Pat Tillman was considered by many to be a hero when he put a promising NFL career on hold nearly two years ago to enlist in the Army. A safety with the Arizona Cardinals, he sacrificed a three-year, $3.6 million contract because he wanted to volunteer for the Rangers, the elite special forces group, and fight terrorism.
Now Sgt. Tillman has made the ultimate sacrifice.
He was killed while with his unit, part of the 75th Ranger Regiment, hunting for al Qaeda and Taliban fighters in southeastern Afghanistan, it was announced yesterday. He was 27.
The Rangers are an infantry force whose soldiers serve as shock troops, raiders and commandos who strike behind enemy lines. Every Ranger volunteers for the duty and must pass rigorous physical tests to serve.
Sgt. Tillman reportedly was involved in Operation Mountain Storm and was killed when his patrol was ambushed by small-arms fire and mortars.
“Pat knew his purpose in life,” said Dave McGinnis, Sgt. Tillman’s friend and former coach with the Cardinals. “He proudly walked away from a career in football to a greater calling.”
A graduate of Arizona State University with a marketing degree and a 3.84 grade point average, Sgt. Tillman played four years with the Cardinals. He told friends that he planned to return to the club after his three-year Army hitch was up.
Shortly after getting married, Sgt. Tillman left the Cardinals in May 2002 and enlisted with his younger brother, Kevin, who had given up a minor league baseball career.
Both served in Operation Iraqi Freedom before returning to the United States in December to begin an elite, three-month training mission. It is not known when they shipped to Afghanistan, where Kevin Tillman reportedly is serving in the same platoon.
After his sons served in Iraq, the Tillmans’ father, Patrick Sr., told the Arizona Republic, “They are still pleased with the decision that they made.”
Pat Tillman was a native of Fremont, Calif., and grew up in San Jose. He is survived by his father; his mother, Mary; his wife, Marie; and his brothers, Kevin and Richard. Sgt. Tillman is the first active professional athlete to die in combat since Bob Kalsu, who played for the Buffalo Bills, was killed in Vietnam in 1970.
Of 638 active or retired pro football players who served in World War II, 19 were killed.
The Cardinals set up a memorial outside their headquarters in Tempe, Ariz., with Sgt. Tillman’s No. 40 uniform in a glass frame with two teddy bears and two bouquets. A pen was left for people to write messages to Sgt. Tillman’s family.
Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano ordered flags at Arizona State to fly at half-staff.
Tributes to Sgt. Tillman, who doggedly refused to speak about his decision publicly, poured in from the worlds of sports and politics. Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and former Navy pilot who spent five years in a North Vietnamese prison camp, said he was “heartbroken” over the news.
“He viewed his decision as no more patriotic than that of his less fortunate, less renowned countrymen who loved our country enough to volunteer to defend her in a time of peril,” Mr. McCain said.
“Pat Tillman was an inspiration both on and off the football field,” White House spokesman Taylor Gross said. “As with all who have made the ultimate sacrifice in the war on terror, his family is in the thoughts and prayers of President and Mrs. Bush.”
Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican, said, “Pat Tillman is a great American hero in the truest sense. He had already given up so much, including an incredible football career and loving family, to fight for his country in the war on terrorism.”
McGinnis, who was fired after last season and is an assistant with the Tennessee Titans, said Sgt. Tillman “represented all that was good in sports.”
Sgt. Tillman let only a few people in on his decision to enlist, keeping it a secret even from friends and family members. In addition to McGinnis, he informed Larry Marmie, who was then an assistant coach for the Cardinals. Marmie said he thought that the September 11 terrorist attacks were not the determining factor, “but, yeah, it had something to do with it,” he told The Washington Times in 2002.
By coincidence, Sgt. Tillman was one of the athletes interviewed by ESPN the day after the attacks. Reflecting on the tragedy, on our freedoms and on those who forced the plane to crash in Pennsylvania while defending their country, Sgt. Tillman concluded by saying: “And I haven’t done a damn thing as far as laying myself on the line.”
McGinnis said Friday that he “wasn’t shocked and I wasn’t surprised” by Sgt. Tillman’s actions. “Just because of the essence of the man and what he was.”
Sgt. Tillman told Marmie in April 2002 that he thought he was fortunate to be an athlete but that it was time for a new experience and a new perspective on life.
“Pat wanted to be challenged physically,” said Marmie, now the St. Louis Rams defensive coordinator. “Football, being a Ranger. But he also wanted to be challenged intellectually.”
Marmie added, “A lot of people knew Pat Tillman because he was a football player. The real sad part is that they didn’t know Pat Tillman as a person. What we lost in terms of a person is really something that a lot of us would like to have, those kinds of convictions and the kind of character and attitude that he had about living life.
“He was such a unique guy and such a good person and such a committed guy, to doing things the best he could.”
As a student and athlete, Sgt. Tillman was known for a distinct and rather offbeat personality. He had long, flowing hair and used to meditate while sitting on top of a light tower. He openly questioned his coaches, circling what he thought were mistakes in the playbook. Even after making big money as a professional, he rode his bicycle to practice.
When in high school, Sgt. Tillman beat up someone who had assaulted his friend and ended up serving 30 days in a juvenile-detention facility. He said he learned from his mistake and avoided further trouble.
“Pat is the most unique kid I ever coached,” former Arizona State coach Bruce Snyder told The Times in 2002. “The ancient Greeks talked about the combination of mind and body and, boy, this guy has it.”
Snyder recalled how Sgt. Tillman, who played linebacker in college, was the last player to get a scholarship. And when Snyder told him that he would be held out during his freshman season, Sgt. Tillman interrupted and said, “I’m graduating in four years and then I’m out of here, so I might as well play.”
Sgt. Tillman did, in fact, play. After his senior season in 1997 he was voted the Pacific 10 Conference’s defensive player of the year. But he was wrong about one thing. He needed only 31/2 years to graduate.
Despite his performance at Arizona State, the 5-foot-11-inch, 200-pound Sgt. Tillman was too small to play linebacker in the NFL. He was picked by the Cardinals as a safety in the seventh round of the 1998 draft, No. 226 of 241 players selected.
Sgt. Tillman started as a rookie, lost the job, then earned it back. In 2000, he set a team record for tackles.
“Everyone thought he was too small to play linebacker and too slow to play safety,” said Vince Tobin, who was then the Cardinals’ head coach. “But you could tell he was a football player.”
Sgt. Tillman turned down a five-year, $9 million offer to sign with the Rams in 2001, citing his loyalty to the Cardinals. He accepted a one-year deal worth $512,000. The following season, Sgt. Tillman was offered a three-year contract worth $3.6 million, but enlisted instead.
Not only did Sgt. Tillman’s former teammates take the news yesterday hard, they were reminded of what is really important, if they did not already know.
“A lot of times in football, the analogies of war are thrown around freely,” said Arizona lineman Pete Kendall, who played with Sgt. Tillman for one season. “And on a day like today, you see how hollow those ring.
“You have guys ‘soldiering’ on through injuries and that’s a tough statement to make at a time like this. I just count myself very lucky to have known Pat and played with him for that one year.”
After the Tillman brothers returned in December, they visited with the Cardinals team the night before a game in Seattle. McGinnis said Mrs. Tillman and two friends also came along.
“I spent about five hours on Saturday night with those five young people,” McGinnis said. “What came out of it was a tremendous sense of pride, a tremendous sense of just being around that type of passion, that type of commitment and that type of energy. He was a man that knew exactly what he wanted.”