Tillman chose duty over money, fame

April 24, 2004|By LAURA VECSEY

THERE ARE all kinds of roll calls. Today, the NFL will start posting a list of the newest members of its elite ranks when it commences its 2004 amateur draft.

Names and faces will be photographed for the local news. Signing bonuses and depth charts will be speculated on fan Web sites. A good day for football fans. An anticipated day. No wonder NFL.com didn't interrupt its onslaught of postings of information, analysis and mock drafts last night.

What could be more important? How badly young men want to get into the NFL. So bad they sue and petition all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court in an effort to clarify their rights to get in, to get paid, to play.

Choose me, they'll wish, as the "war-room" work of NFL general managers and owners produces a pecking order, a list of all the lucky ones whose young, football lives have all pointed toward this moment: You're in.

Not Pat Tillman.

He wanted out.

We all know his story now.

The Arizona Cardinal who walked away from $3.6 million to serve his country. Only he didn't walk away. He strode purposefully toward something else, something more important, his brother at his side and his mind made up.

He couldn't play a game when there was a war to fight. There is little doubt that Tillman understood completely what he faced when he declared himself no longer a football player, but a soldier, a patriot.

We all know his story of sacrifice. He saw the flames and the smoke and the murder of Sept. 11. The following May, he was in the Army, training, on his way to do something, to serve, to give equal or more than the luck and comfort he had known.

Yesterday, on a day when America began a debate about whether or not the U.S. government should allow citizens to see photographs of flag-draped coffins, word of Tillman's death arrived.

On a day when those vivid, humbling, anger-inspiring images of flag-draped coffins were indeed published in newspapers and aired on TV for us to see, news of Tillman's death was, oddly, nearly as startling.

Maybe it was the contrast.

All those anonymous soldiers under the cloak of the stars and stripes, lined up in the fuselage of a military aircraft, ready to come home.

No wonder the government wouldn't want anyone to see. Call it respect for the dead, but how can we respect what we don't comprehend? The pictures give a window into the pain, the loss, the hurt and the tragic waste that comes with war.

Then there is Tillman: One 27-year-old man who, at his own insistence, was no different from any other man or woman who went to serve this country.

The picture of Tillman is the one every mother, father, sister, brother, aunt, uncle, friend and stranger thinks about when they think back to the time before the terrible news, before the shock of death.

Like the photos of those coffins, the photo of Tillman has been posted all over the Internet, on TV and newspapers across the country.

It's the one you imagine hanging on the wall of the Tillmans' den.

He's standing on the sidelines during an NFL game, his Cardinals helmet off, his long, sun-streaked hair drenched in sweat. He is facing the sun. His tanned face is turned toward the field.

He is the picture of a player looking out to see his teammates perform. He is the bright, undersized safety who hit harder and thought more clearly than most.

He is the loyal teammate who refused a better contract offer with another NFL team because he didn't want to walk away from the Cardinals, the team that drafted him - barely.

Six years ago this weekend, Arizona made Tillman an NFL player in the 1998 draft.

Name after name was called. Saturday turned into Sunday. Two hundred and fifty two players were chosen ahead of him.

Peyton Manning, Ryan Leaf at the top. Randy Moss, Jerome Pathon, Ahman Green, Hines Ward, Matt Hasselbeck.

Seven rounds were completed before compensatory picks were started. Seven more names were called before Arizona's turn. The team chose a familiar name, a guy who barely got a scholarship but wound up making more tackles than any other Sun Devil one season.

Yup. Sitting there on the board was the name of an over-achieving defensive end out of Arizona State. Only 15 more players were chosen after Tillman. No wonder he felt he owed something to the Cardinals. No wonder we know his story, even though he insisted he should not be singled out.

But in light of all the others who are gone now, for a nation and its leaders that need to be reminded about what war does, Pat Tillman is not being singled out. Because we know his face and his story, he's being held up.

His name will be only one amid a growing roll call. He is the soldier who represents all the others we don't know, won't know.

If that's not service ...

War deaths

Other U.S. athletes who died in combat:

Al Blozis, football: The New York Giants tackle, an All-Pro player and College Football Hall of Famer from Georgetown, was killed in World War II by German machine-gun fire in France.

Billy Fiske, bobsled: The 1928 and 1932 Olympic gold medalist was the first U.S. pilot killed in World War II, shot down in the Battle of Britain. Will be played by Tom Cruise in a movie called The Few.

Tommy Hitchcock, polo: The first player inducted into the sport's Hall of Fame, he was killed on a test flight in World War II.

Bob Kalsu, football: The Buffalo Bills guard was the only NFL player to die in Vietnam. He was killed by mortar fire about 24 hours before his son, Bob Jr., was born.

Jack Lummus, football: The New York Giants receiver was killed in World War II on the island of Iwo Jima and was awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor.

Joe Pinder, baseball: The minor league pitcher was killed in World War II on D-Day at Omaha Beach, shot while bringing radio equipment ashore from a landing craft. He was awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor.

Source: Sun research

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