Tillman, Patrick Daniel (“Pat”)

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Tillman, Patrick Daniel (“Pat”)

(b. 6 November 1976 in Fremont, California; d. 22 April 2004 in Sperah [some sources say Manah], Afghanistan), professional football player who in response to the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 abandoned his successful career and joined the U.S. Army.

Tillman was the first of three sons born to Mary Tillman, a San Jose public school special-education teacher, and Patrick K. Tillman, a lawyer. Tillman attended Leland High School, located in Almaden Valley, in San Jose, California. He starred as an interscholastic football player at Leland, appearing on the field for almost every play, as a fullback on offense, as a linebacker on defense, and as a cover guy and kick returner on special teams. In 1993, as a junior, he helped the 12–1 Leland team capture the Central Coast Section Championship. Dan Lloyd, Leland’s defensive coordinator, recalled that although Tillman was the school’s best tailback, he mostly played defense during the championship season because the squad had another high-quality running back. Lloyd noted that Tillman put the goals of the team first and accepted his reduced role without a gripe.

On the football field, Tillman exuded energy, spirit, and passion, with an admixture of mischief. His activities during a first-round 1993 playoff contest exemplified his flair. Leland was routing its opponent, and the coaches chose to rest the team’s starters, but Tillman kept sneaking back into the game. The staff, led by head coach Terry Hardtke, had to take his equipment away in order to keep him on the sideline. Lloyd recalled, “Pat just wanted to stay on the field, he kept going out there. It was finally, ‘Pat, take off your stuff.’”

For the 1993 season Tillman averaged 10.9 yards per carry in rushing for a total of 623 yards and fourteen touchdowns. He also averaged 25.7 yards on 27 receptions (12 of which were for touchdowns), returned 3 kicks for touchdowns, and logged 110 tackles, 10 sacks, and 3 interceptions on defense. Leland’s assistant principal, Robert Setterlund, said, “He was very popular. He would walk around campus with a group the size of a soccer team.” A classmate noted, “All the girls loved him, and all the guys wanted to be him,” while his Spanish teacher, Carla Lucarotti, noted that his mischievous streak did go beyond the gridiron. In fact, in defending a friend, Tillman was charged with a felony assault as a juvenile. He pled guilty and served thirty days in a detention center.

Tillman was awarded 1994 Central Coast co-player of the year honors and also first-team all-sectional honors on defense. But standing five feet, eleven inches tall and weighing 195 pounds, he was viewed as undersized for collegiate football and was contacted by only three division 1-A colleges: San Jose State University, Brigham Young University, and Arizona State University (ASU). Tillman had hoped that nearby Stanford would offer him a scholarship, but that school deemed his grades too low. In August 1994 Tillman enrolled at ASU, where he was in fact the last man offered a football scholarship. When the ASU football coach Bruce Snyder asked the seventeen-year-old about what he thought of the recruiting process, Tillman rejoined, “It stinks. Nobody tells the truth.” When the coach raised the notion of using one year to train without playing, which would have entailed his spending five years total in college, Tillman replied, “I’ve got things to do with my life. You can do whatever you want with me, but in four years I’m gone.”

On 1 January 1997 Tillman started as weakside linebacker in the Rose Bowl, against Ohio State University, when the ASU Sun Devils fell short of a perfect season and the national championship in losing 20–17. In November 1997 Tillman became the first Sun Devil to be named Pacific Ten Conference defensive player of the year since the award was initially presented in 1983, as he led ASU in tackles with ninety-seven. Meanwhile, he maintained a 3.84 grade point average and graduated summa cum laude in December 1997 with a BS. He earned his marketing degree in three and a half years, after enrolling during the summer and taking sixteen units instead of the typical twelve.

On 19 April 1998 the Arizona Cardinals selected Tillman in the seventh round of the National Football League (NFL) draft, making him the 226th of 241 players picked. During a predraft workout, the Cardinals had wanted a fifteen-minute look at him performing drills, but he had made them stay for forty-five minutes, until he did every drill perfectly. Tillman then signed a contract with Arizona for nearly $400,000, and he was given a playbook and told to know its contents by the start of rookie training camp. Upon arrival, Tillman was the only player to have memorized the playbook and in fact had also highlighted the book’s misspellings and contradictions. In one error, a play noted a curl instruction, whereas ten pages prior the volume had instructed the athlete in the same situation to play “flat.”

Arriving early to his first full team meeting, Tillman sat in the center of the first row, only to be challenged by an established Cardinal for the chair. Reportedly, Tillman looked directly at the veteran and said in a voice loud enough for the entire room to hear, “You’re going to have to kick my butt to get me out of this seat.” The startled veteran then found another place. At ASU, Tillman had worn number forty-two, but that number was already being worn by the starting defensive back Kwamie Lassiter, a key rival for the position, and Tillman was assigned number forty. Team officials felt that Tillman gave no opposition to the switch because he was aware that the same number was donned in 1983 by the NFL’s first “tweener”—a player who does not fit the exact height and weight requirements or who does not possess the exact skill parameters for a particular field position—the Dallas Cowboys’ Bill Bates, an undersized, undrafted University of Tennessee free agent who defied gridiron experts’ dim forecasts and became a defensive mainstay.

On the field, Tillman so amazed the Arizona coaching staff with his raw energetic athleticism that on 6 September 1998 he became the first rookie starter at safety since the Cardinals’ 1988 move to Arizona. In that season opener, in Dallas, Tillman logged five solo tackles, four assists, and one deflected pass against the Cowboy offense. In New Jersey on 1 November, in a loss to the New York Giants, Tillman tied the team lead in tackles with eleven, six of which were solo. On 8 November, Tillman led Arizona with ten tackles, six of which were solo, in a victory over the Washington Redskins. As Arizona headed to possible playoff contention, the head coach Vince Tobin began to exploit Tillman’s talents by using sets reminiscent of his Sun Devil days.

Off the field, Tillman continued being his own spirit, as in his college days, occasionally stationing himself 200 feet above Sun Devil Stadium on a light tower, reflecting upon his thoughts after having made the dangerous climb in sandals. His Cardinal teammates knew that he bicycled everywhere; before coming to the franchise, his car had expired. Tillman remarked, “I didn’t get a big signing bonus to buy another. So I just ride my bike, no big deal.” In 2000 he ran his first marathon, finishing in three hours, forty-eight minutes. Meanwhile, his best NFL season came in 2000, when he started all sixteen games and set a club record with 224 tackles. In the spring of 2001, two days after a Cardinals minicamp, Tillman competed in his first triathlon, a benefit for several charitable groups, running, biking, and swimming a total of 70.3 miles. Among the 1,285 finishers, he ranked 960th, just two hours behind the winner. In 2001 his loyalty to the Cardinals led him to opt for a one-year, $512,000 deal over the five-year, $9 million offer extended by the Super Bowl champion St. Louis Rams.

Tillman was deeply affected by the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks. He told the media, “A lot of my family have fought in wars, and I haven’t done a damn thing as far as laying myself on the line like that.” On 6 January 2002, in what would be his final NFL game, Tillman amassed a team-high eighteen tackles in a 20–17 loss to the Redskins in Washington, D.C. In May 2002 Tillman married Marie Ugenti, his high-school sweetheart, and they honeymooned for fourteen days in Bora-Bora. Sometime during that period, Tillman talked with his brother Kevin about joining the army. Upon his return, Tillman told his agent, Frank Bauer, that he had enlisted.

In May 2002 Arizona offered its tackle record holder a three-year, $3.6 million contract; however, Tillman informed the team that he had instead signed a three-year deal with the U.S. Army, with annual starting pay of less than $15,000. In July 2002 Tillman and his brother Kevin reported to basic training in Fort Benning, Georgia. In October, Tillman graduated from the army’s Infantry Training Brigade at Fort Benning’s Sand Hill, serving as guidon bearer for B Company, First Battalion, Nineteenth Infantry Regiment. In March 2003 Tillman was deployed to the Middle East. On 22 April 2004 Corporal Tillman, twenty-seven years old, was killed in Afghanistan, purportedly in the course of a firefight with anti-coalition militia forces.

On 29 May 2004, more than three weeks after a San Jose memorial service, the army announced that Tillman’s death had resulted from friendly fire rather than from an enemy encounter. Two initial fact-finding investigations were conducted by Tillman’s Seventy-fifth Ranger Regiment. A third investigation was conducted by U.S. Army Special Operations Command, and a concurrent investigation was conducted by the U.S. Army Safety Center. Army documents show that even at the time of the memorial service, military officials already knew that Tillman had been killed by an act of “gross negligence,” that critical evidence had been destroyed, and that the truth was being concealed from Tillman’s brother, who, himself also a Ranger, had been stationed nearby. The Tillman family consequently demanded that the full truth be revealed and criticized the army and its investigations. The Defense Department Office of Inspector General then launched a criminal investigation into the matter.

ASU and the Arizona Cardinals retired Tillman’s numbers and renamed facilities in his honor. Maria Shriver, speaking for her husband, California’s Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, a childhood idol of Tillman’s, said, “Pat Tillman was one of California’s golden sons.... Who among us could walk away from riches and a job we love and put ourselves in harm’s way... for our country?”

For biographical information, see Jonathan Rand, Fields of Honor: The Pat Tillman Story (2004); Mike Towle, I’ve Got Things To Do with My Life: Pat Tillman; The Making of an American Hero (2004); and Gary Smith, “Pat Tillman, 1976–2004: Code of Honor,” Sports Illustrated (3 May 2004). An obituary is in the New York Times (24 Apr. 2004).

John Vorperian

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