Eight years ago today the sports world lost one of the few individuals that we can truly call a “hero”. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a hero is defined as a man who is admired for his achievements and noble qualities, and while the word is thrown around way too frequently when it comes to guys who throw touchdown passes, score goals, or hit home-runs, in the case of one former athlete there is not a more appropriate word to describe his accomplishments in life. The man I am referring to is, of course, Patrick Daniel Tillman, the former football player who turned down a multi-million dollar contract to play in the National Football League and instead decided to enlist United States Army after being so moved by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Tragically, less than 2 years after enlisting in the Army Rangers Tillman was killed along the Pakistan/Afghanistan border during what was initially claimed to be an apparent ambush but was later ruled to be friendly fire.
Pat Tillman was born in Fremont, California on November 6, 1976 and grew up in San Jose where he helped lead Leland High School to the Central Coast Division 1 Football Championship his senior year. As a football player he then went on to Arizona State University where he secured the last remaining scholarship for the Sun Devils in 1994. Tillman played linebacker on the team, and as a senior in 1997 he helped the team go undefeated in the regular season and make it to the Rose Bowl where they were finally were downed 20-17 to Joe Jermaine and the Ohio State Buckeyes. Tillman was voted Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year for his efforts, while also managing to graduate in three and a half years with a 3.85 GPA as a marketing major. In the 1998 National Football League draft, Tillman was selected in the 7th round by the Arizona Cardinals with the 226thoverall pick.
In the National Football League, Tillman was able to start 10 of the Cardinals 16 games as a rookie, after switching his position to safety due to his limited size (5’11” 200 lbs). He finished his first season with 46 tackles and one-sack, and then played sparingly during the 1999 season (but did have 2 INTs). The 2000 NFL season was Tillman’s break-out year, where he started all 16 of the Cardinals games, racked up 109 tackles, 1 Interception, forced two fumbles, and had a career high 1.5 sacks. Pat was named an NFL All-Pro selection for his accomplishments. During the 2001 season, Tillman only played in 12 games, but made 61 tackles, and after the season he was offered a 3-year, 3.6 million dollar contract to stay with the Cardinals. Earlier in his career he had turned down a 5 year, 9 million dollar contract by the St. Louis Rams, showing his loyalty to the team that drafted him, a rarity in sports these days. So deeply moved by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Tillman decided that he needed to do something, and decided to enlist in the U.S. Army. In an interview on September 12, 2011, Tillman said “My great grandfather was in Pearl Harbor and a lot of my family has given up, you know, has gone fought in wars, and I haven’t really done a damn thing as far as laying myself on the line like that, and so I have a great deal of respect for those that have and what the flag stands for”. Pat, along with his brother Kevin, a minor league baseball player in the Cleveland Indians organization, both enlisted on May 31, 2002 and together completed basic training in September of that year.
The two brothers then completed the Ranger Indoctrination Program and were assigned to the 2nd Ranger Battalion in Fort Lewis, Washington. After participating in the initial invasion of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Tillman entered Ranger School, this time at Fort Benning, Georgia where he stayed from September 2003 to November 28, 2003. Tillman was subsequently redeployed to Afghanistan and unfortunately he would not come home from this trip.
There have been many conflicting reports as to the events of April 22, 2004, and honestly the only people who truly know what happened on that fateful day are the members of the U.S. army who lost a brother, a fellow soldier, and most likely a friend that day. The Army first reported that Tillman had been killed by enemy fire in an apparent ambush where an Afghan soldier was also killed and two other U.S. soldiers wounded, but after a lengthy investigation by the United States Department of Defense it was concluded that Tillman’s death was due to friendly fire aggravated by the intensity of the firefight. What makes this case so confusing is that because of a broken Humvee, Tillman’s platoon was forced to split up into two groups, and after hearing explosions, gunfire, and sporadic radio communication from the group that Tillman was in, the other group of U.S. soldiers mistakenly open fired aimed toward the American soldiers. Tillman was struck three times in the forehead from what was later determined to be a result from machine gun fire.
What makes the story of Pat Tillman so controversial is that the United States Army tried to cover up what happened to him, and make it appear that his death was a result of the enemy attack. Nobody knows the reasoning behind the cover up, and it wouldn’t be fair to speculate, but from correspondence it appears that high ranking officials knew it was friendly fire even while they were reporting it to the contrary. Also, members of Tillman’s unit burned his body armor after his death, apparently trying to hide the fact that it was friendly fire, and also Tillman’s diary has never been found. All signs point to extreme foul play but the truth in this case will never be discovered. Tillman’s mother believes that her son was murdered and retired Army General Wesley Clark agreed that it was “very possible” that it was murder during a 2007 interview with Keith Olbermann, but all talk is purely speculation unless one of the people at the scene ever come forward which is extremely unlikely.
Patrick Daniel Tillman is a hero and a Patriot in every sense of the word. His pride for the United States of America and for freedom is what drove him towards enlisted in the armed forces and defending this country. He turned down millions of dollars and a career that almost every young American boy dreams of. Instead of chasing down wide-receivers and running around well-manicured fields in front of 70,000 people every Sunday, Tillman went after terrorists and traversed the war-torn deserts of Afghanistan. And in an era when too many people are remembered for their athletic achievements and not their contributions to society, Pat Tillman will always be remembered for being himself and doing what he thought was the right thing to do. That is something we can all learn from and we can continue to honor Tillman and our American soldiers each and every day by doing the right thing, acting morally, and going about making the changes necessary so that events like September 11, Tillman’s death, and other tragedies are learned from and not repeated. It’s the least we can do.