Craig Morgan wrote this article about Pat Tillman on FoxSportsArizona.com today, and I thought it was worth sharing as we approach the 10th anniversary of September 11 attacks… sometimes, its necessary to take a step back and remember those individuals, like Pat, who lived their life selflessly…
Tillman’s legacy an inspiration for all
In the days after Pat Tillman was killed in action in Afghanistan, a makeshift memorial popped up outside Sun Devil Stadium. Among the photos, flowers, thank-you letters and soldiers’ boots was a note from an 8-year-old boy that read: “I know you don’t want to be a hero, but too bad.”
When he gave up his NFL career to enlist in the army in May of 2002, Tillman shunned the media and public spotlight. He refused interview requests and he kept the reasons for his decision private.
“I don’t think Pat would like all the attention he’s getting now because he was a very low-key guy,” said former Arizona State teammate Juan Roque. “He would say ‘There are a lot of people that have sacrificed for this country that deserve recognition. You’re doing way too much on me.’”
As we mark the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, an entire nation will mourn the most devastating foreign attack on US soil. No place felt the loss more keenly than New York when the World Trade Center towers collapsed, killing almost 3,000 people.
But Tillman’s decision and ultimate death in 2004 made the tragedy more personal in Arizona because he was one of us. He led Arizona State to the 1997 Rose Bowl, and he turned down a five-year, $9 million contract offer from the St. Louis Rams to remain with the Cardinals.
When he gave his life in the service of his country, he became the best of us — a selfless inspiration for Arizonans from every walk of life to do more.
“From time to time, I think of him and his example inspires me to do the right thing and maybe work a little harder,” Senator John McCain said. “There will always be a special place reserved for Pat Tillman in the hearts of Arizona’s citizens.”
There are constant physical reminders of Tillman all across the Valley of the Sun. Attend any Cardinals or Sun Devils game and you’ll spot dozens of No. 40 Tillman jerseys. Last April, 40,000 people from 48 states and eight nations crowded the city of Tempe to honor his legacy at Pat’s Run.
The Cardinals erected a statue of him outside University of Phoenix Stadium. He’s in the ASU Sports Hall of Fame, and there’s even a Tillman display there that includes his transcript, showing a GPA of 3.87.
The tunnel through which the Sun Devils enter the football stadium before every game was renamed the Tillman Tunnel and includes a mural on one side and a plaque on the other, listing all his accomplishments.
ASU recently dedicated the Pat Tillman Veterans Center on the lower level of the Memorial Union as a single point of contact for the school’s veterans and their dependents.
But Tillman’s Arizona legacy runs deeper than buildings and events. Its wide-ranging impact is best measured by the state’s diverse population.
For Cardinals safety Adrian Wilson, Tillman’s greatest impact came as a mentor who taught him how to study the playbook, game film and how to conduct himself on and off the field.
“A lot of people ask me ‘What was it that Pat did?’ And it was pretty simple: He didn’t do anything other than be himself,” said Wilson, who was a rookie in Tillman’s final season with the Cards. “He was like a renaissance man because he was very smart and read a lot, but at the same time he didn’t take himself too seriously.”
Tillman was keenly aware that Wilson was brought in to take his job, but that never stopped him from helping.
“He was the only one who showed me the ropes, and I really appreciated that,” Wilson said. “But probably the biggest thing that I took from him was how to act. Just because you’re in this position doesn’t mean you have to change who you are.”
For Mesa resident Jeff Lewis, Tillman’s inspiration came on an emotional level. Lewis was the victim of an accidental shooting in his backyard in 1985.
A boy playing with a gun on the other side of a fence fired a bullet into Lewis’ back, costing him his spleen.
Twenty years later, Lewis contracted a common infection that his spleen would have prevented. Instead, his body shut down circulation to his limbs in order to continue providing blood to his brain, heart and lungs. He experienced kidney failure, cardiac arrest and was given less than a one percent chance of surviving.
When Lewis woke up from a coma in the hospital, he realized doctors had amputated both hands and both legs below the knees. With the help of his wife, Carol, he overcame the psychological trauma of being outfitted with four prosthetics and moved on with his life. But it was Tillman who inspired Lewis to do more than just live.
Every year since 2007, Lewis has participated in Pat’s Run.
“Regardless of how you feel about the war, how can you not be inspired by a man who gives up his career and millions of dollars to serve his country?” said Lewis, an ASU season-ticket holder. “When I read about Pat’s Run I told my wife ‘I want to do that.’ Some might think I’m crazy, but every time I enter the stadium at the end of the race I always get a standing ovation like I’m scoring the winning touchdown.
“I’m going to be doing that race until the day I die.”
Tillman’s impact clearly stretches beyond Arizona’s borders. The Tillman Military Scholars program provides active and veteran US service members and their spouses the funds to help complete their college degrees or certification programs. Virginia native Brett Gibson completed his MBA at Harvard Business School with the help of that program.
But Gibson didn’t stop there. Tillman’s example inspired him to start a mentoring program for at-risk kids in Boston while he was attending Harvard. The program, called The Impact Initiative, paired 200 MBA students with seventh graders at two schools who got to sit in on classes at Harvard and participate in case studies. The program focused on helping kids redefine themselves as leaders and heroes.
“I always thought of Pat as an American hero, but it was a pretty abstract concept to me,” Gibson said. “Through the foundation I got to learn not only about him as a hero, but as a dedicated husband and community leader and a guy who was universally respected.
“That image inspired me even more and really motivated me to do more with my life in the service of others.”
That inspiration for military personnel is also evident at ASU, which has been designated a military friendly school.
Jason Ohanian is a student in the W.P. Carey School of Business MBA program who served in the Army from 1999-2003. He spoke at the dedication of the Tillman Veteran’s Center in August at the request of the Tillman Foundation.
“I don’t get nervous about too many things any more, but I was definitely nervous for that speech,” Ohanian said. “He helped raise awareness and respect for the military so much. To me, Pat Tillman is what you hope your state is. You hope it can be as good as Pat was. He embodies what we want to be and should be.”
Sometimes, Tillman’s impact is more abstract in nature. The state of Arizona has come under national fire recently for its immigration and educational policies. The housing market is in the tank and the unemployment rate was at 9.4 percent in July.
Such discord has caused rancor among Arizona’s citizens – acrimony some believe Tillman can help ease.
“We need inspiring figures such as Pat Tillman at a time when cynicism is at an all-time high and our politicians disappoint us,” McCain said. “He makes all Arizonans proud, so it in that respect it matters and he can be a unifying force, but we can’t expect his example to solve everything.”
Tillman would probably laugh at that notion, anyway.
“If people referred to him as a hero or this unifying force, he would have been polite and said ‘Thank you,’ then he would have deferred to someone or something else,” said Doug Tammaro, ASU media relations director, who was a friend of Tillman’s. “But it’s hard to ignore the fact that there are a lot of people who have been motivated by him.
“People have lost weight, people have changed their careers for the better, people have gotten their degrees, people have cleaned up their act and gone sober, people have overcome disabilities.
“I don’t want to speak for Pat, but I certainly don’t think he would have been against people improving their lives. In fact, I’m pretty sure he would have liked that.”