Los Angeles Times
May 30, 2002
By Sam Farmer, Times Staff Writer
In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the National
Football League postponed a week of games and handed out a million
American flags at the turnstiles when play resumed. Many of
the league's players also did their part, contributing blood
or making donations to victims' funds.
Now, Pat Tillman, a highly regarded safety who started the
last two seasons for the Arizona Cardinals, is contributing
to the cause in his own way: He's enlisting in the U.S. Army.
Two years after setting a team record with 224 tackles,
the unconventional Tillman is believed to be the first NFL regular
since World War II to voluntarily leave the game for military
service. In doing so, Tillman, 25, is walking away from a multiyear
contract that would pay him an average of more than $1 million
a season, to earn between $1,022 and $1,443 a month as a soldier.
It's a sacrifice that has not gone unnoticed.
"I was surprised and yet really very impressed by this kind
of dedication to serve the country at great personal expense,"
said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a Vietnam War veteran who serves
on the Armed Services Committee.
Tillman and his younger brother, Kevin, a minor league baseball
player last season in the Cleveland Indian organization, aim
to become members of the highly trained Rangers, an elite force
that has played a prominent role in the U.S. military campaign
in Afghanistan, training, advising and fighting alongside Afghan
soldiers in the battle against the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
The brothers have so far declined to be interviewed about
their decision, telling those around them that they do not deserve
special attention for doing what thousands of other men and
women do without fanfare. Also fearful their decision will be
viewed as a publicity stunt, the brothers have informed only
family and close friends of where they are headed for basic
training. Most likely, they are bound for Ft. Benning, Ga.
Although the decision caught many by surprise, few who know
the nonconforming, high-achieving Pat Tillman were shocked.
And no one doubts his determination to resume a pro career after
fulfilling his military commitment.
"Pat is a very passionate person," said Jeff Hechtle, a
longtime friend who attended Leland High in San Jose with Tillman.
"He's always excelled in whatever he does. This is something
he feels he needs to do."
While at Arizona State, Tillman talked like a surfer, dressed
like a slacker and graduated summa cum laude in 31/2 years with
a 3.84 grade-point average in marketing.
"I'm definitely proud of that," he said in a 1998 interview.
"But I don't think it's something that needs to be shouted from
Noted for his toughness, the 5-foot-11, 200-pound Tillman
not only survived as an undersized linebacker in the Pacific
10 Conference but was named the conference's defensive player
of the year in 1997.
He switched to safety in the pros and beat long odds by
making the Cardinals as a seventh-round draft pick. As a rookie
on the second day of the Cardinals' training camp, Tillman flattened
a starting fullback who outweighed him by 50 pounds, injuring
him during what was supposed to be a routine drill. The coach
fumed. Teammates marveled at Tillman's ferocity.
He also warmed up for training camp last June by competing
in a 70.2-mile triathlon.
Despite the wealth his pro career brought him, Tillman maintained
the lifestyle of a college kid just scraping by. While other
rookies rolled around in BMWs and Land Rovers, Tillman pedaled
to practice every day on his trusty Schwinn beach cruiser.
He has never bought a new car and only recently splurged
for a used Volvo station wagon.
"If somebody says, 'Those are the neatest shoes I've ever
seen,' he'll buy the exact opposite ones. In purple. Just to
prove he wouldn't cave in to fashion trends. He's an original,"
He added: "He values his relationships more than anything
in his life. Relationships to Pat mean the world." That loyalty
was evident last year when Tillman turned down a five-year,
$9-million offer from St. Louis to stay with Arizona. He became
a free agent this spring and was expected to re-sign with Arizona.
But Tillman informed the Cardinals of his decision last
week after returning home from Bora Bora, where the newlywed
honeymooned with his high school sweetheart, Marie.
"I'm very proud of him," Cardinal General Manager Bob Ferguson
said. "His commitments and life go beyond the selfishness and
greed you see in pro sports these days."
Ferguson also said Tillman is deadly serious about this
commitment: "Pat wants those tunnels in Afghanistan."
Arizona linebacker Zack Walz, Tillman's roommate on road
trips, said Tillman told him the decision had been long in the
making, and solidified by Sept. 11.
Time—and age—also played a role: The Rangers will not accept
a recruit over age 28. Tillman has enlisted for three years.
"I just called to see how his honeymoon went.... When he
told me about the Army. I was like, 'Are you crazy?' He just
chuckled. This is something I think he's been thinking about
for a long time," Walz said. "That's just Pat. He lives life
by a whole different set of guidelines."
Tillman adds to NFL pride over its ties to the military.
More than 600 NFL players served during World War II; 19 were
"Not only is there a strong tradition, but a strong kinship
between the NFL and the military," said Joe Browne, an NFL vice
president. "The military represents some of our biggest fans."
Tillman and his wife spent Memorial Day weekend with relatives
and friends in the Bay Area. They attended a graduation ceremony
at UC Berkeley, talked until the wee hours with friends in San
Jose and kept clear of reporters.
McCain, who has not met Tillman but has long admired him
as a football player, recalled days not long ago when it was
"uncool" to join or support the military.
"Perhaps [those] last vestiges of the Vietnam War have disappeared
in the rubble of the World Trade Center," McCain said, adding:
"I don't think there will be any doubts about his capabilities
as a soldier but also as a recruiting tool. He'll motivate other
young Americans to serve as well."
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