Krakauer, the author of "Into Thin Air," explored Tillman’s death and cover-up in the 2009 book "Where Men Win Glory."
"Although it wasn't Tillman's intention, when he left the Cardinals to join the Army he was transformed overnight into an icon of post-9/11 patriotism," Krakauer wrote in the prologue. "Seizing the opportunity to capitalize on his celebrity, the Bush administration endeavored to use his name and image to promote what it had christened the Global War on Terror. Tillman abhorred this role. … Unencumbered by biographical insight, people felt emboldened to invent all manner of personae for Tillman after his passing. Most of these renderings were based on little more than rumor and fantasy."
Only a few people beyond Tillman’s family and close friends knew his true motivations.
"The people who were close to Pat Tillman, both as a civilian and as a soldier, paint a picture of a complicated man who questioned authority to understand it, who challenged his friends to defend their beliefs and who sought as many points of view as possible to make sense of an issue," Mike Fish wrote in "Death of an American Ideal," a story for ESPN.com. "They describe a person with no tolerance for dishonesty or incompetence, who would have countenanced neither the manner in which he was killed nor the way his death was handled."
Tillman's Family Fought to Get Out the Truth.
Truth is a casualty of war, but Pat Tillman’s family refused to let the truth die with him. As Gary Smith reported in a 2006 Sports Illustrated article entitled "Remember His Name," Tillman always was compelled to do the right thing, no matter the cost, and his family kept that spirit alive after his death.
"After it happened, all the people in positions of authority went out of their way to script this," Patrick Tillman Sr., Pat’s father and a San Jose lawyer, said in 2005. "They purposely interfered with the investigation, they covered it up. I think they thought they could control it, and they realized that their recruiting efforts were going to go to hell in a handbasket if the truth about his death got out. They blew up their poster boy."
Led by Mary Tillman, Pat’s mother, the family conducted its own investigations to learn the truth about Pat's death and why the Army gave a false story to the family and public.
"The administration used Pat," Mary Tillman said in 2006. "They tried to attach themselves to his virtue, and then they wiped their feet with him."
That same year, Kevin Tillman wrote an article, "After Pat’s Birthday," that condemned U.S. foreign policy. In 2007, Kevin testified before the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform at a hearing that was entitled "Misleading Information from the Battlefield" and said, "Pat’s death was clearly the result of fratricide."
"The deception surrounding this [Tillman] case was an insult to the family, but more importantly, its primary purpose was to deceive a whole nation," Kevin added. "We say these things with disappointment and sadness for our country. Once again, we have been used as props in a Pentagon public relations exercise."
Mary also spoke before the committee. "Our family will never be satisfied. We'll never have Pat back," she testified. "Something really awful happened. It's your job to find out what happened to him. That's really important."
Mary took matters into her own hands to find out what happened to her son. Her 2008 book, "Boots on the Ground by Dusk: My Tribute to Pat Tillman," chronicled her family’s efforts to cut through misleading official accounts and report the truth.
Pat's Life, Principles and Service Are His Legacy.
After Pat’s death, his wife and high school sweetheart, Marie, set up the Pat Tillman Foundation to support veterans and their spouses with academic scholarships. She continues to work to create a positive legacy in his name and remind people that Pat was a complex man who served in the military while opposing the Iraq War.
"As a football player and soldier, Pat inspired countless Americans to unify," Marie Tillman said in a statement in 2017. "It is my hope that his memory should always remind people that we must come together. Pat’s service, along with that of every man and woman’s service, should never be politicized in a way that divides us. We are too great of a country for that. Those that serve fight for the American ideals of freedom, justice and democracy. They and their families know the cost of that fight. I know the very personal costs in a way I feel acutely every day.
"The very action of self-expression and the freedom to speak from one’s heart — no matter those views — is what Pat and so many other Americans have given their lives for. Even if they didn’t always agree with those views. It is my sincere hope that our leaders both understand and learn from the lessons of Pat’s life and death, and also those of so many other brave Americans."
However, she believes no one can speak for him, including her. She wrote an opinion piece on the subject for The Washington Post in 2018 that also commented on the NFL kneeling protests:
"Over the years, I've become used to people wanting to know what he would have thought about something in the news, or assign a way of thinking to him based on what they know about who he was at 27. They want to freeze him in time. I find it ironic because Pat was always known as a free thinker who was constantly growing. He was very different when we got together at 16 from who he was at 27, and he would have been different, too, at 42. We should be able to respect his willingness to sacrifice for what he believed in without looking at it through the lens of today's divisive political climate. So while I still refuse to speak for Pat, I will speak as a widow, a wife, a mother, an American and, yes, a patriot.
"I think that patriotism is complex, like Pat himself. It is not blind or unquestioning. And it's a fool's errand to argue over who's allowed to claim sacrifice. Many of the kneeling athletes say they are protesting as American patriots who want the nation to be better than it is. When I look around at the vitriol aimed at them for expressing their beliefs, and at the compulsion to simplify complicated issues to pit people on opposing sides, I want to kneel, too. Because I believe we are at our best as Americans when we engage in constructive dialogue around our differences with the goal of understanding one another."
In April 2020, to commemorate the 16th anniversary of Pat’s death, the Pat Tillman Foundation got creative to hold its annual run in his honor.
Pat Tillman Will Always Be an Inspiration.
People have not forgotten about Pat Tillman. He was a son, brother, husband, teammate and friend.
His name is still searched over 60,000 times a month on the internet. People are not just searching for Tillman’s story. They are searching for what he represents: discipline, duty, honor, sacrifice, commitment and courage.
"To err on the side of passion is human and right and the only way I'll live," he once said.
We need more Pat Tillmans in this world. He was one of the good guys.
RELATED: Greatest Athletes Who Served in the Military