Valor is defined as “great courage in the face of danger, especially in battle.” Synonyms include bravery, fearlessness, and backbone. Pat Tillman was a man of valor.
Patrick Daniel Tillman was an underdog in every sense of the word. He was also a superb football player. After leading Leland High School to the 1993 California Central Coast Division-1 football championship [where he was named MVP of the title game], Tillman was told he was too small to play big-time college football. After leading Arizona State University to an undefeated season and a berth in the 1997 Rose Bowl, the Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year was told he was too small to play in the NFL. Tillman proved his detractors wrong, as he was named to the Sports Illustrated 2000 All-Pro Team, broke the Arizona Cardinals franchise record for most tackles in a season, and was enshrined into the College Football Hall of Fame and Arizona Cardinals Ring of Honor.
Born in the East Bay town of Fremont, California, November 6, 1976, Pat was the eldest of Mary and Patrick Tillman’s three sons. He grew up in New Almaden, an unincorporated community adjacent to San Jose. A fine student and talented athlete, Tillman had a tendency to push limits – in life, in the classroom, and on the field. He once served a 30-day sentence in a juvenile detention center after getting into a fight while defending a friend. Cut from the Leland High baseball team as a freshman [by the father of his future wife, Marie], he gave up the sport to devote his full attention to football. Tillman became a varsity standout who never left the field. As a fullback, he averaged nearly 11 yards per carry. Playing linebacker, he recorded 110 tackles, ten sacks, and three interceptions. He scored 31 career touchdowns and was named 1994 Central Coast Co-Player of the Year his senior season.
Pat Tillman was his own man. At 5’11” and 195 pounds, he had only three D-1 scholarship offers coming out of high school, one of which was from Arizona State. During his recruiting visit, Sun Devils coach, Bruce Snyder, asked him what he thought of the recruiting process. “It stinks,” Tillman shot back. “Nobody tells the truth.” Snyder realized Tillman’s potential and used ASU’s last available scholarship to sign him in 1994. Upon Tillman’s arrival in Tempe, Snyder sat the freshman down to discuss redshirting him. “I’m not redshirting,” Tillman said. “I’ve got things to do with my life. You can do whatever you want with me, but in four years, I’m gone.”
As an outside linebacker, the cerebral Tillman was named to the Pac-10 All-Academic Team three times, and was named Academic All-American as a senior. After being named Sporting News Honda Scholar-Athlete of the Year as a junior, Tillman was named Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year [an award that now bears his name] and Sun Devils 1997 MVP as a senior. He graduated summa cum laude – with a 3.82 GPA and a degree in marketing — in three-and-a-half years.
In spring 1998, the Arizona Cardinals used their final-round pick to select the undersized Pat Tillman – a “hometown” choice – with the 226th pick of the NFL Draft, 225 spots behind Peyton Manning, who went first, to the Indianapolis Colts. Tillman received a $21,000 signing bonus. Unable to afford a new car, he rode to training camp on a bicycle. When told by his agent, Frank Bauer, that the best way to make a roster was by excelling on special teams, Tillman quickly set the agent straight. “[Expletive] special teams. I’ll start in eight games.” Tillman started in Week Two. “He didn’t come into the league to get validated,” said former defensive backfield mate and Pro Football Hall-of-Famer Aeneas Williams. Tillman started ten of 16 games his rookie year and quickly became a vocal leader. “Don’t tell me about the pain,” he said in exhorting his teammates during another Cardinals’ losing season. “Show me the baby!”
Intelligent, fearless, and diligent, Tillman set a Cardinals franchise record for tackles in 2000, with 224. Sports Illustrated pro football writer Paul “Dr. Z” Zimmerman named Tillman to his All-Pro team. Always looking for a new challenge, Tillman ran his first full marathon in the offseason, finishing in a respectable 3:48 [he completed his first triathlon a year later.] He turned down a five-year, $ 9 million contract offer from the St. Louis Rams in order to remain with the Cardinals, who had given Tillman, only earning $ 512,000 per year playing safety, his chance to play in the NFL. In 2001, when asked by a sports psychologist hired by the Cardinals if he played football from the heart, Tillman replied, “Yeah, the heart thing is kind of important to me.”
Tillman, whose great-grandfather had served at Pearl Harbor, was deeply affected by the terrorist attacks of 9/11. “At times like this you stop and think about how good we have it, what kind of system we live in, and the freedoms we’re allowed. A lot of my family has gone and fought in wars and I haven’t really done a damn thing.” While negotiating a three-year, $ 3.6 million deal with the Cardinals in March 2002, Tillman called his agent. “Hey Frank, do me a favor. Worry about your other clients. Don’t worry about me. I’m thinking of doing something else.” He married his high school sweetheart, Marie, and returned from his honeymoon in May 2002 to tell his coach, Dave McGinnis, that he was enlisting in the military. Many questioned how Tillman could turn down millions and a life in the NFL for a $ 15,000 salary and three-year commitment to the Army. “It’s not just a snap decision,” McGinnis explained to the media while announcing Tillman’s decision. “You’re dealing with a guy whose waters run pretty deep.”
On May 31, 2002, Pat Tillman enlisted in the U.S. Army with his younger brother Kevin, who left the Cleveland Indians organization, where he was a rookie second baseman for the Double-A Akron Aeros. The brothers completed training and selection for the elite Army Rangers in late 2002, and were assigned to the 2nd Ranger Battalion of the 75th Ranger Regiment in Fort Lewis, Washington. They were deployed to Iraq as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom in September 2003, then returned to Fort Benning, Georgia, where they graduated Ranger School. A redeployment — to Afghanistan — came the following year. On April 22, 2004, Pat’s unit was ambushed as it traveled through the rugged mountainous terrain of eastern Afghanistan. He was killed while attempting to protect his unit.
The Army told his family that Pat had been killed by enemy gunfire after courageously charging up a hill to protect his fellow Army Rangers. In truth, he was killed by friendly fire, shot accidentally by his fellow soldiers. Although the Army knew this in the days immediately following Tillman’s death, his family was not told the truth until weeks after his nationally televised memorial service. The Tillman family deserved better. Pat was a selfless, courageous American who aspired to serve his country and defend its freedoms. With its deception, the United States government failed Pat Tillman and his family, as well as the American public, with its deception.
Patrick Daniel Tillman, who had 238 tackles and played in 60 games during four NFL seasons, died at 27. He was awarded a Purple Heart, Silver Star and Meritorious Service Medal for his service to his country. Arizona State University retired his number 42, has worn PT42 uniforms in his honor, and passes through the Pat Tillman Tunnel — a walkway decorated in his honor – before taking the field for home games at Sun Devil Stadium. Tillman has been enshrined into the Arizona Cardinal’s Ring of Honor and the organization named the plaza surrounding their stadium in his honor, complete with a bronze statue of his likeness. Corporal Tillman’s number 40 has been retired by the Cardinals. In 2010, Tillman was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame, and the Leland High School Chargers now play on Pat Tillman Field. Possessing a warm, inviting spirit that resonated with everyone around him, Pat Tillman touched more lives than most of us will ever begin to understand. “Pat knew his purpose in life,” said Dave McGinnis. “He proudly walked away from a career in football to a greater calling.”
Pat and Kevin Tillman won the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the 11th annual ESPYs in 2003. The Pat Tillman Foundation, founded in 2004, invests in military veterans and their spouses through academic scholarships. The scholars chosen “show extraordinary academic and leadership potential, a true sense of vocation, and a deep commitment to create positive change through their work in the fields of medicine, law, business, education, and the arts.” The signature fundraising event of the Pat Tillman Foundation is Pat’s Run, a road race held annually in Tempe, Arizona. The inaugural event featured 5,500 runners and has grown to more than 35,000 in 13 years. In honor of Tillman’s number 42, the race covers 4.2 miles and finishes at the 42 yard line inside ASU’s Sun Devil Stadium. Held each April, Tillman Honor Runs are contested in over 30 cities throughout the U.S.
On this date in 1998, Patrick Daniel Tillman was drafted in the seventh round as the 226th overall selection of the NFL Draft by the Arizona Cardinals.