One For the Team

  • Share
  • Read Later

After his death, the White House put out a statement of sympathy that praised Tillman as "an inspiration both on and off the football field."

Last December, a few days before the Arizona Cardinals were set to play the Seattle Seahawks, Dave McGinnis, then the Cardinals' head coach, got a call from U.S. Army Specialist Pat Tillman. Eighteen months after trading his Cardinals jersey for government-issue camouflage and six months after returning from a tour of duty in Iraq, Tillman was back with his 75th Army Ranger Regiment at its base in Fort Lewis, Wash. Soon he would ship out again, this time to Afghanistan. But now he wanted to come see his old team play. The night before the game, Tillman showed up at McGinnis' Seattle hotel room along with his wife Marie and his brother Kevin, who had signed up and fought with him in the same unit in Iraq. Two other friends were also in tow. Both brothers were taking part in a three-month Ranger training program. "Pat told me right off," says McGinnis, 'Coach, there are some things I can talk about and some things I just can't.'"

After the game (which the Cardinals lost, 28-10), McGinnis asked Tillman to appear in the locker room. Ever reluctant to grandstand or play the hero, he agreed to meet the players but not to address them formally as a group. "When he walked in, there was just a tremendous amount of respect," says McGinnis. "I can still see vividly in my mind each player shaking his hand, everyone saying thank you and touching his shoulder." They may have wanted to make sure he was real. After all, this was the man who had walked away from a $3.6 million three-year contract with the Cardinals because there was another uniform he wanted to wear. In a culture obsessed with money, there's something hard to believe about a person who turns down that kind of offer for an $18,000- a-year job with the Army. And in a culture obsessed with fame, we hardly know what to do with a guy who doesn't even capitalize on the story. From the minute he decided to sign up, Tillman refused interview requests. What he did wasn't a publicity stunt. It wasn't a career move. It was that ancient, compelling thing—a sacrifice.

What we realize now is that there was a larger sacrifice to come. In Afghanistan last week Tillman was part of Operation Mountain Storm, a campaign launched in March by U.S.-led forces against Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters who have been regrouping in sanctuaries along the border with Pakistan. On Thursday his special-forces unit was on patrol with Afghan militia near the isolated mud-brick village of Spera, about 25 miles southwest of the nearest U.S. firebase, at Khost.

The mountain trails around Spera, where thick pine forests provide cover from U.S. aircraft, have become a major infiltration point for Taliban and al-Qaeda operatives. The watchful locals, members of the Zadran tribe, sympathize with the jihadists. It's ambush country, and some time around 7:30 p.m. Tillman's patrol was attacked. In the 12 to 15 minutes of shooting that followed, two Americans were wounded. An Afghan militia man was killed. So was Tillman. He was 27.

All this week—and for weeks to come—we will talk about Tillman, who went out of his way to discourage such conversation. All soldiers give up something when they enlist. Tillman didn't want to hear that the career he left behind was any more important. But now that he's gone, he will be singled out, for a while anyway. Not just because he was one of the few famous faces in an all-volunteer Army that doesn't attract many. But because his sacrifice can stand for those made by all the others. And because we wonder if we could do what he—and they—have done.

Tillman grew up in San Jose, Calif., where his father Pat Sr. is a lawyer and former college wrestler. Like a lot of young Californians, the long-haired Pat Jr. could embody the surfer dude. In fact, dude was one of his favorite words. His other favorite word isn't printable. Cargo shorts, flip-flops and T shirts were his standard outfit. But at Arizona State University, he had the brains to get his marketing degree in 31/2 years—and with a 3.84-grade-point average. At school he got into the habit of climbing at night up the narrow ladder of a 200-ft. light tower at Sun Devil Stadium. He would perch at the top, look at the stars and wonder where he was headed. Everybody's favorite story from his high school football career involves the game in which his team was so far ahead that his coach decided to bench the starters for the second half. But Tillman—a starter—still needed to play. As the half began, he snuck back onto the field and returned the kickoff for a touchdown. His coach was so upset at the stunt that he locked Tillman's helmet in the team bus to keep him sidelined.

In the fall of 1993, as a high school senior, Tillman got into a more serious kind of trouble. Coming to the defense of a friend involved in a fight outside a pizza parlor, he beat his adversary so severely that he was eventually arrested and charged as a juvenile with felony assault. Tillman entered a guilty plea, and the following summer spent 30 days in a juvenile-detention facility, all the while worrying that he might lose the scholarship offered him by Arizona State. He didn't, and on his release his conviction was reduced to a misdemeanor. Years later he discussed the episode with a writer from Sports Illustrated. "I learned more from that one bad decision than all the good decisions I've ever made," he said. "It made me realize that stuff you do has repercussions. You can lose everything."

All the same, at ASU, where few people knew of the arrest, they called him the Hitman—but this time, for what he did on the field. He lacked both the size of a typical college linebacker and the speed of a running back, but he was dogged and smart. In his senior year Tillman was named Pac-10 Conference Defensive Player of the Year —no small trick for a guy who weighed 202 lbs. in a world where your average lineman looks like a major appliance with a helmet. When a reporter congratulated him, Tillman admitted that he was proud to win but allowed that the whole thing had him a little worried that he might "start being happy" with himself. "And then I'll stand still, and then I'm old news."

Standing still just wasn't something he did. People talk about Tillman's charisma and his instantly authoritative manner. In 1995 Mike McBride was still new to his job as an academic counselor in ASU's athletic department when Tillman, a shaggy-haired freshman, first walked into his office to ask him how many classroom hours he would need to graduate. When McBride told him, Tillman shot back that it was McBride's job to make sure he didn't do any more or any less. "I had a weird reaction," says McBride. "I almost said, 'Yes, sir'—except he had that surfer hairdo."

Tillman made a career out of turning no into yes. His college football coach Bruce Snyder told Tillman that he might have to redshirt him—hold him back—for his first year. Perhaps Snyder was expecting him to grow. "He looked me dead in the eye and said, 'Coach, I'm not going to redshirt.' I thought he didn't understand what I meant," says  Snyder, "so I started to explain it. But he said, 'Coach, you don't have to play me. I'm going to graduate in four years, so as long as I'm around, use me as it comes along.'" In 1997 Tillman helped the Sun Devils come achingly close to a national championship in that year's Rose Bowl. All the same, prior to the NFL draft the following year, the labels "too small" and "too slow" still clung to him. He came to the Cardinals as a seventh-round pick, 226th out of 241 overall. His signing bonus was meal money by NFL standards, just $21,000. Since he didn't have a car, he commuted to the Cards' training camp riding his green Schwinn bicycle. "But you couldn't tell him he couldn't make it in the NFL", recalls Kwamie Lassiter, one of Tillman's former teammates. "Tell him he can play for three years, and he'll play four just to show you he can. Whatever challenge came up, he hit it head on."

In 2000 Tillman established a team record of 224 tackles in a single season. The next year he turned down a five-year, $9 million-contract offer from the Super Bowl champion St. Louis Rams out of loyalty to the eternally underachieving Cardinals. But after Sept. 11, Tillman started thinking about larger loyalties. On the day after the attack he spoke about family members who had gone to war, like his great-grandfather who was at Pearl Harbor. "I haven't done a damn thing as far as laying myself on the line like that," he said. "So I have a great deal of respect for those that have."

Tillman's agent Frank Bauer got the first inkling that something was brewing with his client in a phone conversation in March 2002, while he was in the midst of negotiating the $3.6 million deal with the Cardinals. "Pat said, 'Hey, Frank, do me a favor. Worry about your other clients. Don't worry about me. I'm thinking about doing something else.'" In May, after returning from a honeymoon trip to the South Pacific island of Bora Bora with his wife Marie, Tillman enlisted, along with his brother Kevin, a minor league baseball player. Determined to avoid publicity, they began the process in Denver, where Pat might not be recognized. But the inevitable news still stunned many people. Tillman was one of the very few active NFL players to volunteer for military service since World War II, in which 638 NFL players served and 19 died.

Despite his All-American story, he turned down a multitude of TV, movie and book deals. Last July, when both Tillmans won the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPY Awards ceremony on espn, they made no public statement and sent their younger brother Richard to pick up the award.

Mark Brand, an assistant athletic director at ASU, says that when people asked Tillman why he was enlisting, he always had the same answer: he needed a new challenge. He got one at Fort Benning, Ga., where both Tillmans spent the second half of 2002 training to become Army Rangers, an elite outfit that only graduates about a third of those who start the course. They reached Iraq some time last year. In Baghdad Pat made frequent calls to Bauer. "He never talked about any of the combat part of it," says Bauer. "That just was Pat.*spaceHe never really got into anything that detailed." It was only last month that Tillman left for Afghanistan. You wonder what he would have made of last weekend's NFL draft, with the scramble for money and Eli Manning's pout over whether he might be forced to work in San Diego and not a thought about how a death on the battlefield had put it all into perspective. But Tillman just might have objected again that he was nothing special, that he had his share of ordinary career ambition too. In the locker room before the Rose Bowl in 1997, he asked one of his coaches, Lyle Setencich, what draft round he might expect to be chosen in the next year. "I told him to get a law degree, that he was going to be President," says Setencich. "He said, 'I want to play in the NFL.'"

"You're fortunate when you come across a Pat Tillman," says Setencich. "But there are many Pat Tillmans across the country. The spirit of Pat Tillman is the heart of this country." Tillman would not have wanted us talking about him this week, but if we were talking about him anyway, that's probably what he would have wanted us to say.