Archive for Saturday, April 24, 2004

Ex-NFL player Tillman killed in Afghanistan

April 24, 2004


— Pat Tillman walked away from millions in the NFL to fight for his country in Afghanistan.

He paid with his life.

The former Arizona Cardinals safety was killed Thursday night in a firefight while on combat patrol. A specialist with the elite Army Rangers, he was 27.

"He is a hero," Cardinals vice president Michael Bidwill said. "He was a brave man. There are very few people who have the courage to do what he did, the courage to walk away from a professional sports career and make the ultimate sacrifice."

Lt. Col. Matt Beevers, a spokesman for the U.S. military in Kabul, said a soldier was killed by anti-coalition militia forces about 25 miles from a U.S. military base at Khost.

The Department of Defense confirmed Tillman's death Friday night, stating in a news release that he was killed in Afghanistan "when his patrol vehicle came under attack." It did not provide details.

The 5-foot-11, 200-pound Tillman was an overachiever as an athlete. Too slow to be a great safety, too small for an NFL linebacker, he got by on toughness and effort.

Those attributes undoubtedly served him well in the Army Rangers, whom he joined in May 2002 after abandoning his career with the Cardinals. He moved from a violent game to the reality of war.

"Pat Tillman personified all the best values of his country and the NFL," commissioner Paul Tagliabue said. "He was an achiever and leader on many levels who always put his team, his community, and his country ahead of his personal interests."

Tillman was the first NFL player killed in combat since Buffalo offensive tackle Bob Kalsu died in the Vietnam War in July 1970. Nineteen NFL players were killed in World War II.

Among 638 former NFL players who served during World War II, 19 were killed. Among them:¢ Jack Lummus, New York Giants, at Iwo Jima. After losing both legs, he reportedly told medics: "Well, it looks like the Giants have lost a good end." He died that night. Awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.¢ Al Blozis, New York Giants, two weeks after he was shipped to France. Considered prospect for Olympic shot-put gold.One professional football player died in the Vietnam War: Bob Kalsu, an offensive tackle for the Buffalo Bills, served in the Army's 101st Airborne Division and was killed by mortar fire.

Some 110 U.S. soldiers have died -- 39 of them in combat -- during Operation Enduring Freedom, which began in Afghanistan in late 2001.

Denver quarterback Jake Plummer was a teammate of Tillman for seven years, three at Arizona State and four with the Cardinals.

"We lost a unique individual that touched the lives of many with his love for life, his toughness, his intellect," Plummer said in a statement released by the Broncos. "Pat Tillman lived life to the fullest and will be remembered forever in my heart and mind."

In college, Tillman was a long-haired wild man on the field, an all-Pac-10 linebacker always going full speed. Bone-jarring hits were his trademark.

He and Plummer led the Sun Devils to the 1997 Rose Bowl. The next season, Tillman was the Pac-10 defensive player of the year. He graduated summa cum laude in December 1997 with a marketing degree and a 3.84 grade-point average.

The Cardinals took Tillman in the seventh round of the 1998 draft, the 226th player chosen. At first, he made his mark on special teams, but played his way into a starting spot at safety.

In 2000, he broke the franchise record for tackles with 223. He had 12 solo tackles and a hand in 21 overall in a 16-15 victory over Washington that season.

In practice, coaches often had to make Tillman slow down so he wouldn't hurt anybody in drills that weren't supposed to be full speed. Slowing down was always tough for him.

Before the 2000 season, he ran a marathon to see what it would be like. Before the 2001 season, he gave the triathlon a try.

Six months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Tillman walked into the office of then-coach Dave McGinnis, pulled up a chair and said, "Mac, we have to talk."

Tillman and his brother Kevin -- a minor-league baseball player in the Cleveland organization -- were going to join the Army Rangers, soldiers sent where the fighting is toughest.

"It was his wish that this not be something that would draw a lot of attention," McGinnis said. "He truly felt committed and felt a sense of honor and duty at this point in his life that this is what he wanted to do."

Tillman never said a word publicly about his decision.

When he returned from his Middle East tour of duty, Tillman, his wife, Marie, and brother Kevin joined the Cardinals for a game in Seattle last December. They spent five hours in McGinnis' hotel room the night before the game, talking.

"He was just so proud to be a member of the Rangers," McGinnis said. "That came through loud and clear."

Tillman attended the team's pregame breakfast, then watched the game with Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill and his son, Michael. Tillman talked with his teammates in the locker room after the game, then slipped out a side door before reporters came in.

Tillman turned down a more lucrative offer from the St. Louis Rams in 2001 to stay with the Cardinals. A year later, he walked away from a three-year, $3.6 million offer from Arizona to join the Army.

Phil Snow, now defensive coordinator at the University of Washington, held the same position at Arizona State when the Sun Devils recruited Tillman out of San Jose, Calif.

"Pat was a lot of things as a person," Snow said. "He was a tough, good-looking guy. He was extremely competitive. You know there is a saying with older people: 'He was a man's man.' You always knew where you stood with Pat. There was no phoniness in him."

The Cardinals and Arizona State announced late Friday afternoon the formation of a Pat Tillman Memorial Scholarship Award. It will be presented each year to a marketing major at the school of business.

Gov. Janet Napolitano ordered flags on the Arizona State campus flown at half-staff. His framed No. 40 jersey and a large poster bearing his photo were displayed Friday on a table outside Cardinals headquarters, alongside flowers and teddy bears. A pen was left for people to write messages to the Tillman family.

Flowers, balloons and cards were placed at the memorial throughout the day. At one point, a lone man in uniform and kilt showed up and played "Amazing Grace" and "America the Beautiful" on a bagpipe.

"What other person do you know who would give up a life in the NFL to defend what he believes in with his own life?" said former teammate David Barrett, now with the New York Jets. "That is a humble guy."

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