The terrorist attacks on 9/11 and the United States‘ occupation of Afghanistan in its wake will both reach their twentieth anniversaries in the coming days. The weight of the terrible memories that day, our recent withdrawal from the war-torn nation and the inevitable reflection that comes with it, and the excitement of another football season being upon us all conjured up in my mind the thought of a man with an inextricable connection to all three: Pat Tillman. It occurred to me how he isn’t a big part of the public consciousness anymore, and what a shame that is.
As a high school football and wrestling coach, I’ve spent a lot of time with the next generation, and have inevitably been awakened to an unfortunate but inevitable reality: I got old.
I’ve come to terms with being a curmudgeon. I’m prepared to accept that I have an older worldview that often can’t always be reconciled with the present-day adolescent. I can accept, grudgingly, that today’s teen listens to Lil Uzi Vert, says Lebron James is better than Michael Jordan, and likes to watch other people play video games on Twitch instead of playing themselves. One of the few things that I can’t budge on, however, is Pat Tillman. His name is one that every one of my athletes, every one of my younger brothers and sisters in the armed forces, and every American, for that matter, should know.
Tillman’s story, the four-year NFL veteran who turned down millions of dollars to become an Army Ranger, is unfamiliar for most reading that were only toddlers (or maybe not even born) on 9/11, and understandably so. Even though most my age or older will remember his name, and maybe his tragic death, I contend that we are remembering all the wrong details.
It’s hard to point to one single factor for why he has faded from our collective memory. Perhaps it’s societal fatigue with the military and the ongoing war in Afghanistan. The murky circumstances surrounding his death that hinted at scandal are also an unpleasant memory that many don’t want to revisit. Neither lends itself to staying in the news cycle forever. We don’t need to re-open that wound, but we do need to remember who Pat Tillman was and what he represented.
Tillman’s influence on me started well before he made headlines for joining the military. When I played football for the first time in 2001, I wanted to wear number 40 like him and my other favorite player, Mike Alstott (alas, I was a lineman, and linemen have to wear numbers 50-79, so I went with Ray Lewis’ 52). Tillman was an All-Conference linebacker for the Pac-10 his senior year at Arizona State. Seen as a classic “‘tweener” (too small for linebacker, too slow for safety) as he left college, he slipped all the way to the seventh and final round of the NFL Draft, where the Cardinals took a chance on him.
It was a move the franchise didn’t regret. He played with reckless abandon and punished opposing receivers who dared enter his zone, making him a fan favorite. He earned a reputation as a heavy hitter, hard worker and fierce competitor not only during games, but also in practice. For the uninitiated in the ways of football, just picture a 200-pound guided missile with a lock on the football.
As a kid who had no options for sports in elementary and middle school except soccer, basketball, and baseball, I was a square peg in a round hole. I was a bigger kid and I liked playing physical and quite frankly… hurting people a little. When I got my first taste of the controlled violence of football, I fell in love with it. Tillman’s playing style and underdog status resonated with me. He was one of the players I tried to emulate.
Despite his vicious nature between the sidelines, Tillman was far from a stereotypical brute. He was a very well-read and intelligent guy. His strong adherence to his principles and morality was evident even as a rookie with the Cardinals. Traditionally, the veterans in training camp look for any excuse to assert their dominance over the rookies. Tillman’s roommate for camp, linebacker Zach Walz, had forgotten to bring in donuts and was taped to the goalposts in the Arizona sun as penance for his crime against the team.
Tillman retrieved some scissors from the athletic trainer’s office, walked past all the veterans that had instructed that no one touch him, and cut the tape to free his friend. No one said anything and no one tried to stop him. This act of defiance might seem trivial. It was just a little rookie hazing. But it was also a display that Tillman thought differently than everyone else. He wouldn’t be afraid to do what he felt was right. In a world filled with male twenty-somethings like professional football, many fancy themselves the role of being an “alpha,” but Tillman actually embodied the spirit of what it supposed to mean to be an alpha: he was strong enough to protect those that couldn’t protect themselves. Training camp shenanigans? Maybe. But also foreshadowing of decisions he would make in the near future.
He eventually earned a starting job at strong safety, and in his third year, set a team record for tackles with 155, to go with two forced fumbles and an interception. Sports Illustrated writer Paul Zimmerman named Tillman to his All-Pro team that year. When the season was over, the Rams offered him a five-year, $9.6 million offer sheet as a restricted free agent, but Tillman stayed loyal to the team that brought him into the league and turned it down for a lesser contract offered by Arizona. It is almost unheard of for a player to do anything but follow the money, especially in a taxing sport where a player’s window to earn big contracts is shorter than most, but that’s exactly what he did.
A year later, following the 2001 season, the Cardinals had a three-year, $3.6 million deal on the table for him. However, as it had for so many Americans, 9/11 changed everything for Tillman. Normally one to skirt the spotlight, he spoke up about how he felt the day after the attacks:
“My great grandfather was at Pearl Harbor and a lot of my family have… gone to fight in wars… and I haven’t done a damn thing, as far as laying myself on the line and that. I have a great deal of respect for those who have and for what the flag stands for.”
Tillman continued to evaluate his career and his place in the world in the following months. Eventually, he made the decision to enlist in the Army with his brother Kevin.
“Sports embodied many of the qualities I deem meaningful,” he wrote in a letter to his family in May 2002. “However, these last few years, and especially after recent events, I’ve come to appreciate just how shallow and insignificant my role is. . . . It’s no longer important.”
Tillman’s decision was highly publicized at the time. Walking away from the fame and fortune of professional sports was almost unheard of. The list of those who have done so, let alone voluntarily put themselves in harm’s way, is very short. Tillman refused interviews and media attention, fading from the public eye for the next couple of years. He and his brother were assigned to 2nd Battlalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, where they were first sent to Iraq. He even had the opportunity after that first tour in Iraq to leave active service and return to the NFL, but refused to do so, determined to fulfill all of his three-year commitment to the Army.
I was 17 and about to graduate high school when I heard of his death in Eastern Afghanistan the next year. It was almost two years to the day after that I joined the Marines. I had hemmed and hawed for almost two years about joining the armed forces in some capacity. I still remember the night that I made the decision to start talking to recruiters.
I was watching the news, with footage of battles in Iraq and Afghanistan. I was a college dropout delivering pizza in Springfield, Massachusetts. My sister and I were scraping by to pay for an apartment in a basement. I had no plan or vision for the future. I thought of the troops overseas. I thought of all the men and women that had made that choice and that sacrifice, and prominently among those was one of my favorite football players in Pat Tillman. “What the hell am I doing with my life that’s so important?” I remember thinking.
Neither Tillman himself nor his family would be comfortable with him being a poster boy or a recruiting tool. I only say that to illustrate that Pat Tillman’s impact on me at this time was significant. Regardless of politics or worldview, giving up so much in order to become part of something greater than himself is a story that needs to be passed down beyond my generation. Commitment, selflessness, leadership, a sense of duty to protect that which is dear to us… these are qualities that we should all aspire to, in any walk of life, in or out of uniform.
The circumstances surrounding his death and how it was handled are not inconsequential or something to be glossed over, but lost in the controversy and America’s attempt to bury a painful memory is something even more important. Rather than simply focusing on how Pat Tillman died, we should remember how he lived.
Read more from Sandboxx News:
- What it means to be an Army Ranger, according to 7 Rangers
- Rangers vs. SEALs: Who’s had more impact in War on Terror?
- Former SEAL and CIA officer on what comes next for US, post-Afghanistan
- The Panjshir Railroad: A covert action blueprint to continue evacuations from Afghanistan
- Former SOCOM, CENTCOM commander wants no one left behind in Afghanistan