When watching the highlights of football games, we frequently hear the word “hero.”
A player makes a game saving tackle, interception, catch, or scores the winning points and he is called a ‘hero’ for his exploits.
Unfortunately, the word is used so much that it carries little meaning.
The hero designation should instead be reserved for those who actually embark on something heroic.
A truly heroic person gives up their life of comfort, leisure, and safety and throws themself into the unknown.
Some people end up giving their life for the sake of a cause or to help someone.
In those instances, the person who has made the ultimate sacrifice should respectfully be given the hero designation to honor what they have accomplished.
Such a person was former Arizona Cardinal safety Pat Tillman.
Tillman was a high energy player who gained fame for his unrelenting play and ability to answer any challenge placed in front of him.
After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Tillman turned down a lucrative contract to join the Army and serve his country.
In the end, he lost his life on a fateful afternoon in Afghanistan.
This is the story of the heroic life and tragic death of Pat Tillman.
Patrick Daniel Tillman Jr. was born on November 6, 1976 in Fremont, California and was the oldest of three boys.
He was competitive in sports by the time he reached Leland High School in San Jose.
As a student at Leland, Tillman played football and baseball.
He was a catcher during his freshman year.
However, when he did not make the varsity team, Tillman decided to concentrate on football.
In addition to playing on the defensive side of the ball, Tillman also saw the field as a fullback and special teams demon.
In 1993, he toted the rock for 623 yards and 14 touchdowns. He also had 27 receptions (12 for touchdowns), three touchdowns on kick returns, 110 tackles, 10 sacks, and three picks on defense.
You have to love Leland High School's football helmets honoring fallen alumni Pat Tillman. pic.twitter.com/kzW2KdS2Ix
— ArizonaVarsity.com 🔥PREPS🔥 (@AZHSFB) April 22, 2014
During the first round of the playoffs during that magical 1993 season, the Chargers were blowing out their opponent.
The coaching staff began taking out their starters, but Tillman kept sneaking back onto the field to play.
Exasperated, his coaches finally had to take away Tillman’s playing gear.
“Pat just wanted to stay on the field, he kept going out there. It was finally, ‘Pat, take off your stuff,’” said Dan Lloyd, Leland’s defensive coordinator.
The program eventually won the Central Coast Division I Football Championship at the end of the ‘93 season.
“He [Tillman] was very popular. He would walk around campus with a group the size of a soccer team,” said Leland Assistant Principal Robert Setterland.
A classmate also noted, “All the girls loved him (Tillman), and all the guys wanted to be him,”
Tillman did experience a low point while in high school.
While defending a friend, he found himself in the middle of a fight.
The result was Tillman being found guilty of felony assault as a juvenile.
He pled guilty to the charge and served 30 days in a detention center.
In 1994, Tillman was named Central Coast Co-Player of the Year.
Despite his outstanding play and accolades, Tillman did not have a lot of interest from larger universities.
He had hoped to attend nearby Stanford University, but his grades were too low.
With interest from San Jose State, BYU, and Arizona State, Tillman made his way to sunny Phoenix, Arizona to suit up for the Sun Devils.
A Star at ASU
Then ASU head coach Bruce Snyder asked his new recruit what he thought of the idea of just training to play football his first year in Phoenix.
In turn, that would have given Tillman the opportunity to play five years as a Sun Devil.
In short, Tillman wasn’t having it.
“I’ve got things to do with my life. You can do whatever you want with me, but in four years I’m gone,” Tillman told Snyder.
In 1994, Tillman contributed mainly on special teams and had 10 total tackles during the year.
On his first play from scrimmage as a linebacker, Tillman sacked Cal quarterback Dave Barr for an 11 yard loss.
20 years ago this week, Pat Tillman took the field for @FootballASU for the last time. He'll always have a special place in Sun Devil hearts. https://t.co/NlC7HqXCcm #PT42 ❤️ pic.twitter.com/3QgS6nwCWM
— Arizona State University (@ASU) January 5, 2018
Tillman found his way to the field more often in 1995.
That year, he had 47 total tackles including a career high eight tackles in two separate games.
1996 was a breakthrough year for both Tillman and ASU.
That season, the Sun Devils went undefeated during the regular season and played in the Rose Bowl versus Ohio State.
Although the team just missed a perfect season with a 20-17 loss to the Buckeyes, Tillman played well.
He was the program’s second leading tackler and started every game.
During ASU’s contest against Oregon, Tillman was everywhere.
That day, he had an interception, a fumble recovery, recovered an onside kick, collected a sack, made five tackles, seven assisted tackles, and two tackles for a loss.
Tillman was named Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Week for his play.
On this date in 1996, Pat Tillman led ASU to a win over Oregon with an INT, fumble recovery, onside kick recovery, 1 sack and 5 tackles 🐐💪🏼 pic.twitter.com/k0zhsIWk3l
— Sun Devil Football (@ASUFootball) September 28, 2018
In 1997, the Sun Devils finished the year 9-3 and defeated Iowa 17-7 in the Sun Bowl.
It was the first time in ten years that ASU had appeared in back-to-back bowl games.
Tillman was one of the best college football players in the land that season.
He had 93 total tackles including 15 tackles for a loss, four sacks, and three picks.
After the season, Tillman collected a ton of hardware and honors for both athletic and academic performance.
They included: Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year, ASU Football MVP, a spot in the East-West Shrine game, the Burger King Scholarship, the Sporting News Honda Student-Athlete of the Year award, GTE District VIII Academic All-America, Academic All-Pac-10, the Clyde B. Smith Academic Award, and the 1998 Sun Angel Student Athlete of Year.
Next up for Tillman, the NFL.
Tillman Selected by Cardinals
Despite his standout play at ASU, Tillman had to wait until the final round of the 1998 NFL Draft to hear his name.
Over 200 names were called before Tillman.
Finally, with the 226th pick of the 7th round, the Arizona Cardinals selected their hometown stud.
Before Eno Benjamin (7th round, 222nd overall), the last player the Cardinals drafted from ASU?
Turned in this card to draft Pat Tillman in 7th round round of 1998 draft (226th overall) pic.twitter.com/etWjo0kjb7
— Mark Dalton (@CardsMarkD) April 25, 2020
During the pre-draft process, Tillman made an impression on Cardinals scouts with his mental and physical preparation.
During one of their meetings with him, Cardinals insiders wanted Tillman to run through assorted drills for 15 minutes.
Not happy with his performance, Tillman had the Arizona staff stay for 45 minutes while he made sure to finish every drill perfectly.
After being drafted, the Cardinals then told Tillman to study his new playbook and be prepared for their rookie training camp.
Not only was he ready for camp, but Tillman had memorized the play book and even highlighted some misspellings and mistakes in various plays.
Cardinals lore also contains this gem about Tillman.
When he arrived early to his first team meeting, Tillman sat in the center chair in the first row.
One of the Arizona veterans came in and told Tillman to move out of his spot.
Undeterred, Tillman allegedly said, “You’re going to have to kick my butt to get me out of this seat.”
Startled, the veteran found someplace else to sit.
Not content to just practice and learn as a rookie, Tillman impressed the Cardinals staff with his relentless energy and high level of football knowledge.
He was named a starter for the team before their season opener against Dallas.
That made Tillman the first starter at safety for the Cards since 1988.
Pat Tillman – Arizona Cardinals (1998-2001) American Hero (Forever) 🇺🇸 pic.twitter.com/ezpbsH30fi
— EPIC Jerseys (@EpicUniforms) November 11, 2015
In the game against the Cowboys, Tillman announced himself to the NFL with nine total tackles and one pass broken up.
That season, he collected 73 total tackles and one sack.
The Cardinals benefitted from players like Tillman during the 1998 season.
With a 9-7 record and second place finish in the NFC East, the team defeated the Cowboys 20-7 in the Wild Card Playoffs.
The team ran into a juggernaut Minnesota squad the following week in the Divisional Playoffs and lost 41-21.
In 1999, Tillman had 52 total tackles, 2 interceptions, four pass break-ups, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery.
The Cardinals struggled to a 6-10 record.
The following season, Arizona fired head coach Vince Tobin after a 2-5 start and interim coach Dave McGinnis didn’t fare much better with a 1-8 record.
Tillman played lights out, however.
That year, he racked up an astounding 155 total tackles, nine passes defended, one interception, two forced fumbles, and two fumble recoveries.
Surprisingly, Tillman was not recognized during the postseason awards cycle or voted to the Pro Bowl.
2001 proved to be a life changing year for Tillman.
His play on the field was solid as usual, finishing with 94 total tackles, one forced fumble, and two passes defended.
The Cards fortunes changed slightly as McGinnis, in his first full year as head coach, helped the team to a 7-9 record.
Before the season began, Tillman was offered a five year, $9 million contract to play for the St. Louis Rams.
— For The Win (@ForTheWin) April 23, 2014
However, loyalty was important to Tillman and he stayed with Arizona on a one year deal worth $512,000.
There was something else important to Tillman, and that was duty to his country.
While playing for Arizona, Tillman would often climb 200 feet above Sun Devil Stadium on a light tower and reflect on his life.
It could be inferred that Tillman was in his perch when he first thought of making the decision that would change his life forever.
Tillman Joins the Army after 9/11
As the 2001 season was set to begin, terrorists hijacked four airplanes and commenced the worst terrorist attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor.
On September 11, 2001 two of the planes crashed into the World Trade Towers, another into the Pentagon, and a fourth into an empty field in Pennsylvania (it has been widely speculated that the plane was heading toward either the Capitol building or the White House).
The attacks greatly affected Tillman.
“A lot of my family have fought in wars, and I haven’t done a damn thing as far as laying myself on the line like that,” Tillman said shortly after 9/11.
By the end of the ‘01 season, Tillman’s desire to do something outweighed his passion for football.
After the final game of the season against the Redskins (in which he made a team high 18 tackles), Tillman got married to his high school girlfriend, Marie Ugenti, and honeymooned in Bora Bora.
It was sometime during this period where Tillman had a long discussion with his brother, Kevin, about joining the Army.
With his mind made up, Tillman informed his agent and the Cardinals that he was leaving the NFL to become an Army Ranger.
On the table at the time was a new contract by Arizona for three years and $3.6 million.
Tillman turned down the offer to enlist with the Army for three years.
Starting pay was $15,000, annually.
Pat Tillman left the Arizona Cardinals to enlist in the U.S. Army after 9/11. He turned down a $3.6M contract offer at 25 years old.
Tillman was killed in Afghanistan 17 years ago today.
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) April 22, 2021
“This is very serious with Pat,” McGinnis told the Associated Press. “It’s very personal, and I honor that. I honor the integrity of that. It was not a snap decision he woke up and made yesterday. This has been an ongoing process, and he feels very strongly about it.”
In four short years, Tillman recorded 331 total tackles, three interceptions, 16 passes broken up, and 2.5 sacks as a member of the Cardinals.
Without further ado, Tillman and his brother left the safety and comfort of their friends and loved ones and headed for Ft. Benning, Georgia in June of 2002.
The Tillman brothers completed basic training in September of ‘02 and the Army Ranger assessment program near the end of the year.
They were then assigned to the 2nd Ranger Battalion in Ft. Lewis, Washington.
Military Action and Death
By early 2003, Tillman was part of the U.S. military contingent that took part in the initial invasion of Iraq, Operation Iraqi Freedom.
By September of that same year, he entered Ranger School in Fort Benning and graduated from the program in November 2003.
Tillman returned to combat duty when he was deployed to Afghanistan at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Salerno.
No more pencil necks, we are all going Pat Tillman mode pic.twitter.com/tBQJNE5Tyv
— Ox Brah 🇺🇸 (@ShougKnight) May 4, 2021
On April 22, 2004, the sporting world learned the devastating news that Tillman had died during combat with Afghan forces.
Shortly after the news broke, a spokesperson for the Army explained that Tillman and his squad had been ambushed on a road near the village of Sperah.
Also wounded during the exchange were Tillman’s platoon leader and RTO (radiotelephone operator).
Only a few weeks later, Tillman’s family and the rest of the country learned the truth about his death.
Friendly Fire and Cover up
There was something fishy about the explanation of Tillman’s death and a number of governmental agencies began investigating.
Investigations by the Department of Defense, U.S. Congress, U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command (CID), Seventy-fifth Ranger Regiment, U.S. Army Special Operations Command, and U.S. Army Safety Center revealed that Tillman had been killed by gross negligence that led to his death by friendly fire.
Evidence of the event was destroyed and Tillman’s brother was given an initial false report of the shooting.
In a timeline later written by ESPN.com’s Mike Fish, at least two instances show that Tillman’s body armor, uniform, and vest were burned on April 24 and April 25.
The cover up led to backlash by those in the media, NFL, and various offices of the government.
Shortly after, the details of that fateful day began to come to light.
In part, the CID’s own report read:
“… during their movement through the canyon road, Serial 2 [Tillman’s platoon had to split up because of a broken Humvee; the parts were called Serial 1 and 2] was ambushed and became engaged in a running gun battle with enemy combatants. Serial 1 [Tillman’s portion of the platoon] had just passed through the same canyon without incident and were approximately one kilometer ahead of Serial 2. Upon hearing explosions, gunfire, and sporadic radio communication from Serial 2, Serial 1 dismounted their vehicles and moved on foot, to a more advantageous position to provide overwatch and fire support for Serial 2’s movement out of the ambush. Upon exiting the gorge, and despite attempts by Serial 1 to signal a “friendly position”, occupants of the lead vehicle of Serial 2 opened fire on Tillman’s position, where he was fatally shot.”
More Details of the Incident
It wasn’t until 2014 when specific details of Tillman’s death from the men who were there came to the public’s attention.
In an interview with ESPN on the show “Outside the Lines” in April of 2014, Steven Elliott and Bryan O’Neal (Rangers who were present at the shooting) revealed what happened exactly.
Elliott talked about the Humvee that was mentioned in the CID report.
Apparently, a truck driver was called to haul the Humvee out of the area.
Tillman’s platoon was divided during the process of recovering the vehicle.
Communication between the two groups was spotty at best due to the terrain they were in.
Then, in the middle of maneuvering and securing the area, the unit (Serial 2 from the CID report) was ambushed.
Tillman’s group went to provide help for their comrades under fire.
In the midst of this, Sergeant Greg Baker, Elliott’s squad leader, mistook an allied Afghan soldier next to Tillman as a member of the enemy forces.
Baker opened fire prompting Elliott and two other Rangers to also fire.
The friendly Afghan soldier was killed and the Rangers kept shooting at “shadowy figures” near the Afghan.
It turns out those shadowy figures were Tillman and O’Neal.
“The mantra is that when all else fails you do what your team leader does, you go where your team leader goes and you shoot where your team leader shoots, and so effectively … ” said Elliott, his chin quivering as he lifted his right hand to wipe away tears during the interview. “Effectively him firing at that position is, is the same as his giving an order to fire. … And it breaks my heart to say that, because I know that he [Baker] regrets that — so much.”
“It is possible, in my mind, that I hit him,” said Elliott.
“You aim at a point, and you fire a burst. You are holding your trigger for a fraction of a second, but that fraction of a second releases three to five rounds,” he said. “If it looked like you had [three] rounds and very close to one another, well, that was very consistent to how I was firing my weapon at that point. … It would be disingenuous for me to say there is no way my rounds didn’t kill him, because my rounds very well could have.”
Tillman’s injuries revealed during autopsy found three head wounds caused by bullets.
However, the wound pattern was not consistent with a heavy machine gun the style of which Elliott carried.
RT @WPCareySchool: Remembering Pat Tillman, Ranger, and NFL Player who was killed by friendly fire https://t.co/E5NRUgy2Yz via @SteveB7SFG @sofrepofficial #PatTillman #WPCAlumni pic.twitter.com/r2HRnxNC6s
— Chris Carpentier (@CBCarpentier) May 5, 2021
Elliott went on to say that, immediately after the shooting, he and others present were ordered “not to discuss [the incident] with folks outside the unit, and that was mainly because it was still under investigation.
I was operating on a certain level of naiveté, I believe,” he said. “[I thought] senior leaders were trying to protect the family, and I had no idea they were being deceived at any point.”
Thankfully, O’Neal survived the day, although it is an experience he will not forget.
“I remember seeing the rounds were impacting — ‘pop, pop, pop, pop’ — just walking in a line right up to where I was laying,” said O’Neal. “And thinking, ‘I am going to die right now.’ And then feeling the round go over the top of me. Just watching the dirt kick up off the ground coming to me. Just knowing without a shadow of a doubt, knowing so positively that I am going to die that I actually prayed for forgiveness: ‘Please God, forgive me. I’ll do whatever you want to get me and Pat out of this.'”
Elliott left the Army in 2007 and has since sought treatment for PTSD. When asked, Elliott was broken up about how Kevin Tillman was lied to concerning his brother’s death.
“I always felt like I didn’t know what to say to Kevin,” Elliott said. “It felt like something that you just wanted to avoid, and it grieves me to no end that I didn’t make the effort at that time. I always felt very conflicted about that,” he told National Public Radio. “I knew that they [Tillman family] were very, just hurt beyond belief … [both in] losing Pat but then in the grief and the confusion of the deception.”
Echoing what many from that day still feel, Elliott closed with, “If I could change what happened, I would change it in a heartbeat. Change it in a heartbeat.”
In the years after his death, Tillman has been honored in various ways.
The Cardinals retired his number 40 and ASU also retired his college number, 42.
After their new stadium was built, Arizona named the plaza near the stadium ‘Pat Tillman Freedom Plaza’.
A statue of Tillman running onto the football field was erected outside the stadium in 2006.
The Pac 10 Conference renamed their annual defensive player of the year award after Tillman.
I prefer the Pat Tillman statue at the Arizona Cardinals stadium. pic.twitter.com/crwKikT4PO
— Bob Davidson (@oybay) December 18, 2020
In 2008, the Pat Tillman Foundation was established in part to, ‘…provide academic scholarships, professional development opportunities and a national network to empower the Tillman Scholar community.
These scholars are making a difference in the fields of healthcare, business, public service, STEM, education and the humanities.’
"Passion is kind of an important word for me, whether it’s playing sports or whether it’s just living or whatever you’re going to do. In my opinion, you should be passionate about it or else, why do it?" -Pat Tillman pic.twitter.com/KXlS7bHPbc
— Pat Tillman Fnd (@pattillmanfnd) May 3, 2021
A quote from Tillman is prominently displayed on the Tillman Foundation website.
“Somewhere inside, we hear a voice. It leads us in the direction of the person we wish to become. But it is up to us whether or not to follow.”
Although he would most likely roll his eyes at the suggestion, Tillman is a hero in the way he selflessly gave up personal comfort and followed his own direction in choosing to fight for his country.
He will forever be remembered as an example of courage and honor.