This column on Pat Tillman appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun on April 24, 2004.
Tillman touched many lives
By Ed Odeven
“I think of a hero as someone who understands the degree of responsibility that comes with his freedom.”
I never met a more responsible individual than Pat Tillman. I developed this opinion of him when we were both students at Arizona State University. Before he ever stepped foot into a classroom at the Tempe campus, he was told that it’d take him four or five years to earn a college degree, probably the latter. He earned his marketing degree in 3 1/2 years. With a 3.8 GPA.
As much as he hit the books with the gusto of a Rhodes Scholar — when he wasn’t studying the finer pointers of, say, advertising campaigns, he was reading lengthy philosophy books, sometimes a few at a time — the San Jose, Calif., native who was considered too small and too slow coming out of high school, became a dominant defensive force in the Pac-10 Conference and earned the league’s defensive player of the year award in 1997.
I never met a more heroic individual than Tillman. September 11th became the day that defined his life. Months later, he turned down a three-year, $3.6 million contract extension with the Arizona Cardinals and joined the Army along with his brother, Kevin, a minor league baseball player. Serving his country was what mattered to Tillman, not money.
I never met a man I respected more than Tillman. And he earned every bit of it. He was humble, polite, quirky, athletic and brilliant. He was one of a kind.
Tillman died Thursday in combat in Afghanistan. He was 27. Lt. Col. Matt Beevers, an Army spokesman in Kabul, in an Associated Press story said Tillman died “after a firefight with anti-coalition militia forces about 25 miles southwest of a U.S. military base at Khost.”
I know I’ll never meet somebody I admire as much as Pat Tillman — unless Nelson Mandela invites me to sit down with him and have a cup of coffee. And while we as a society can bemoan the deterioration of values, the loss of old traditions and the like, someone like Pat Tillman reminds us that true heroes never go out of style.
The news of Tilllman’s death truly touched all Arizonans and many people across the country. On Friday, my e-mail inbox was flooded with messages from people who knew that I knew Tillman from ASU. They all expressed the same sentiment: how sad.
Across the state on Friday, tributes were paid to Tillman. At Bank One Ballpark, there was a moment of silence before the Diamondbacks-Padres game. Flags were flown at half-staff at ASU and all over the state.
Already, ASU and the Cardinals have made plans to memorialize Tillman. Among the projects in the works:
The two have teamed up to announce the establishment of the Pat Tillman Memorial Scholarship Award. It will be given annually to a marketing student at ASU’s W.P. Carey School of Business.
The Cardinals will retire Tillman’s No. 40 jersey.
The Pat Tillman Freedom Plaza will be built at the team’s new Glendale stadium, which is scheduled to open in 2006.
Radio and TV programs Friday broadcast many live interviews with Tillman’s former teammates and coaches, classmates and colleagues who summed up their impeccable opinions of him.
“The words honor, integrity, dignity and commitment were not just adjectives with Pat Tillman,” said Dave McGinnis, the ex-Cardinals’ head coach, during a live TV press conference. “They were real in his life.
“Everything he did was with a sense of honor, a sense of dignity,” added McGinnis, who is now an assistant coach for the Tennessee Titans.
Before the D-backs’ series opener against the Padres, the home clubhouse was not filled with joyful braggadocio and macho nonsense — typical diversions before a game begins.
“It’s horrible,” Diamondbacks third baseman Shea Hillenbrand said of Tillman’s death in a chat with Daily Sun sportswriter Steve Rom. “It’s the ultimate sacrifice someone can give. It shows you that materialistic stuff, fame and everything, is not important.”
Added Arizona outfielder Luis Gonzalez, “I had the opportunity to meet him a couple years back. … What a phenomenal guy. … Here’s a guy, millions of dollars sitting on the table, and he decided to leave to pursue something that he believed in, which is fighting for his county. I think it puts a lot of things into perspective. It hits home to a lot of guys, and a lot of fans here in Arizona. If people didn’t have friends or family that are in the military, they can associate with Pat Tillman.”
I conversed with two Flagstaff residents Friday afternoon to gain an understanding of what locals are thinking about Tillman’s life and death.
George Moate, Coconino High School’s longtime varsity football coach, offered this perspective: “It’s a tragedy, as are all the deaths. It reminds you of the sacrifices being made, just like the (Lori) Piestewa situation. All those veterans have all our prayers and thoughts with them. We are behind them 100 percent and we hope the rest of them get home safely.
“Being famous doesn’t give you character, but what separates Tillman was he gave up a million-dollar job to do it. That’s not an everyday occurrence. That’s a throwback to World War II when the movie stars were flying bombers and stuff like that. It was an amazing thing that he did it.”
Vietnam War veteran Dave “Bulldog” Turner, a sixth-grade teacher at Killip School and a Panthers assistant coach said, “When I look at Pat Tillman, I look at a man that exemplifies the true character of what an American was supposed to be.”
As I look back on Tillman’s athletic career, especially at ASU, I think most about his never-ending supply of energy, the Sun Devils’ No. 42 linebacker and his trademark long, wild locks of hair flowing out of the back of his helmet, the fact that he never seemed to miss a tackle or be out of position and that he became a darn good pro player by exhibiting the same qualities.
But what he did off the field is what he’ll always be remember by.
My pal Sean Bennett, who graduated from ASU in 1995 and now resides in Texas with his lovely wife Aya and two young kids, sent me the following e-mail Friday night: “If Ford and Claire grow up to have the kind of character Pat and his brother have shown during our time of war I could not be prouder. In today’s world of 15-minute-Hollywood heroes I finally have another real hero to set beside my father: Pat Tillman.”
Rest in peace, Pat Tillman.