There are certain dates that when given immediately strike a cord with Americans. Dec. 7, 1941, Sept. 11, 2001, April 22, 2004. April 22, 2004?
Many might not recall this date. However for me and many other people across this country, this date holds significance.
I remember where I was when I heard that Pat Tillman had been killed in Afghanistan.
It was a Friday before the NFL draft. A day after he had been killed in action that the news broke.
During lunch at work we had been talking about the draft that weekend. I mentioned how I was disgusted that Eli Manning who was projected to be the No. 1 draft (and he was) was whining about not wanting to play in San Diego and that he didn’t want the Chargers to draft him.
During that conversation I brought up Tillman and how many professional athletes, not just in the NFL, needed to learn a lesson or two from him. How he literally walked away from millions and went to serve our country. Little did I know that he had by that time already paid the ultimate price. To this day, I still have no respect for Eli Manning and his whining. He could learn a thing or two from Pat Tillman.
A few hours later, one of the guys I had lunch with came up to me and asked if I had heard about Tillman. He told me he had been killed. I smacked him across the arm and told him that was not a funny joke. He told me he wasn’t joking. I went to my computer and pulled up the local news website and there it was…staring me in the face.
I was devastated. I have been a lifelong ASU fan and admired Tillman for his style of play, his intensity, and the fact that he wouldn’t take "no" for answer. There has been more than one article written on Pat Tillman and how he received the last scholarship to ASU from coach Bruce Snyder in 1994, who wanted Tillman to sit out his freshman year. Tillman told him he wouldn't, as he was planning on graduating on time and had other things to do in life. Little did anyone know just how much more he had to do.
Tillman played linebacker and at only 5’11”, he was considered small for the position.
Tillman would often climb the light posts outside Sun Devil Stadium, Frank Kush Field, to reflect and meditate.
He was well educated and smart. He was more than just a football player. However he excelled at that as well. Pat Tillman was named Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year in 1998. The year before his team went to the Rose Bowl and was a mere seconds away from claiming a national championship. Tillman was also a gifted scholar and graduated with a degree in marketing with a 3.84 GPA.
Pat Tillman was drafted by the Cardinals in 1998 in round seven—the No. 226 overall pick, and moved to safety where he excelled again. A year after the St. Louis Rams won the Super Bowl, they offered him a $9 million five year contract. Tillman refused it and re-signed with the Cardinals out of loyalty to the team that drafted him. He said at the time he felt he could help the team improve.
Then on a beautiful Tuesday in September, everything changed. Pat sat mesmerized and infuriated as he watched the events of Sept. 11 unfold on the television screen in the Cardinals media room.
A camera crew asked him his thoughts and a reflective Tillman stated, “My great grandfather was at Pearl Harbor and a lot of my family has given up, gone and fought in wars. I haven’t really done a damn thing as far as laying myself on the line like that. So I have a lot of respect for those that have and for what the flag stands for.”
Pat Tillman played out the remaining games of the 2001-2002 season and eventually turned down a $3.6 million, three year contract so he could join the Army with his brother Kevin—who gave up a promising baseball career himself.
Pat made the decision to join the Army shortly after Sept. 11, but kept his plans secret. He advised the Cardinals and his former ASU coach and asked them to keep it quiet just long enough for him to enlist.
Kevin and Pat Tillman actually enlisted in Colorado to avoid media attention. Once he was safely tucked away in basic training, the story broke. Tillman was not content to just join the Army however, him and his brother signed up to join the elite Army Rangers and go through Ranger training.
There were multiple requests for interviews during his time in training but Pat refused them all. He felt he was not a celebrity, he was a soldier; the same as the man sitting next to him going through the same training. It was this humility that Pat was known for that earned the respect of his fellow Rangers. They voted Pat to carry the flag during graduation ceremonies.
In 2003 both Pat and Kevin Tillman received the Arthur Ashe Courage Award from the ESPY's. The sent their younger brother to accept for them. They both felt that they were no better than the soldiers they served next to. They did not think they were doing anything extraordinary.
Pat Tillman served in both Iraq and Afghanistan where he was critical of the war. His first mission in Iraq was the rescue of Jessica Lynch. It was this mission that first made him critical of the war.
The details surrounding Pat’s death have been the subject of Congressional hearings. What we do know for certain is that Pat Tillman was not killed in an enemy ambush as was first reported after his death. Pat Tillman was killed by friendly fire. Some say he was murdered. Some others take it further and say he was murdered to promote the war.
To me, the reason for his death does not diminish the man to be any less of a hero. Pat Tillman literally put his money where his mouth was. He walked away from millions to serve this great country.
He knew this country had flaws, but he loved it and wanted to protect it as best he could. He was and still is a hero in my eyes and in the eyes of many others.
There have been many tributes to "Tilly" (as he was nicknamed) and his legacy. The Pat Tillman Foundation helps to give scholarships to college students who show and live his values and who set out to improve their communities and the world.
They also have a scholarship for military members and their family. As part of the foundation, I was able to get red bracelets with his number. I still wear mine.
The Arizona Cardinals retired Tillman’s No. 40 jersey and named the area outside University of Phoenix Stadium as Pat Tillman Freedom Plaza. On this plaza is also a bronze statue of Pat Tillman with his trademark long locks flowing.
Arizona State also retired Pat’s #42 jersey. I was at the game where his number was retired and his name added to the ring of honor. It was an emotional game where even the opposing team and fans stood, cheered and cried as his name was revealed. I made a sign to hold up that had a photo of Pat making a tackle. I had simply placed on it “God Bless You Pat”.
The tunnel entering the stadium was also named “Pat Tillman Memorial Tunnel”. There is a large # 42 that the football players run past and hit with their hands as they enter the stadium before each home game.
The NFL donated $250,000 dollars to the USO. That money was used to build the Pat Tillman USO Center, the first USO center in Afghanistan.
There have been athletes who have changed their number to No. 40 in honor of Tillman, as well as grown their hair out in tribute.
There is a bridge being built over the Hoover Dam spanning Nevada and Arizona. A portion of the bridge will be called the Pat Tillman Bridge. The entire bridge will be called the Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge.
A park near Tillman's hometown was named after him, and the football stadium at his former high school now bears his name.
Pat Tillman touched many lives with his style of play, his loyalty, and with his courage. There need to be more Pat Tillman’s in the world.
Each year, they have Pat’s Run here in Tempe. The run is 4.2 miles and finishes at the 42 yard line at Sun Devil Stadium where the player had many great moments on the field. The football players, cheerleaders, and of course Sparky cheer the runners in as they complete the event. The first year many former players including Jake Plummer attended the run. Each year, there are military members who run the event in full gear.
This year’s Pat’s Run had over 28,000 participants. Next year I will run my first Pat’s Run, and my youngest son who I named in Pat Tillman’s honor will greet me at the finish line.
My son, Riley Tillman, named after Pat Tillman.
I can think of no greater man for my children to look up to and call a hero.
April 22, 2004 will be a day I will never forget, along the lines of Sept. 11.
Thank you Pat for being a role model I am not ashamed to have my children look up to.
R.I.P. Cpl Tillman—you are gone but never forgotten.
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