Pat Tillman never wanted to be a big story nor an American hero. He just wanted to do his duty, as proudly and anonymously as the soldiers who stood by his side. There were no news conferences, no interviews, no parades, no self-congratulations, when in 2002, Tillman left his new wife, Marie, his $3.6 million NFL contract and disappeared into the desert night.
He fought with the Army Rangers in Eastern Afghanistan, chasing al-Qaida and Taliban into the dark corners and dangerous shadows. In the end, he turned out to be one more soldier returning home to the sad, sad sound of Taps.
He never explained one of the most surprising stories in sports, an Arizona Cardinal leaving the glamour, the money, the good life for an enlistment wage of $18,000 and the risk of that firefight on Thursday April 22nd that cost him his life.
September 11, 2001 didn't inspire Tillman to wear a flag on his football helmet or sing the "Star Spangled Banner" a little louder on Sundays. It inspired an epiphany that most Americans would've never stopped long enough to consider -- never mind act upon.
"He is a hero," Cardinals vice president Michael Bidwill said. "He was a brave man. There are very few people who have the courage to do what he did, the courage to walk away from a professional sports career and make the ultimate sacrifice."
Lt. Col. Matt Beevers, a spokesman for the U.S. military in Kabul, said a soldier was killed by anti-coalition militia forces about 25 miles from a U.S. military base at Khost, the site of frequent attacks. A military official at the Pentagon confirmed it was Tillman, and the White House praised him as "an inspiration both on and off the football field."
At 5-foot-11, 200-pound Pat Tillman was an overachiever as an athlete. Too slow to be a great safety, too small for an NFL linebacker, he got by on toughness and effort. He was distinguished by his intelligence and appetite for rugged play. As an undersized linebacker at Arizona State, he was the Pac-10's defensive player of the year in 1997.
Tillman played 4 seasons with the Arizona Cardinals setting a franchise record with 224 tackles in 2000, before enlisting in the Army in May 2002. The safety turned down a three-year, $3.6 million deal from Arizona. He made the decision after returning from his honeymoon with his wife, Marie. Several of Tillman's friends also have said the September 11, 2001; terrorist attacks influenced his decision to enlist.
Those attributes undoubtedly served him well in the Army Rangers, whom he joined in May 2002 after abandoning his career with the Cardinals. He moved from a violent game to the reality of war.
"Pat Tillman personified all the best values of his country and the NFL," commissioner Paul Tagliabue said. "He was an achiever and leader on many levels who always put his team, his community, and his country ahead of his personal interests."
Tillman was the first NFL player killed in combat since Buffalo offensive tackle Bob Kalsu died in the Vietnam War in July 1970. Nineteen NFL players were killed in World War II.
Some 110 U.S. soldiers have died during Operation Enduring Freedom, which began in Afghanistan in late 2001 as part of the U.S. campaign against Taliban and al-Qaida groups along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, military officials said. Tillman's brother, Kevin, a former minor-league baseball prospect in the Cleveland Indians' organization is also a member of the Army Rangers.
The Tillmans' goal to join the Rangers was not an easy one to achieve. Only 35 percent of all candidates get to wear the coveted black and gold Ranger Tab.
Pat Tillman was first deployed to Iraq in March 2003, with the 75th Regiment Ranger Battalion. Following a brief break, he was posted in Afghanistan, where U.S. troops have been battling pockets of al-Qaida and Taliban resistance since U.S.-led forces attacked the Central Asian nation in 2001.
A Pentagon source said Pat Tillman was killed when his Rangers patrol was attacked by small arms fire and mortars during a coordinated ambush. Two other U.S. soldiers were wounded and one enemy combatant was killed during the ambush. Tillman was the only U.S. soldier killed, sources said.
Some members of the Army's elite Ranger units were taking part in the hunt for al-Qaida and Taliban fighters in southeastern Afghanistan, the military official said.
Former Cardinals head coach Dave McGinnis said he felt both overwhelming sorrow and tremendous pride in Tillman, who "represented all that was good in sports."
"Pat knew his purpose in life," McGinnis said. "He proudly walked away from a career in football to a greater calling."
In December, during a trip home, Tillman made a surprise visit to his Cardinal teammates. "For all the respect and love that all of us have for Pat Tillman and his brother and Marie, for what they did and the sacrifices they made, believe me, if you have a chance to sit down and talk with them, that respect and that love and admiration increase tenfold," then-Cardinals coach Dave McGinnis said at the time. "It was a really, really enriching evening."
A memorial was set up outside Cardinals' headquarters in Tempe, AZ, with his Number 40 uniform in a glass frame alongside two teddy bears and two bouquets. A pen was left for people to write messages to Tillman's family.
The Cardinals also announced that the plaza surrounding the perimeter of their new stadium, scheduled to open in 2006 in Glendale, would be named "Pat Tillman Freedom Plaza." The team also plans to retire Tillman's jersey number and establish a scholarship in conjunction with Arizona State University, where Tillman played his college football. The scholarship will be awarded annually to a student in the W.P. Carey School of Business that is studying marketing, the major in which Tillman carried a 3.84 GPA and earned his degree in 3½ years.
Meanwhile the Governor of Arizona Janet Napolitano ordered flags at the university to be flown at half-staff.
"The loss of Pat brings it home," said Cardinals' center Pete Kendall said. "Everyday there are countless families having to get the same news." Kendall remembered going out with Tillman and Marie. "We had a meal and a couple of beers," Kendall said. "It was a nice night. I really looked forward to buying him another beer sometime down the road."
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