Tillman's sacrifice provides inspiration

Memorial: Pat Tillman, who gave up a lucrative NFL career, is remembered for giving his life in the service of his country.

May 04, 2004|By Sam Farmer | Sam Farmer,LOS ANGELES TIMES

SAN JOSE, Calif. - With his hands trembling as much as his voice, Zack Walz reached into his left pants pocket and produced Pat Tillman's military dog tags, lifting them to the crowd of 3,000 that gathered yesterday at the Municipal Rose Garden to remember the man who sacrificed his NFL career - and ultimately his life - to serve his country as an Army Ranger.

"Though I'm holding these dog tags in my hands today, I assure you this: This is the farthest they will ever be from their place around my neck," said Walz, who roomed with Tillman during their days with the Arizona Cardinals. "For as long as gravity pulls, they will hang down close to my heart - a place where Pat Tillman has permanently emblazoned his mark."

Tillman, 27, died in Afghanistan on April 22 near the Pakistan border. Details of his death are scant, but the Army has said he was fatally shot while leading his team of soldiers to help comrades caught in an ambush. The Army said he was killed while fighting "without regard for his personal safety."

Arizona Sen. John McCain, one of 18 speakers to deliver eulogies in a sweltering service that lasted almost 2 1/2 hours, praised Tillman's life as "a welcome lesson in the true meaning of courage and honor."

"While many of us will be blessed to live a longer life, few of us will ever live a better one," said McCain, who spent 5 1/2 years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. "He was a most honorable man."

The memorial service, held in Tillman's hometown, drew politicians, celebrities, current and former NFL players, NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue and other league executives - as well as thousands of people who might never have known Tillman personally but felt as if they did. The service was televised live on ESPN and prompted police to limit traffic on the surrounding streets. Mourners were not allowed to take pictures, but 15 TV trucks with towering satellite dishes lined both sides of the street outside the garden gates.

Radio host Jim Rome was the master of ceremonies, and among the speakers were Maria Shriver, wife of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger; Denver Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer, a teammate of Tillman's at Arizona State and with the Cardinals; former Cardinals coach Dave McGinnis; and several members of Tillman's family, including his father, Pat Sr.

"I miss my son - it's only been a week and it ain't getting any better," he said, letting go of the lectern just long enough to adjust his sunglasses. "I'm going to leave these on. Makes me feel like you can't see me."

To those who knew him best, Tillman was a loyal friend with a booming laugh, a delightful free spirit with Fabio-length hair who called everyone "dude," yet was smart enough to graduate summa cum laude from Arizona State in 3 1/2 years.

Ringing the stage were several poster-sized pictures of Tillman. There was one of him celebrating the field with his Cardinals helmet in hand - the same shot that appears on the cover of this week's Sports Illustrated. In another picture, a smiling Tillman is standing in front of an Army helicopter with his middle brother, Kevin, who left his minor league baseball career to become a Ranger with Pat. Then, there was Tillman on his wedding day, happily resting his head in the lap of his wife, Marie, his high school sweetheart.

The Tillman brothers declined all interview requests after deciding to join the Army, adamant that they not be singled out for doing what thousands of Americans do without fanfare. Speakers took pains to point out that hundreds of other soldiers have died protecting American freedoms and ideals, not just Tillman.

Last week, the military posthumously promoted Tillman from specialist to corporal, awarding him the Purple Heart and Silver Star. Friends say he and his brother were moved to join the military after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Tillman was one of more than 100 U.S. soldiers to be killed in Afghanistan since the United States invaded in October 2001. He is the first NFL player killed in combat since Buffalo Bills tackle Bob Kalsu died in the Vietnam War. Nineteen NFL players were killed in World War II.

Drafted in the seventh round by the Cardinals after starring at Arizona State, Tillman beat long odds to not only make the team but become Arizona's starting safety. In 2000, he broke the franchise record with 224 tackles.

Several times during the tribute, people rose to give standing ovations. They waved the small American flags handed out at the gates. At least one man lifted his child onto his shoulders, taking care to ensure his young son could hear every word.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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