What do you say about an NFL player who walks away from a three-year, $3.6 million contract to join the Army Rangers?
What words can describe a 5’11, 195-pound man who earned the last football scholarship to Arizona State in 1994, only to earn PAC-10 defensive player of the year in his senior season?
What sort of response do you give when a student finishes his marketing degree in three and a half years, graduating summa on the strength of a 3.84 GPA?
What on earth do parents do when they learn that one son will accompany home the body of another, who died in combat?
What does the world do when it realizes that this fallen soldier is one and the same as ASU graduate and former Arizona Cardinals linebacker Pat Tillman?
We treat our athletes as if they were soldiers, marching into battle every week, each gridiron contest equated with life and death. But such hyperbole pales in comparison to lives of the soldiers—athletes themselves—who die in service of our country.
Tillman died on Apr. 22 near Spera, Afghanistan, about 25 miles from the nearest U.S. base at Khost. Few details were released about the firefight, which the American military says lasted about 15 minutes. All the Army will say is that Tillman went to the aid of members of his team who were ambushed and died fighting “without regard for his personal safety.”
Tillman, who served a tour in Baghdad before going to Afghanistan, was promoted from specialist to corporal posthumously. The Army also awarded him a Purple Heart and Silver Star.
By all accounts, Tillman was a serious man, weighed with concerns of the world and of war. The Sept. 11 attacks had a significant impact on him, and he said the day after: “My grandfather was at Pearl Harbor and a lot of my family has gone and fought in wars, and I really haven’t done a damn thing.”
His brother Kevin, a minor league baseball player, decided to try and become an Army Ranger. Pat did, too.
Tillman refused all interviews and photo requests about his enlisting. He forbade his family and friends to grant any either. He insisted on attempting to remain as anonymous as any other soldier, although it’s unlikely that others accepted the same drop in salary from $1.2 million to $17,316.
Tillman was the first American professional athlete to die in service since Buffalo Bills linebacker Bob Kalsu died in Vietnam in 1970. In World War II, 638 NFL players served, resulting in 19 deaths in action.
Tillman’s memorial, held in his hometown of San Jose, Calif., last Monday brought 3,000 people together—celebrities and politicians, fans, family and friends. They honored a man they called a hero, citing JFK’s words: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
But his death leaves us only with questions to ask. Do you talk about community? What community—your family, your friends, your neighborhood, your country? Do you talk about duty? Social obligation? Morality?
Does it make you more patriotic, learning that this man gave up the NFL to do what he felt was his duty, to serve his country? Or does it make you less patriotic, wondering whether our country did its duty to him and to the approximately 100 other soldiers who have died in Afghanistan since the American invasion in 2001?
Do you think about how you can honor the memory of an athlete who gave up everything people dream about to become a soldier?
What do you say, what can you say about people like Pat Tillman?
—Staff writer Brenda E. Lee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.