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The Legacy that Lives On: Remembering Pat Tillman


By Bryan Dietzler

Veteran’s Day is a time when we should reflect on the people who have been the most heroic in the history of our great country. Those people are our veterans.  Some say it’s a time to remember those veterans who are alive while others feel that it is a good time to remember those that have passed on.  I feel it’s important to remember both but especially those that have passed on as a result of their service to our country.

There are some that consider NFL players heroes.  You have some of the greats that many refer to as being their hero.  These heroes include such players as Walter Payton, Jim Brown and Brett Favre.  They are favorites of young and old alike.  Those players are just three examples of hundreds of professional football players that people call their heroes.

But what if you combined a football player and the military?  It hashappened before.  Roger Staubach, Napoleon McCallum and Sid Luckman are just a few of the many players that have served their country.

For many of us, there is one NFL player that we can recall, from recent memory, who epitomizes not only our thought of a football player/military member but also a true hero.  That person is Pat Tillman.

There are many who may not know the complete story of Pat Tillman.  Tillman has been gone for a little while and memories will fade.  But his story should never be forgotten.

Veterans Day has passed but it’s never too late to learn about a true American hero.  So read on and learn more about Pat Tillman the man who defined the term “Hero”.

Patrick Daniel Tillman was born on November 6th, 1976 in Fremont, California.  He was the oldest of three boys.

Tillman was an outstanding football player at Bret Harte Middle School as well as at his high school, Leland.  His skill and ability earned him a scholarship to Arizona State University.

He began his football career at Arizona State in 1994 earning the last possible scholarship on the team.  He started as a linebacker despite his size (he was on 5’11”).  The SunDevils played in the Rose Bowl, following an undefeated season and Tillman was named the Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year in 1997.

His college career was solid.

The star earned his degree in Marketing and finished with a 3.85 GPA.  A majority of the honors and accolades he received were related to academics and athletics showing just how intelligent and good at football he was.

The 1998 NFL Draft had arrived and it was not known if Tillman would be selected by anyone in that draft.  He was a bit of a wildcard.  His opportunity did come, however, as he was picked 226th overall by the Arizona Cardinals.  His chance to play in the NFL had come.

The Cardinals moved Tillman to the safety position upon drafting him.  He started ten of the 16 games in the 1998 season.

In the 1999 season, Tillman played in all 16 games but only started one.  The 2000 season say him play in and start in all 16 games.  For his performance that season, he was named to Paul Zimmerman’s (the famous Sports Illustrated pro football writer) All-Pro Team.  That year, Tillman recorded 155 tackles with 120 of those solo, a sack and a half, two fumble recoveries, two forced fumbles with nine passes defended and one interception.  Tillman was poised for a huge NFL payday.

Things between Tillman and the Cardinals appeared to be a little strained and it appeared as if he might not be back with Arizona.  In addition to that, the St. Louis Rams offered him a contract that would give him nine million dollars over five seasons.  It was a deal that was hard to pass up.

But Tillman’s loyalty to the Cardinals made him forgo the better offer and stay with them.  For Tillman, it wasn’t all about money, it was about loyalty.

Pat Tillman’s life, as well as the lives of many others, would change on September 11th, 2001.  On that day, terrorists captured four commercial aircraft using them as flying “bombs” in an attempt to destroy targets on America’s east coast.  Two of them flew into the World Trade Center towers in New York City while another one was flown into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.  A fourth crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

The attacks had a profound effect on Tillman.  After finishing the 2001 season (he played in 12 games with 12 starts) the Cardinals offered him a contract for 3.6 million for three years.  But Tillman didn’t bite.  Instead he went a different direction.

Pat decided to enlist in the United States Army with his brother Kevin on May 31, 2002.  Ironically, Kevin himself had a good shot at playing professional baseball but he gave it up to join Pat in the Army.  The duo finished basic training in September or 2002 and finished the preliminary Army Ranger program later on that year.  The Tillman brothers were assigned to Fort Lewis in Washington state.


Tillman went to Iraq for his first overseas deployment.  He completed his Ranger training at the Ranger School in Fort Benning, Georgia in November of 2003. With that, he had accomplished his dream of being a Ranger.  He would go on to serve his country as a member of the US Army.

Pat began his second overseas deployment, this time going to Afghanistan.  He was part of a Ranger unit that was patrolling the area around an Army forward operations base name Salerno.  On April 22, 2004, he was reported as being killed by the enemy while out on one of these patrols.  The Army stuck by the story until just after he was buried.  Then the truth came out.

After a long investigation, it was discovered that Tillman was killed by friendly fire.  We won’t talk about the reason why the incident was originally reported the way it was.  What we do want to mention is that it was a tragic event and one that took the life of a real American hero.

Something interesting to point out is that Tillman was not the first NFL player to be killed in combat.  In 1970, Bob Kalsu was killed in Vietnam.  Kalsu was an offensive guard with the Buffalo Bills.  The Bills Rookie of the Year went into the service to fulfil an obligation to the Reserve Officer Training Corps. He ended up going to Vietnam where he was killed.

Tillman has been honored in many, many ways since his passing.  Roads have been named after him, bridges bear his name and there are scholarships in his honor.  The NFL got into the act in September of 2004 as each team in the league wore a special decal on their helmets.  The Cardinals wore the decal during the whole season.  Tillman’s good friend, Jake Plummer, who was the quarterback of the Denver Broncos during the 2004 season wanted to wear the decal as well but the NFL said he couldn’t since he wasn’t with the Cardinals any longer.  Plummer grew his beard out instead.

There were other football related honors that were attributed to Tillman.  His number 40 was retired by the Cardinals and his alma mater, Arizona State, retired his number 42.  The Cardinals named the plaza that surrounded their stadium the Pat Tillman Freedom Plaza.  A statue of his likeness was revelaed to the public on November 12, 2006.

Ever since Tillman’s passing, the NFL has been very active in helping veterans organziations.  They have donated money and honored veterans with various activities to promote veterans organizations and verterans themselves.  And the NFL continues to remind people of Tillman’s ultimate sacrifice.

The Pat Tillman Foundation was put together to help veterans of the military and their spouses get an education through scholarships that the organization provides.  One of it’s biggest events is a run called Pat’s Run.  The run started out in just one location, Tempe, Arizona, in 2005 but has since grown to be held in other locations across the country.  The run has continued to prosper and has become one of the more popular fund raising events in the country.

There are other honors, seemingly smaller and less noticeable that are influenced by Tillman’s actions.  The PAC-10 defensive Player of the Year award is named the Pat Tillman Defensive Player of the Year.  His high school in San Jose, California named it’s football field after him.  Books have been written about him also.

But one important memory that Tillman will leave us with is that there are things more important than money or fame.  There is a sense of duty and honor that one has for themselves and their country.  They will lay their life on the line, giving up their freedoms and comforts to help their fellow man.  Tillman was that kind of person.  He was willing to give up so much for something he believed in.

So as we honor Veterans Day this month, let’s remember one veteran that gave the ultimate sacrifice.  And as it relates to football, let’s remember the football player who gave up money and fame to become a true and real American hero.  A hero who paid the ultimate price.


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