NFL#039;s Tillman killed in Afghanistan

Published 12:00 am Sunday, April 25, 2004

TEMPE, Ariz. - Pat Tillman overachieved in football, and just about everything else.

Too slow to be a great safety, too small for an NFL linebacker, he got by on toughness, effort and brains.

He worked his way from seventh-round draft pick to starting safety for the Arizona Cardinals, then walked away from millions of dollars to join the Army Rangers and serve his country.

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This week, he paid with his life. Tillman was killed in an ambush Thursday night in Afghanistan. He was 27.

''Pat represents all that is good with this country, our society and ultimately the human condition in general,'' said Seattle Seahawks general manager Bob Ferguson, who was GM with the Cardinals when Tillman was drafted.

''In today's world of instant gratification and selfishness, here is a man that was defined by words like loyalty, honor, passion, courage, strength and nobility. He is a modern-day hero.''

U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. Matthew Beevers said Saturday that Tillman was killed in a firefight at about 7 p.m. on a road near Sperah, about 25 miles southwest of a U.S. base at Khost.

After coming under fire, Tillman's patrol got out of their vehicles and gave chase, moving toward the spot of the ambush. Beevers said the fighting was ''sustained'' and lasted 15-20 minutes.

Beevers said Tillman was killed by enemy fire, but he had no information about what type of weapons were involved in the assault, or whether he died instantly.

An Afghan militiaman fighting alongside Tillman also was killed, and two other U.S. soldiers were wounded.

A local Afghan commander, Gen. Khial Bas, told The Associated Press that nine enemy fighters were killed in the confrontation.

Bas said six other enemy fighters were believed to have escaped. Beevers said he had no information about any enemy fighters killed.

The news of Tillman's death stunned those who knew him, and those who cheered him on, first as a hard-hitting linebacker at Arizona State, then as a safety with the Cardinals. A memorial was set up outside the Cardinals' headquarters, with his No. 40 jersey in a glass frame, and a giant poster with Tillman on one knee, in uniform, on the Cardinals' sideline.

People brought flowers, teddy bears and balloons. One man in uniform and kilt showed up to play ''Amazing Grace'' and ''America the Beautiful'' on a bagpipe.

''A lot of times in football, analogies of war are thrown around freely,'' former Cardinals teammate Pete Kendall said. ''On a day like this, you see how hollow those ring.''

Denver quarterback Jake Plummer was a teammate of Tillman for seven years, three at Arizona State and four with the Cardinals.

''We lost a unique individual that touched the lives of many with his love for life, his toughness, his intellect,'' Plummer said in a statement released by the Broncos. ''Pat Tillman lived life to the fullest and will be remembered forever in my heart and mind.''

The Cardinals said they will retire Tillman's No. 40 and name the plaza surrounding the new stadium under construction in suburban Glendale the ''Pat Tillman Freedom Plaza.''

Arizona State will retire Tillman's No. 42 jersey during a Nov. 13 game and place his name on the honor ring at Sun Devil Stadium. The university and the Cardinals also are collaborating on a scholarship fund in Tillman's name.

In college, Tillman was a long-haired wild man on the field, an all-Pac-10 linebacker always going full-speed. Bone-jarring hits were his trademark. He and Plummer led the Sun Devils to the 1996 Rose Bowl. A year later, Tillman was the Pac-10 defensive player of the year.

He graduated summa cum laude in 3 1/2 years. He earned a marketing degree with a 3.84 grade-point average.

The Cardinals took Tillman in the seventh round of the 1998 draft, the 226th player chosen.

At first, he made his mark on special teams but played his way to starting safety.

In 2000, he broke the franchise record for tackles with 224. He had 12 solo tackles, and a hand in 21 overall, in a 16-15 victory over Washington that season.

In practice, coaches often had to make Tillman slow down so he wouldn't hurt anybody in drills that weren't supposed to be full-speed. Slowing down was always tough for him.

Before the 2000 season, he ran a marathon to see what it would be like. Before the 2001 season, he gave the triathlon a try.

In May of 2002 - eight months after Sept. 11 - Tillman walked into the office of then-coach Dave McGinnis, pulled up a chair and said 'Mac, we have to talk.''

Tillman and his brother, Kevin - a baseball player in the Cleveland organization - were going to join the Army Rangers, soldiers sent where the fighting is toughest.

''It was his wish that this not be something that would draw a lot of attention,'' McGinnis said. ''He truly felt committed and felt a sense of honor and duty at this point in his life that this is what he wanted to do.''

Tillman never uttered a word publicly about his decision.

When he returned from his tour of duty in Iraq, Tillman, wife Marie and brother Kevin joined the Cardinals for a game in Seattle last December. They spent five hours in McGinnis' hotel room, just talking the night before the game.

''He was just so proud to be a member of the Rangers,'' McGinnis said. ''That came through loud and clear.''

Tillman attended the team's pregame breakfast, then watched the game with Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill and his son, team vice president Michael Bidwill. Tillman talked with his teammates in the locker room after the game, then slipped out a side door before reporters came in.

Tillman turned down a more lucrative offer from St. Louis in 2001 to stay with the Cardinals. A year later, he walked away from a three-year, $3.6 million offer from Arizona to join the Army.

''He is a hero,'' Michael Bidwill said. ''He was a brave man. There are very few people who have the courage to do what he did, the courage to walk away from a professional sports career and make the ultimate sacrifice.''

Phil Snow, now defensive coordinator at the University of Washington, held the same position at Arizona State when the Sun Devils recruited Tillman out of San Jose, Calif.

''Pat was a lot of things as a person,'' Snow said. ''He was a tough, good-looking guy. He was extremely competitive. You know there is a saying with older people: 'He was a man's man.' You always knew where you stood with Pat. There was no phoniness in him.''

Gov. Janet Napolitano ordered flags on the Arizona State campus flown at half-staff.

''What other person do you know who would give up a life in the NFL to defend what he believes in with his own life,'' said former teammate David Barrett, now with the New York Jets. ''That is a humble guy.''