The Fourth of July is a fitting time to recognize the better men and women among us—those who have put their lives on the line to protect the freedoms that we hold dear.
Cpl. Patrick Tillman is, without question, the greatest patriot and hero to have ever graced the National Football League with his presence. His death at the age of 27 cemented his legacy among a pantheon of NFL greats.
No disrespect intended to the other NFL players who have sacrificed their lives in war for their country—Al Blozis (WWII), Jack Lummus (WWII) and Bob Kalsu (Vietnam). Lummus, in fact, received a Medal of Honor after giving his life at Iwo Jima. Blozis even had a comic book made out of his exploits. These men, like Tillman, fought and died for their country, and their sacrifice should not be remembered in vain.
No, what separates Tillman is not the level of his service, but the world around him at the time of his sacrifice.
The NFL of 2004 was much different than the NFL of WWII or Vietnam War—most notably in terms of popularity. Tillman, too, was in a much different position than those other men when he left the game and went to fight, and die, for his country.
Lummus walked away from a $100-a-month contract with the New York Giants. Blozis, an All-Pro for the Giants, and Kalsu, a promising rookie for the Bills, were making less money playing professional football than the military offered to fight overseas.
This doesn't make their sacrifices any less special; it just highlights and puts into context what Tillman walked away from and walked into.
Tillman was an All-Pro safety for the Arizona Cardinals in 2000 and turned down a three-year, $3.6 million contract to join the Army Ranger program following the 2001 season. He and his brother were moved by the events of 9/11 and gave up their professional sports careers (Kevin was a member of the Cleveland Indians organization) to avenge the attacks on America.
The life of Pat Tillman was certainly one for the ages. His biography, Where Men Win Glory, shows Tillman as a troubled and complex youth. One who needed football more than he loved it, ready to walk away at a moment's notice if only he found something more exciting to do. His penchant for violence was only tempered by the size of his heart—qualities that made him an excellent safety and a tremendous teammate.
When Tillman arrived at Arizona State on a football scholarship, he left his mark on the Sun Devils. He was a highly decorated scholar-athlete who graduated with a 3.85 GPA all the while earning Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year honors in '97.
He lasted all the way to pick No. 226 in the 1998 NFL draft, but started 39 of 60 games for the Cardinals and was a core special teams player. As mentioned earlier, Tillman received All-Pro honors from Sports Illustrated after the 2000 season. Following that performance, the (then-Super Bowl champion) St. Louis Rams offered Tillman a five-year contract worth $9 million.
Out of loyalty to the Cardinals, Tillman turned the contract down. Out of loyalty to his country, he would also turn down the Cardinals' extension a year later to make $18,000 a year as a member of the U.S. military. He successfully completed the Rangers training program, the Army's elite fighting squadron where only the best of the best are accepted. As a Ranger, he would be almost assured a spot on the front lines.
All this for a war he didn't really believe in.
While some tried to paint Tillman as a mindless drone, the Huffington Post reported that he didn't actually feel the United States had any business (or legal right) to be in Iraq—the country he helped invade.
While some held up a cartoonish caricature of Tillman as the ultimate red state poster boy, he was actually a liberal atheist whose patriotism went deeper than conviction or agreement with policy. Tillman was able to dutifully serve his Commander-in-Chief regardless of what he thought about his tenure as president.
The moral ambiguity around the Iraq War wasn't ambiguous to Pat Tillman, but he went anyway and then continued on in his Ranger training before ending up in the Khost province of Afghanistan. He served in the Second Platoon, Alpha Company, Second Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment.
On April 22, 2004, Tillman was serving as acting team leader and SAW gunner of serial one of a two-pronged caravan. He, along with his driver and rifleman, were traveling from Magarah to Mana in a Toyota Hilux King Cab. His brother Kevin, in serial two of the attack, rode atop a Humvee, manning its MK19 grenade launcher.
Separated, Tillman's group was assigned the task of continuing the original journey, while his brother's group would tow a broken-down vehicle back to be repaired. Soon, it became apparent to Tillman that his brother's group was under ambush, and Tillman (along with Pvt. Brian O'Neal) rushed to save his fellow soldiers.
Pat Tillman was shot and killed that day by what we now know was friendly fire. For years after Tillman's death, the exact details surrounding his murder were shrouded in secrecy and blatant lies. Pat Tillman, Sr. would later say the following (via the Washington Post):
After it happened, all the people in positions of authority went out of their way to script this. They purposely interfered with the investigation, they covered it up. I think they thought they could control it, and they realized that their recruiting efforts were going to go to hell in a handbasket if the truth about his death got out. They blew up their poster boy.
So, Tillman was killed by his own people, fighting a war he easily could have avoided and didn't even necessarily believe in, all for a Commander-in-Chief he readily would have voted out of office had he gotten the chance. Following his death, he was used as an unwilling cog in a propaganda machine until his family, friends and fellow soldiers finally received the truth they had demanded for so long.
Fast forward, and it has been over a decade since Pat Tillman gave up professional football glory to sacrifice his life for the freedoms we celebrate on the Fourth of July. His name now graces a foundation that helps military families as well as the award given to the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year and the MVP of the East-West Shrine Game practices. His number has been retired by both the Sun Devils and the Cardinals. He was posthumously awarded the Silver Star and the rank of corporal.
All of these awards, honors and plaudits cannot bring back Pat Tillman or repay him for his service to the country so many of us hold dear. What Tillman gave up in NFL riches and glory pale in comparison to the true sacrifice he made in April of 2004.
In comparison to the other "heroes" we have in the NFL—men whom we admire for their athletic prowess or their mental toughness—Tillman stands head and shoulders above. He is the NFL's greatest patriot and hero, and it is fitting to honor his memory this holiday.
Michael Schottey is an NFL Associate Editor for Bleacher Report and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He has professionally covered both the Minnesota Vikings and the Detroit Lions, as well as NFL events like the scouting combine and the Senior Bowl.