Tillman follows beat of a different drum
By Tom Barnidge
(March 20, 2003) -- Those who know Pat Tillman know that he always has welcomed a challenge.
As a youth, he high-dived from bridges and cliffs. At Arizona State, he hopped the fence at Sun Devil Stadium and climbed a light tower. Before reporting for training camp with the Arizona Cardinals two years ago, he competed in a 70-mile triathlon.
"He's like Forrest Gump. He tries everything," says Frank Sanders, his former teammate.
So no one should have been surprised last spring when Tillman, entering his fourth NFL season, shucked it all and joined his brother, Kevin, in setting out to become an Army Ranger. What's a three-year, $3.6 million pro football contract when you can collect $18,000 a year from Uncle Sam?
Pat Tillman gave up the glamour of the NFL to serve his country.
"Pat has very deep and true convictions," Cardinals coach Dave McGinnis said at the time. "He's a deep thinker, and believe me, this was something he thought out."
Tillman made no public statement. He wasn't in this for the publicity. But you didn't need to dig too deeply to find an explanation for his actions. Friends said that the 9/11 terrorist attacks had affected him deeply. Cardinals defensive coordinator Larry Marmie, after a conversation with his former player, said Tillman felt he needed to "pay something back" for the comfortable life he had been afforded.
Whatever his rationale, he clearly was serious about his pursuit. He and Kevin completed basic training in July and advanced through individual training in October. They graduated from parachute school in November, and completed the Ranger Indoctrination Program in December. Just that quickly, Tillman was assigned to the second battalion of the 75th Ranger Regiment in Fort Lewis, Washington.
"He's a full-fledged Ranger now," Army spokesperson Carol Darby reported. "He's ready for combat. He will move with his unit for whatever that unit is involved in."
The 75th Ranger Regiment was deployed recently, presumably to the Middle East. If the description that the Army attaches to the unit ("flexible, highly trained, and rapidly deployed light infantry force with specialized skills") is any measure, the 75th likely will wind up in the middle of the most serious action.
You can be sure that Tillman will be prepared for the challenge. He succeeds at just about everything he sets out to do.
He arrived at Arizona State in 1994 on the school's last remaining football scholarship, landing a spot on the end of the bench, where dreams go to expire. He left four seasons later as the Pac-10 Conference Defensive Player of the Year.
He was selected by the Cardinals with the 226th pick of the 1998 draft -- the league packed up and went home after pick 241 -- and five months later, he was Arizona's starting strong safety.
This is a fellow who doesn't know the meaning of fail -- on the field, in the classroom, or anywhere else. He had a 3.84 grade-point average at ASU and graduated with a degree in marketing in 3½ years.
Pat Tillman is nothing if not unusual. In college, he played linebacker, where he was thought to be too small. In the NFL, he played safety, where he was thought to be too slow. When he set a club record for tackles in 2000 and attracted the interest of another team, the St. Louis Rams, he declined their five-year offer sheet out of loyalty to the club that had drafted him.
NFL players hardly have been strangers to military service. Roger Staubach served four years after graduating from the Naval Academy before joining the Dallas Cowboys as a 27-year-old rookie in 1969. Rocky Bleier of the Pittsburgh Steelers nearly lost a leg to a land mine when he did a tour of duty in Vietnam.
But the list of names grows a little shorter when it comes to NFL players who have walked away from million-dollar contracts in the prime of their careers.
The story that comes to mind is one told by Bruce Snyder, Tillman's coach at Arizona State. It seems that Snyder planned to redshirt Tillman as a freshman, extending his eligibility by a season. Of course, that would necessitate Tillman remaining in college for an extra year.
"You can do whatever you want with me," Tillman said, "but in four years I'm gone. I've got things to do with my life."
Obviously, he still does.
How many of the rich, spoiled-brat athletes would give up their
NFL paycheck to try and "GIVE" a little something back to their
country. I think what he has done is beyond words.