Wednesday, October 13, 2004

DENVER (AP) — Pat Tillman always stood up for what he believed. His friend Jake Plummer wanted to as well, but officials from the NFL weren’t so keen on letting him.

Plummer relented yesterday, agreeing to adhere to the league’s dress code and remove a sticker from his helmet that honored Tillman, who was killed in the war in Afghanistan after quitting football to join the Army.

“When it comes to honoring Pat, he’s bigger than a sticker on my helmet,” Plummer said. “I don’t like the fact I can’t, but I understand what the league wants to accomplish with its rules and regulations.”

To soften the blow, the NFL said it would not fine Plummer for wearing the sticker last Sunday in violation of league rules. Also, the league agreed to let Plummer tape public service announcements honoring Tillman and play them in stadiums nationwide on the weekend after Veterans Day.

“We, too, want to continue to keep Pat Tillman’s legacy alive, but … we have rules regarding personal messages on uniforms that we needed to apply consistently,” the NFL said in a statement.

Tillman, a former teammate of Plummer’s at Arizona State and with the Arizona Cardinals, quit the league in 2002 to join the Army Rangers. He died in combat in April.

To honor the former safety, all NFL players wore the No.40 decal on their helmets during the second week of the season. The Cardinals will wear the decal all season.

Plummer wanted to keep his own tribute going past the second week. Warned of possible fines by the NFL, Plummer backed down for the next two games. But against the Panthers on Sunday, the sticker reappeared. At that time, Plummer said giving up the fight just didn’t feel right, and he agreed to accept whatever fine was levied and urged fans to donate to the Pat Tillman Foundation.

By yesterday, the story had gained footing well beyond Broncos headquarters and the NFL offices. Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, sent a letter to NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue criticizing the league’s policy. Sen. Wayne Allard, Colorado Republican, also weighed in.

“I find it disheartening that the National Football League will penalize a player for honoring a fallen soldier, friend and American hero,” Allard wrote in a letter to the commissioner.

In its statement, the NFL said “we look forward to working together with” Plummer and announced it has donated $250,000 to build the first USO facility in Afghanistan, which will be named after Tillman.

The Broncos will honor Tillman by putting up a big No.40 logo — Tillman’s number with the Cardinals — near the play clock on the north end of the stadium. The team also will run ads on the scoreboard during games to promote the Tillman Foundation.

“His idea was, ‘How can I go forward from this?’” Broncos spokesman Jim Saccomano said. “We were looking for a better way. Everyone felt the same way, that something like this would work.”

The NFL has long had a strict uniform policy banning untucked shirts, unlicensed logos and unapproved decals and signs worn on uniforms and helmets, regardless of the reason.

A few years ago, Peyton Manning wanted to wear high-top shoes in tribute to the late Johnny Unitas but was told he couldn’t, so he backed off.

Plummer, who signed a $40million contract last year and could afford any fine levied by the NFL, knew he was walking a fine line between doing what he believed was right and causing a distraction.

In the end, Plummer thinks what he’s doing now will be a more effective tribute to Tillman than just slapping a decal on a helmet.

“It’s a terrible feeling that we are having to do this. It’s bittersweet,” Plummer said. “The fact we are talking about this and he has a foundation — it’s a constant reminder that he’s not here with us any more. Now, let’s go do some positive stuff in his name.”

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