Arizona 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 20 years ago, in May of 2002, putting his NFL career on hold.
Tillman’s story goes 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, this professional athlete saw the value of such a tradeoff.
Following the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, Tillman turned down a lucrative contract to play with the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals and instead enlisted in the United States Army elite group of Rangers, serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Two years after his decision to leave the NFL Tillman, then 27, was killed by friendly fire on April 22, 2004, while serving with the Rangers in Afghanistan.
It was Pat’s financial sacrifice, a $3.6 million football contact, that 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. He was part of the 75th Ranger Regiment, comprising three battalions and 2,200 men. He had been stationed in Fort Lewis, WA, and was believed to have returned there when he returned from Iraq.
"I think he’s the quintessential definition of a patriot," said the late Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a Vietnam War veteran who served on the Senate Armed Services Committee at the time. "He gave up a lucrative and exciting career to serve his country."
Tillman was born November 6, 1976 in California and was the oldest of three. In high school, he was told he was too small to play professional football. But Arizona State University offered him a scholarship to play for the Sun Devils, where he led his team to the 1997 Rose Bowl with an undefeated season and earned three consecutive selections to the Pac-10 All-Academic Football Team. He was known for his hard-nosed play and toughness as a safety with the Cardinals. 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 in 2000, his second full year at the position. He started all 16 games and also ran a marathon and triathlon.
Tillman married his high school sweetheart, Marie, in 2002 and, upon returning from his honeymoon, announced that he would join the military. He committed to a three-year term.
"This is very serious with Pat. It’s very personal and I honor 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,” said Cardinals Head Coach Dave McGinnis after his decision to enlist. "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."
Tragically, on April 22, 2004, Pat was shot and died in Afghanistan. Initially, it was reported that the sports star was killed by the Taliban, but years later it was revealed that friendly fire took his life. He was posthumously awarded the Silver Star in 2004 and had a U.S. Army base in Afghanistan named after him.
“Pat Tillman, he just embodied — honesty, integrity, dignity are a lot of words that are used a lot. Pat Tillman lived it. I think he clearly possessed the fiber and fabric that all of us would aspire to,” McGinnis told the sports site OutKick this past month, 18 years later.
Pat Tillman, along with his brother Kevin, who also gave up an athletic career, received the 2004 ESPY Arthur Ashe Courage Award for choosing the U.S. Army over professional sports. They both served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Pat Tillman Foundation was founded by Marie, his family, and friends to carry forward his legacy by giving military service members, veterans and spouses the educational tools and support to reach their fullest potential as leaders, no matter how they choose to serve. The foundation’s Tillman Scholars program is for military community members who are recognized for their service and leadership potential, qualities that Pat exhibited. And just this month, the foundation has been selected as one of the top 10 2022 Best Nonprofits to Work For by The NonProfit Times. His legacy lives on through the work of this valuable Foundation.