Remembering Pat Tillman, the NFL's Greatest American

Ty Schalter@tyschalterNFL National Lead WriterJuly 3, 2013

Corporal Pat Tillman was the NFL's greatest American.

A rising star with the Arizona Cardinals, he enlisted in the U.S. Army in the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Leaving a three-year, $3.6 million contract offer from the Cardinals on the table, he sacrificed the prime of his career to protect America's safety—without which we can enjoy none of the freedom, liberty and equality we as Americans hold most dear.

Cpl. Tillman died in the mountains of Afghanistan, the U.S. Army said, leading his Ranger comrades up a hill to escape and counter heavy enemy fire. He was awarded the Silver Star, given to recognize gallantry in action against an enemy of the United States.

That's a great story.

Except for the part about enemies, it's even true.

For the purposes of chatting over barbecue and clapping for parades, this is all we need to remember about Pat Tillman: He had a life most Americans would trade anything to live, and he sacrificed it for our country—for us.

Cpl. Tillman was much more than that, though: He embodied the ideals America stands for and deserves to be truly and wholly remembered.

Football and the Military

American football and the U.S. military are inextricably linked. Both have always been important parts of the lives of America's strong young men, and many parts of football and military culture overlap and bleed into one another.

Think of all the football words that come from military and battle terminology: drills, squads, platoons, blitzes, bombs, the shotgun, the pistol, trench warfare and many others.

There's a reason for that.

As football evolved from a brutal niche sport to rival baseball in popularity in the middle of the 20th century, many of its greatest players and coaches were World War II veterans. The nationally televised 1958 NFL championship game, which primed pro football's popularity explosion in the 1960s, featured two teams coached by veterans.

On one sideline was Baltimore Colts head coach Weeb Ewbank, who had served in the U.S. Navy alongside former teammate and coaching colleague Paul Brown—yes, that Paul Brown, the one who coached the legendary Cleveland Browns teams of the '50s and '60s, helped found the Cincinnati Bengals and mentored legendary coaches Don Shula and Bill Walsh, among countless others.

On the other sideline was New York Giants defensive coordinator Tom Landry, who'd enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps to honor his fallen brother. Giants offensive coordinator Vince Lombardi had been hired away from West Point, where he'd coached the nation's top Army cadets in football for five years.

These men were steeped in the culture of the military. Strict discipline, intense workouts, meticulous preparation and group-enforced codes of loyalty, honor and behavior are all hallmarks of military life. With those military principles guiding them, these coaches were often victorious.

Many of today's NFL coaches can trace their lineage right back to Brown, Lombardi, Landry and their contemporaries. Brown is the root of the tallest, strongest "coaching tree"; countless players and assistant coaches of his went on to coach pro, college, high school or youth football across the country.

The military values of the '50s and '60s propagated through generations of football players. Lombardi's philosophies and principles are still found on the walls and bulletin boards of high school football locker rooms across America. 

Before every football game, we "honor America," not just by signing the national anthem to a flag that happens to be on a pole outside the stadium, but with as much splendor as we can muster. We present the colors with an honor guard, roll out massive, field-covering flags and send fighter jets screaming overhead.

Ever wonder why?

More Than a Good Soldier

Just as wars are often won by the side with the most skilled, resourceful generals, football games are often won by the team with the most skilled, resourceful coach.

As much as we like to pretend war and football are about individual heroism, officers and coaches want soldiers and players who accept orders quickly and execute them flawlessly.

By all accounts, Pat Tillman was a good soldier, both on the football field and the battlefield. He accepted and executed orders to the best of his considerable ability.

That doesn't mean he didn't think about those orders.

The enduring image of Cpl. Tillman is his official U.S. Army photo:

Impossibly chiseled cheekbones frame intense, piercing eyes; he's clad in full uniform in front of a draped American flag. In this photo, which accompanies nearly every story written about him, we see a formidable, finely tuned instrument of war.

Not a lot of razor-sharp human weapons graduate summa cum laude from Arizona State with a bachelor's degree in marketing, though.

Tillman, for most of his life, was a free spirit and a free thinker. According to the Sporting News, he read holy books of many creeds, and he counted philosophers like Henry David Thoreau among his favorites.

On the day after the World Trade Center attacks, Tillman gave an interview where he talked about what the American flag meant to him.

In that linked video, we see a long-haired, shaggily bearded Tillman talking freely about the sacrifices of generations before, how blessed and privileged we are to live free and how he really "[hasn't] done a damn thing" to build or protect the freedoms the flag stands for.

Tillman wrote in May 2002, per The New York Times:

Sports embodied many of the qualities I deem meaningful. However, these last few years, and especially after recent events, I’ve come to appreciate just how shallow and insignificant my role is. ... It’s no longer important.

A Life Given in Service

When he enlisted, Tillman did not do it for publicity, nor to prove a point. He shunned all media requests and refused to be used as a recruitment tool.

A polarized, war-torn American society painted him with red and blue brushes: Tillman was either a pure, virtuous paragon of American masculinity or a brick-headed simpleton who left behind a wife and dream job to go die in a questionably just war.

That wife, Marie Tillman, was disturbed by how quickly he became a two-dimensional tool of the powerful.

"He was portrayed in ways that were unrecognizable to me," she told the Chicago Tribune in 2012. "When you have an individual who takes on this heroic persona, so many human elements fall out."

Human elements like Tillman's own disapproval of the war on Iraq.

Though Tillman served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, his mother Mary told the San Francisco Chronicle that Pat found no connection between the Iraqi government and the World Trade Center attacks that had partially inspired him to serve.

One soldier, Army Spec. Russell Baer, who served with Tillman for over a year, recalled for the Chronicle a conversation Tillman and his comrades had during a March 2003 bombing:

I can see it like a movie screen. We were outside of (a city in southern Iraq) watching as bombs were dropping on the town. We were at an old air base, me, Kevin and Pat, we weren't in the fight right then. We were talking. And Pat said, '‘You know, this war is so f—ing illegal.'’ And we all said, "Yeah." That’s who he was. He totally was against Bush.

This is why Pat Tillman was the NFL's greatest American.

Not because he believed so strongly in the principles of freedom, liberty and democracy that he walked away from his lucrative career and loving wife to defend them.

Not because he subverted America's mass obsession with fame and material success to protect those so vainly, vapidly obsessed.

Pat Tillman was the NFL's greatest American because when he believed his superiors, his Commander-in-Chief, were no longer serving the interests of the country, he encouraged his fellow soldiers to exercise their right to vote that president out of office.

That is faith in democracy. That is belief that America is great. That is patriotism.

Tillman could have protested, could have deserted, could have spoken to a hundred media outlets that would have giddily run the story to a nation boiling with tension over the operations in Iraq.

In fact, Tillman could have possibly left the Army honorably. According to ABC News, the Seattle Seahawks did some research and called Tillman's agent to say Tillman could apply for release from active duty since he'd seen combat. 

Instead, Tillman continued to honor his country and his commitment.

"I enlisted for three years,'' he said. "I owe them three years. I'm not going back on my word. I'm going to stay in the Army.''

Despite fighting for a president and command structure he'd lost faith in, he honored his commitment to his country. If only his government had shown him such loyalty.

Friendly Fire

Shortly after 27-year-old Cpl. Tillman's death (April 22, 2004) and a well-attended, nationally televised memorial service, it was revealed to the family that Tillman died by friendly fire.

Said his mother Mary, according to the San Francisco Chronicle:

Pat had high ideals about the country; that's why he did what he did. The military let him down. The administration let him down. It was a sign of disrespect. The fact that he was the ultimate team player and he watched his own men kill him is absolutely heartbreaking and tragic. The fact that they lied about it afterward is disgusting.

The clumsy attempt by the Army to construct a heroic narrative (including the Silver Star) fell apart quickly, as everyone involved knew immediately what had happened.

U.S. officials at the service, according to The Washington Post, knew the truth days before, but they told neither the speakers nor the family.

After many years and many investigations, no one has learned the full truth of what happened on that day or in the days and weeks after. It's likely that those who repeatedly lied about and manipulated Cpl. Tillman's death will never face significant punishment.

Remembering Pat Tillman

Per many sources, including the San Francisco Chronicle, Cpl. Tillman's last words were "I'm Pat f***ing Tillman!" As shrapnel tore into him and American bullets pounded his chest armor, he was desperate for his comrades to see him for who he was, not who they imagined him to be.

Let's honor his memory by trying do to just that.

Cpl. Tillman's life story doesn't start with his being drafted into the NFL, and it doesn't end with his enlistment. Being reduced to caricature to advance other people's causes was something Tillman avoided in life and feared for his death. 

"I don't want them to parade me through the streets," The New York Times said Tillman told an Army comrade. 

On Independence Day, as we celebrate the American values Cpl. Tillman embodied and died protecting, let's do our best to remember who he really was: in mind and body, word and deed, the NFL's greatest American.