HeroVet: In Memory of Pat Tillman, U.S. Army

Patrick Tillman

Editors Note: Pat Tillman was honored in July 2003 by Veterans Advantage for his decision to join the Army Rangers with his brother, Kevin, passing up lucrative sports contracts. He passed away in 2004 while serving his country in Afghanistan.

In contrast to the controversy surrounding Kobe Bryant’s sexual assault charges, this month’s homecoming of Army Rangers Pat and Kevin Tillman was a low-key event and hardly picked up by media. Yet, as top professional athletes, the Tillmans represent an impressive example of career and personal sacrifice to serve our country.

The Tillmans’s story hearkens back to the journey of sports athletes from over 50 years ago: sacrificing time at play for the very serious business of defending the country. These days, their sacrifice cuts deeper, as they forgo millions of dollars in salary, bonuses and endorsements. Like so many predecessors of previous generations, these two professional athletes see the value of such a tradeoff.

Following the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, the brothers turned down lucrative contracts to play with the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals, and minor league baseball, and instead enlisted in the United States Army elite group of Rangers.

Their sacrifice, as well as their service in the war in Iraq, was even recognized in the sports world just last week, on ESPN’s 2003 ESPY Awards, when they received the Arthur Ashe Courage Award.

The brothers did not attend the ESPY Awards program to accept the award, nor have they been forthcoming doing interviews surrounding it. Instead, their younger brother Richard accepted the award on their behalf.

"Their program has always been to keep it as quiet as possible," father Patrick Tillman recently told the San Jose Mercury News. "You can’t even sneak any information out of me because I don’t have it. Sorry, but they don’t even tell me anything."

They also maintain a low profile while they served, said Lt. Col. Don Sondo, deputy commander of Infantry Training Brigade. They did not want special treatment for their celebrity status, he said.

"I think he’s the quintessential definition of a patriot," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz

In May of 2002, former Cardinals safety Pat Tillman shattered the illusion of the football player as a "warrior" and made it a reality when he announced his intention to join the United States Army with his younger brother, Kevin, putting his NFL career on hold. Kevin also passed up on his baseball career, as an aspiring ballplayer in the Cleveland Indians system.

It was Pat’s financial sacrifice, in particular, which caught the bulk of the headlines. He is believed to be the first NFL regular to leave the game voluntarily for military service since World War II, when 600 players served and 19 were killed. The Tillmans are part of the 75th Ranger Regiment, comprising three battalions and 2,200 men. They had been stationed in Fort Lewis, Wash., and believed to have returned there since coming back from Iraq.

"I think he’s the quintessential definition of a patriot," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a Vietnam War veteran who serves on the Armed Services Committee, said this past March. "He gave up a lucrative and exciting career to serve his country."

Pat Tillman, married only shortly before announcing his decision to join the Army, was known for his hard-nosed play and toughness as a safety with the Cardinals. He was drafted by the team in the seventh round of the 1998 NFL Draft out of Arizona State. He made the successful transition from collegiate linebacker to NFL safety and in 2000, his second full year at the position, started all 16 games. To help pass free time, he also tested his mettle running a marathon and triathlon.

Former Arizona Cardinals safety, Pat Tillman, along with his brother Kevin received the Author Ashe Courage Award for choosing the U.S. army over pro sports.

"The guy has got something to him and that’s why I wanted him on the team all these years. When a lot of people doubted if he could play, he never doubted it," said Cardinals Head Coach Dave McGinnis after the 2002 decision.

"This is very serious with Pat. It’s very personal and I honor that. I honor the integrity of that. It was not a snap decision he woke up with and made yesterday. This has been an ongoing process and he feels very strongly about it."

By choosing this path, one less-traveled by today’s standards, the Tillman’s embody the elite fighting force’s motto: "Rangers Lead the Way."

The Cardinals said they will retire Tillman’s No. 40 and name the plaza surrounding the new stadium under construction in suburban Glendale the "Pat Tillman Freedom Plaza."

Arizona State will retire Tillman’s No. 42 jersey during a Nov. 13 game and place his name on the honor ring at Sun Devil Stadium. The University and the Cardinals also are collaborating on a scholarship fund in Tillman’s name.

Image Credit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pat_Tillman

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