Ex-NFL player Tillman killed in Afghan fighting

Former Cardinals safety had joined Army after shock of 9/11 attacks

April 24, 2004|By Candus Thomson and Brent Jones | Candus Thomson and Brent Jones,SUN STAFF

Pat Tillman traded one helmet for another two years ago, shunning a $3.6 million NFL contract to join the Army Rangers with his brother.

The former safety for the Arizona Cardinals was killed in action Thursday night when his unit was ambushed in eastern Afghanistan. The sergeant was 27.

Tillman was a member of the 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment. Central Command confirmed that a group of coalition soldiers on patrol in a mountainous region on the Afghan-Pakistani border had been attacked. One coalition soldier and one Afghan Militia Force soldier were killed, and two coalition soldiers were wounded in the firefight near Khost.

FOR THE RECORD - A front-page article Saturday about the death of former NFL player Pat Tillman while serving with the Army Rangers in Afghanistan incorrectly reported his rank. Tillman was a specialist, not a sergeant.

About 115 U.S. soldiers have died - about 40 in combat - during Operation Enduring Freedom, which began in Afghanistan in late 2001.

A Pentagon spokesman confirmed Tillman's death last night.

At a news conference yesterday, former Cardinals coach Dave McGinnis called it "a painful day. ... I have known Pat since 1998, and I don't know if I have ever met a more dedicated person in my lifetime. He represented all that was good in sports, bringing passion, honor, integrity and dignity to the game."

Tillman made headlines in May 2002 with his career move. He had been deeply shaken by the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, saying he "hadn't really done a damn thing about laying my life on the line."

After returning from his honeymoon, he told the Cardinals he had played his last football game for a while.

Within days, he took the Army oath with his brother, Kevin, a minor league prospect for the Cleveland Indians, and left for basic training and a paycheck of a little more than $1,000 a month.

He granted no interviews, wrote no self-serving explanations about his decision. He enlisted in Denver, rather than Phoenix, to keep the spotlight dimmed.

The Tillmans served a tour of duty in Operation Iraqi Freedom and came home, only to be deployed again, this time in Afghanistan.

Athletes at war

Professional athletes have long helped fill the combat ranks, from New York Giants pitcher Christy Mathewson in World War I to Boston Red Sox Hall of Famer Ted Williams in World War II and the Korean War to Rocky Bleier of the Pittsburgh Steelers in Vietnam. But, in recent years, few have fought, making Tillman's sacrifice all the more remarkable.

The last time his former coach saw Tillman was December, before and after a Cardinals game in Seattle.

"We spent about five hours the night before the ball game in my hotel room," McGinnis said of the reunion. "He was just so proud to be a member of the Rangers, for he and Kevin to be part of that team."

That Tillman would go his own way came as no surprise to those who knew him and played with him.

"He's like Forrest Gump. He tries everything," former Cardinals teammate and Ravens wide receiver Frank Sanders told The Arizona Republic when he learned of Tillman's decision to enlist.

"[Pat] could get into as philosophical a discussion as you wanted to get into on a broad range of subjects," said McGinnis. "He wasn't singled in on being a football player. He transcended that."

As a youngster, Tillman was a daredevil, jumping from bridges and climbing athletic-field light towers.

In college, Tillman, who stood just 5 feet 11 inches tall, proved himself a fighter, making the most of every opportunity. He graduated from Arizona State University with a degree in marketing in 3 1/2 years, with a grade point average of 3.84. A linebacker for the Sun Devils, he was the Pacific 10 Conference defensive player of the year in 1997.

In the 1998 NFL draft, Tillman was selected by the Cardinals 14 slots before the final selection. Then he showed the rest of the league what it had missed.

"There was nothing that was false, pretentious or phony about Pat Tillman," McGinnis said. "He put on no airs for anybody. He never tried to impress anybody.

Beyond the call

As a Cardinal rookie, he eschewed the trappings of a professional player, declining to get a cell phone and riding a bicycle to training camp. When he finally bought a car, it was a Jeep Cherokee.

"He was a very solid player," McGinnis said. "Every head coach in the National Football League loves to have those type of men on their teams."

Simply put, Tillman went beyond the call of duty, the coach said.

"When we lost our kicker up in Giants Stadium, he was the first guy that grabbed me and ran up to me on the sideline and looked at me and said, `Mac, you know who your kicker is going to be the rest of the game.' He was ready to take that on. We had to use him to kick off."

A ferocious tackler, No. 40 led the Cardinals in that category (with 224) in 2000.

"In his playing career and throughout college, everyone was always saying he was too small to be doing what he's doing; he's not fast enough," said Eagles fullback Jon Ritchie, who played against him in the Pac 10. "He made the seemingly impossible possible. He was full of surprises."

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