Pat Tillman: An American Hero, but Hall of Famer?

robert aSenior Analyst IJanuary 3, 2009

Saturday afternoon, while watching the Arizona Cardinals battle the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Wild-Card Round of the NFL playoffs, the NBC crew paid tribute to fallen American war hero and ex-NFL player Pat Tillman.

Tillman, a native of San Jose, Calif., joined the Arizona Cardinals after earning Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year honors in his senior year as a linebacker with the Arizona State Sun Devils.

He played four years in the NFL, all with the Cardinals, before leaving the NFL to join the United States Army in May 2002, following the Sept. 11 attacks.

Tillman served with the U.S. Army until April 2004, when he was tragically killed as a result of friendly fire while on duty. Following his death, he was honored by his country with a Silver Star, Purple Heart, and a posthumous promotion.

Both the Cardinals and Sun Devils retired his numbers, 40 and 42 respectively. The Cardinals further paid homage to Tillman by inducting him into the Arizona Cardinals Ring of Honor and re-naming the area outside of their stadium to the Pat Tillman Freedom Plaza.

Currently, a bronze statue of Tillman stands in this place to ensure that both he and his great sacrifice are not soon forgotten.

While paying his respects to Tillman’s memory during Saturday’s broadcast, NBC announcer Cris Collinsworth made two very strong statements regarding Tillman.

One of these statements is one of the truest statements I have ever heard while watching an NFL game. The other left me scratching my head.

“This guy is the essence of what we all hope the NFL and its players will ultimately be.”

Let’s face it; the NFL could use a few more Pat Tillmans. Unfortunately, for those of us that love the sport, the NFL has been infiltrated by a lot of bad-character guys.

For starters, there is Plaxico Burress, who recently ran into problems with the law when he shot himself in the leg at a New York club.

Adam “Pacman” Jones has had numerous stints with the law, including his famous “make it rain” incident at a Las Vegas strip club, and has just about worn out his welcome with the league.

Matt Jones was arrested for felony possession of cocaine in July, and who can forget the controversy that stemmed from Mike Vick’s dog-fighting operation?

Players making millions of dollars will hold out on training camp next year because they “cannot feed their family.” Drug and steroid usage among pro-athletes is no longer a shocking discovery, because many fans have almost come to expect it.

There used to be a day in time when famous athletes could be looked up to by young children. Parents did not have to cringe when their son or daughter told them, “I want to be like that when I grow up.” Sadly, in today’s NFL, the average athlete is anything but a role model.

Well, Pat Tillman was not your average, run-of-the-mill NFL athlete. He was different. He wasn’t in it for the money or the fame.

In a way, he was a throwback to the old-school athlete. He played the game for love, not money, and the game was not all he had going for him.

He was smart, averaging a 3.84 GPA in his time at Arizona State. He was well-rounded and thought for himself. He didn’t always take the easy road.

At one point in his career, the St. Louis Rams offered him a five-year, $9 million contract to come play for them. Tillman turned it down. Keep in mind that in Tillman’s final year with the NFL, his salary was $512,000 per year, far less than the offer given to him by the Rams.

But Tillman was loyal to the Cardinals and declined the extra money so that he could stay with his team.

In a league where elite players will leave a championship-caliber team to join a doormat for a couple of extra bucks, this move by Tillman was clearly unusual, but that is who Tillman was.

Following the 2001 season, Tillman’s fourth in the league, the Arizona Cardinals offered him a contract extension of three years, $3.6 million. Tillman elected not to accept the contract and instead enlisted in the Army, a decision that eventually cost him his life.

He gave up the money, fame, and arguably the greatest “job” one could ask for to go fight for his country and for his beliefs. He made a sacrifice that not many could easily make, and he did what he believed to be right, not easy.

Tillman is without a doubt an American hero and is more than deserving of every honor he has received. The NFL could use more guys like him. He truly is “the essence of what we all hope the NFL and its players will ultimately be.”

“If Pat Tillman doesn’t belong in the Hall of Fame, who does?”

As I have already mentioned, Tillman was a hero. He was a model human, a good example for young athletes, and a pretty darn good football player, too.

But Tillman does not belong in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Perhaps, had he finished his career, he would have built a résumé that would justify a Hall of Fame induction, but he did not do so.

I am sure some people will read this and find what I am saying to be insensitive, cold, or just plain untrue. However, I firmly believe that if Tillman were still alive today, he would agree with me. Furthermore, he probably wouldn’t care.

Now I obviously did not know Tillman personally, nor have I ever had the chance to speak with him, so I am largely guessing here.

But to me, Tillman told the world, when he left everything that he had going for him to go to Iraq, that he understood that there are more important things in life than the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Tillman, who moved from linebacker to strong safety when he joined the NFL, only played four years with the Arizona Cardinals.

In those four years, according to, he amassed 344 tackles (245 solo), 2.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and three interceptions.

For a four-year span, those are not bad numbers, but they are certainly not Hall of Fame numbers. To put those numbers into perspective, Hall of Fame safety Ronnie Lott (who started playing before tackles were a recorded statistic), recorded 8.5 sacks, five forced fumbles and 63 interceptions in his career, according to

Tillman also never played in a Pro Bowl, though it could certainly be argued he deserved to have played in one. After an excellent season in 2000, Sports Illustrated’s Paul Zimmerman named Tillman to his NFL All-Pro team.

While Tillman is certainly a great story and a true hero in every sense of the word, the fact of the matter is that his accomplishments in the NFL do not justify consideration for a Hall of Fame induction.

Any other player with his same numbers and accomplishments would be quickly discarded, and rightfully so.

To give an award reserved for exemplary on-the-field accomplishments to someone because of their tremendous off-the-field sacrifices would be laughable and would severely taint the credibility of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

There are plenty of very deserving ex-NFL players that will never make the Hall of Fame. Ricky Watters, Derrick Thomas, Bob Hayes, Ray Guy, and many others have yet to make it into the Hall and are certainly not guaranteed that honor.

To put Tillman in over the above mentioned players would not only be a disservice to the Hall of Fame but also the players on the proverbial bubble.

Perhaps more importantly, it would be a disservice to Tillman the football player because his induction would be for all the wrong reasons.

Tillman was a Hall of Fame human being, but he does not belong in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.


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