By Kyle Prudhomme
Pat Tillman wasn’t a household name when he played in the NFL. He didn’t draw the attention that the likes of J.J. Watt, Darrelle Revis and Clay Matthews garner these days for their defensive play. But he left a strong football career to become a U.S. hero.
After passing up NFL contracts worth millions of dollars, Tillman exchanged his football cleats for combat boots and paid the ultimate price by giving his life for his country.
Born in 1976 in Fremont, Calif., Tillman was a high-school football standout who landed a scholarship with the Arizona State Sun Devils.
At Arizona State, Tillman was a workhorse in both the classroom and on the gridiron, earning awards for academic excellence while also helping his team earn a bid for the Sun Bowl in 1997.
As a linebacker Tillman led the team that year with 93 tackles, 47 of which were unassisted. He was named the most valuable player for the Sun Devils. He was named Pac-10 defensive player of the year. He earned second-team All-American status. At the same time, his work in the classroom helped him graduate with a 3.84 GPA and a degree in marketing that took him just three years to obtain.
Tillman’s dreams of being a professional football player were fulfilled in 1998, when the Arizona Cardinals picked him with the 226th overall pick of the draft.
A major question mark that surrounded Tillman before the draft was the size needed to play the linebacker position in the NFL.
At 5 foot 11 and 204 pounds, Tillman was too small to play the position in the NFL, but the Cardinals had an idea for the hard-hitting middle man and moved him to safety.
He instantly excelled at the position and was on the rise as a defensive asset. During the 2000 season he set the Arizona Cardinals single-season record, recording 109 tackles.
The following off-season, the St. Louis Rams tried to lure Tillman from a place he had called home since his college days, offering him a contract worth $9 million, much more than he was making with Arizona. Tillman declined the offer, choosing loyalty to the team that drafted him.
After the events of Sept. 11, 2001, Tillman faced another decision between loyalty and comfort and following the conclusion of the season Tillman declined a contract extension from the Cardinals worth $3.6 million in order to join the U.S. Army.
Alongside his brother Kevin, a professional baseball player with the Cleveland Indians, Tillman went through the intensity of basic training and the duo stood out in their class.
Together they became U.S Army Rangers, no easy task even for a couple of professional athletes. Physically the training is tough, but is nothing compared to the mental and emotional aspects of the Ranger Indoctrination Program (R.I.P for short).
As a Ranger Tillman was getting paid peanuts compared to what he would have while playing for Arizona. With a specialist rank (E-4), his pay was just over $1,600 a month before taxes.
Pat and his brother Kevin were assigned to the second battalion of the 75th Ranger regiment in Fort Lewis, Wash, with each of them serving multiple tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.
On April 22, 2004, while on tour in Eastern Afghanistan, Pat Tillman was killed, with first reports saying his death was caused by enemy forces during an ambush but later reports determining that he had been killed by friendly fire.
During a national memorial on May 3, 2004, Tillman was deemed an American hero for his sacrifices, receiving the Silver Star and the Purple Heart.
As he wrote in a document titled “Decision” in 2002, “Sports embodied many of the qualities I deem meaningful … However, these last few years, and especially after recent events, I’ve come to appreciate just how shallow and insignificant my role is.”
Tillman’s role will never be defined by a seven-figure contract or career numbers on the field. His role as an American hero will forever be defined by the grace in which he declined the very thing a lot of us yearn for, giving his life in the process of protecting the country from all enemies foreign and domestic.
As we celebrate veterans today, let us remember such heroes as Pat Tillman who taught us that loyalty – to your team, to your country – is the most important trait somebody can carry.