By Ed Odeven

At this time of year, just weeks before the NFL Draft, I often remember Pat Tillman’s football career as an Arizona State Sun Devil and Arizona Cardinal. I saw him play in a few dozen games and probably a hundred or so combined practices at the college and pro levels.

We chatted numerous times, primarily in our official roles as reporter and student-athlete. But also a few times while drinking beer at a local watering hole near the Tempe campus, or during walks across campus.

On April 22, it’ll be 10 years since Tillman, who left his lucrative NFL career to serve his country, was killed while serving in the U.S. Army in Afghanistan. He was 27.

While I distinctly recall hearing the sad news on a Friday and working on a column about Tillman for the next day’s Arizona Daily Sun newspaper where I worked at the time in Flagstaff, I also recall his timely — and playful — good humor.

Let me explain. In 1997, Tillman was named the Pac-10 Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year. On the day it was announced that Tillman was the Pac-10’s top defender for 1997, just days before the annual Arizona-Arizona State, Tillman did not attend the afternoon practice. So he was unavailable for comment before a throng a reporters.

No problem, I thought.

Returning to the State Press newsroom, I thumbed through the white pages and found Tillman’s name, address and phone number.

So I picked up the phone and gave him a call, seeking comment about his prestigious award for my next article. (He was also chosen as a Sporting News first team All-American that season.)

The phone rang two or three times, then Pat picked it up.

“Hello, Pat Tillman,” I said.

“Who is this?”

“Ed Odeven, State Press.”

“Ed, how’d you get my phone number?” Tillman asked.

“I looked it up in the phone book,” I informed him.

“Oh, OK.”

We both laughed. We had a nice chat for about 10 minutes about his college football career, his thoughts on the Sun Devil coaching staff and his defensive teammates. He mostly spoke about the others on the team, but sounded quite pleased about his own performance as a college senior. It was time well spent.

* * *
Many felt Tillman was too short, too slow and not athletic enough to dominate on the gridiron. That didn’t stop him from being a one-man wrecking crew, always around the ball, always finding ways to make big plays in college.

He was selected by the Cardinals in the seventh round in the ’98 NFL Draft. As a pro, he made the difficult conversion from linebacker to safety and grew as a leader on the Cardinals defense. He was in his prime when he followed his convictions and opted to step away from the NFL during a time of war.