For Tillman, life was more than football

I’m not going to lie. The original idea I had for my column this week was to write about Pittsburgh rookie quarterback Ben Rothbergersomethingorother (otherwise known as Roethlisberger) and about his incredible rise to stardom. He’s only been an active player in the NFL for a few weeks but if plowing past unbeaten Tom Brady and Donovan McNabb in consecutive Sunday games while adding to a winning streak that started back in college isn’t establishing oneself, I don’t know what is. Should he try imitating Terrell Owens’ Ray Lewis-imitated touchdown “dance” to get some extra recognition? I’m out of answers on that one. What I do know, though, is that when I looked at my calendar this morning and saw that Thursday was Veterans Day, I realized Ben R. would have to wait. This week should only be about one player: Pat Tillman.

I know there are many people around the Yale campus who have heard of Pat Tillman. I also know from some of the reactions I got from friends when I mentioned I’d be writing about Tillman that there are those who haven’t heard of him at all. Sunday football recliners everywhere along with chronic SportsCenter watchers undoubtedly know Tillman’s name and his sacrifice. However, even among these aficionados, many don’t know his full story, the heap of football talent and money he walked away from out of a need to be a loyal, principled human being.

To begin with, Tillman was not some third string rookie who decided he had enough of getting his butt kicked in the NFL and so decided to join the army instead. Tillman came to the Cardinals as the Pac-10 Conference Defensive Player of the Year in 1997. Despite this honor, he was still the 241st round draft pick in 1998, most likely because of his size (only 5’11″) that had incidentally four years earlier also caused many to predict he’d be a bench warmer at Arizona State. Go figure. Two-hundred-forty-first in the overall draft was nothing to the smaller-than-average safety. All one had to do was give Tillman five months, and just like at ASU, Tillman was a starting safety for the Arizona Cardinals.

A starter in the NFL as a rookie is impressive. A starter for the Cardinals? Well that statement does seem to bring the prestige of being a starter down a few notches. Make no mistake though, Tillman could have played for other clubs. In the spring of 2001, the St. Louis Rams offered Tillman $9 million for a period of five years, but ever the loyal player, Tillman opted to stay with the Cardinals, accepting a one-year deal that paid only a little more than $500,000. Before he ever traded his football helmet for an Army Ranger beret, this decision had already distinguished Tillman from about 99 percent of other starting players in the NFL, who seem to be hung up on “getting respect,” or, as Cuba Gooding Jr. so selfishly put it in “Jerry Maguire,” “getting my quan.” Getting attention is more what it’s about for those types of players and Tillman couldn’t have been one of them if he’d tried.

Just take the story from when Tillman went to enlist with his brother, Kevin (a former minor league baseball player with the Cleveland Indians franchise). They chose to drive to Colorado to do so. Why? Pat feared fans in Arizona may recognize him at the enlistment offices and then would leak the information to the press. Of course, when a starting safety like Pat Tillman decides to turn down a three-year $3.6 million contract with an NFL franchise to join the Army Rangers, it doesn’t stay a secret for long. Yet, Tillman never gave an interview to the press, never wanted to distinguish himself from his fellow army comrades in the way his exemplary behavior had long ago set him apart from his peers in both the NFL and NCAA.

Sadly, Tillman’s story does not end the way he hoped it would. The newlywed sergeant had hoped to return from the battlefield in three years and once again resume his position on the football field with Cardinals. He hoped, like so many young soldiers, to fight for his country and then return safely to the soil he’d helped defend. In football, as in many other sports, words like “warrior” and “hero” are tossed around; in southeast Afghanistan, thousands of miles away from any turf or stadium, Tillman had embodied these words and found that the meaning behind them fit someone who risked more than just a torn ACL when it was “game time.” On Thursday, April 22, 2004, Tillman was killed in a firefight when the Afghan Militia Force ambushed his 75th Ranger Regiment near a small Afghani village. Two other rangers were wounded during the engagement.

Ask yourself, what do most football players value most in life? Do they believe in football? That’s fine, nothing wrong with that. But what made Tillman so special is that he believed in something bigger, something riskier than football, something that would test his beliefs by testing his life. In the aftermath of Tillman’s death, the “War on Terrorism” has brought grief to the families of many soldiers, has been used as a political weapon and has become a controversial issue. What’s so exceptional about Tillman, more than just his service to the Army Rangers, is that he took a stand on something he believed in. He didn’t take his stand by wearing a political pin on his backpack or holding a picket sign on a street corner. He literally fought for the country he believed in. He did it without any bravado, only as a loyal American. He, like so many other veterans, risked his life for what he believed in. That’s what made Pat Tillman so exceptional. The next time you watch a football game or suit up for a competition, remember this.

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