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Friday, April 23, 2004

Pat Tillman (1976-2004): A True Fallen Hero

On July 12, 2002, Peggy Noonan wrote this about Pat Tillman:

Maybe he was thinking Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country. Maybe it was visceral, not so much thought as felt, and acted upon. We don't know because he won't say, at least not in public. Which is itself unusual. Silence is the refuge of celebrities caught in scandal, not the usual response of those caught red-handed doing good.

All we know is that 25-year-old Pat Tillman, a rising pro football player (224 tackles in 2000 as a defensive back for the Arizona Cardinals, a team record) came back from his honeymoon seven weeks ago and told his coaches he would turn down a three-year, $3.6 million contract and instead join the U.S. Army. For a pay cut of roughly $3.54 million dollars over three years.

On Monday morning, Pat Tillman "came in like everyone else, on a bus from a processing station," according to a public information officer at Fort Benning, Ga., and received the outward signs of the leveling anonymity of the armed forces: a bad haircut, a good uniform and physical testing to see if he is up to the rigors of being a soldier. Soon he begins basic training. And whatever else happened this week--Wall Street news, speeches on the economy--nothing seems bigger, more important and more suggestive of change than what Pat Tillman did.

Those who know him say it's typical Tillman, a surprise decision based on his vision of what would be a good thing to do. When he was in college he sometimes climbed to the top of a stadium light tower to think and meditate. After his great 2000 season he was offered a $9 million, five-year contract with the St. Louis Rams and said thanks but no, he was happy with the Cardinals.

But it was clear to those who knew Mr. Tillman that after September 11 something changed. The attack on America had prompted a rethinking. Len Pasquarelli of ESPN reported last May that the "free-spirited but consummately disciplined" starting strong safety told friends and relatives that, in Mr. Pasquarelli's words, "his conscience would not allow him to tackle opposition fullbacks where there is still a bigger enemy that needs to be stopped in its tracks." Mr. Tillman's agent and friend Frank Bauer: "This is something he feels he has to do. For him, it's a mindset, a duty."

"I'm sorry, but he is not taking inquiries," said the spokeswoman at Fort Benning. She laughed when I pressed to speak to someone who might have seen Mr. Tillman or talked to him. Men entering basic training don't break for interviews, she said. Besides, "he has asked not to have any coverage. We've been respecting his wishes. And kinda hoping he'd change his mind." Mr. Tillman would, of course, be a mighty recruiting device. The Army might have enjoyed inviting television cameras to record his haircut, as they did with Elvis. But Mr. Tillman, the Fort Benning spokesman says, "wants to be anonymous like everyone else."
Right now he has 13 weeks of basic training ahead of him, then three weeks of Airborne School, and then, if he makes it, Ranger School, where only about a third of the candidates are accepted. "It's a long row," said the Fort Benning spokesman, who seemed to suggest it would be all right to call again around Christmas. Until then he'll be working hard trying to become what he wants to become.

Which I guess says it all.

As you probably know by now, Tillman died yesterday in Afghanistan, fighting for the freedom that all of us enjoy because of him and the countless others who sacrifice everything for us.

Arizona Cardinals Vice President and General Counsel Michael Bidwell released this statement:

As you can imagine this has been a devastating day for all the Cardinals family. Our immediate thoughts and prayers are with his wife Marie, his brother Kevin, his parents, and all of his family members. Every day brave men and women are fighting and in some cases making the ultimate sacrifice for this country and today it has touched our family and touched Arizona.

In sports, we have a tendency to overuse terms like courage, bravery and heroes. Then someone special like Pat Tillman comes along and reminds us of what those terms really mean. The Cardinals and the National Football League were privileged to have Pat Tillman in its family and we are all weaker today following this loss.

This has been a terrible day. We learned this early this morning like many others in the country. Pat was a special guy. The last time we all saw him was in December when the Cardinals played at Seattle. Pat called us a few weeks before that game and told us he was stationed nearby and would like to bring his wife and his brother and some family members by to visit. He sat with my father and me, and others, and we actually have a photo he sent us and a card a few weeks after that day. His wife took that photo and it was a special day. Following the game, he went down and visited many of his teammates. I know everybody was really touched by his visit and he was doing what he was doing. This was his second time back in combat and it was a terrible loss for the National Football League and the Arizona Cardinals.

You can watch an interview of Tillman after 9/11 here.

You can read more thoughtful comments about Tillman from Captain's Quarters, Fraters Libertas, World Magazine, Protein Wisdom and Little Green Footballs.

So far, Markos Zuniga has not expressed his disdain for Tillman's sacrifice.

Those like Tillman who are willing to give up the comfort of civilian life (and Tillman could have had plenty of comfort) to risk it all because they believe in the cause should inspire and humble all of us. I hope some day I will be half the man Pat Tillman was.

UPDATE: Rush Limbaugh has put his remarks from his show today online.

Here's how they start:

I'm sure by now that most of you have heard what initially is shocking news about the death of former Arizona Cardinals safety Pat Tillman, dead at age 27 in battle as a member of the 75th Army Rangers regiment in Afghanistan. This news hit today, and it socked everybody in the gut because most people know Pat Tillman's story. Pat Tillman rejected a multimillion dollar contract from the Arizona Cardinals as a safety and defensive back. He rejected it after 9/11 because, he said, "I think I need to pay somebody back for the very comfortable life I've been afforded." His life was comfortable but he pushed himself.

He was drafted 226 out of 241 players the year he was drafted. That's near the end. He got the last scholarship at Arizona State, ended up on the bench, but in both instances he was starting when he was expected to not even make either his college or his pro football team. And after 9/11 happened, he decided that he had to take matters into his own hands and pay people back for what had happened.

Now, a lot of people today -- and I've seen it in the media and I'm getting a lot of email and it was my reaction too. I mean, we're all the same here. A lot of people are going, "Oh, this is horrible. Oh, this is absolutely terrible. This man was a hero, gave up a multimillion dollar contract to serve his country." And all of that is true and I don't mean to diminish any of that. In fact, I want to build that up.

I want to say that Pat Tillman's not unique. You know, there's a controversy that's raging in this country today. All of these photos of the flag-draped coffins that have come back from either Afghanistan or Iraq. They're at Dover and there's a controversy over who took these pictures and they shouldn't be published and somebody should be fired. Somebody was fired, and the truth of the matter is, ladies and gentlemen, there's a Pat Tillman in each and every one of those coffins. There are people who have been killed in action in Afghanistan and Iraq that we don't know. Their families feel as devastated as Pat Tillman's family feels.

Those who are friends and know of the others who have died feel the same way we all feel about Pat Tillman today. The point is, they're all special, and they are all heroes, and they are from all walks of American life. They are from all races. They're from all religions. They're from all socioeconomic backgrounds. All this talk recently about we need a draft because the rich and white of America are not serving, it's all hocus-pocus. This is a far different country in terms of patriotism than it was in the 1970s. Compare the actions being taken against America by some of her own citizens then to the actions of people like Pat Tillman.

Rush continues here and here.

In related news, those other heroes are re-enlisting in record numbers.


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