The Legacy of Pat Tillman

Over the years, here have been thousands of college football players to come and go – some remembered and some forgotten. But one player in particular stands out to me. A player whose legacy still resonates around the college football world today. A player who can’t be forgotten, no matter how hard we try. The legendary and honorable Pat Tillman.

In 2002, Tillman hung up his cleats and strapped on his boots – giving up a career with the Arizona Cardinals to join the U.S. Army. This transition caught the attention of the country as the prolific Linebacker gained notoriety for this honorable actions. However, events took a tragic turn in 2004 when he was shot down and killed fighting for our freedom in Afghanistan. Initially, Tillman’s reported cause of death was due to enemy fire. However, later reports revealed that his death may have been more controversial than people let on.

But to bring you back a bit, Tillman’s football career ultimately started when he was in high school. He attended Leland High School in San Jose, California and led his team to the Central Coast Division I Football Championship. His outstanding performance and high quality character earned himself a scholarship to Arizona State University.

At ASU, the linebacker and marketing major excelled on the field and in the classroom. Graduating in just 3 and a half years, Tillman helped his team through an undefeated regular season and into the famous 1997 Rose Bowl game against the Ohio State Buckeyes. Not only did he win ASU’s Most Valuable Player and Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year in 1997, he won numerous academic awards boasting  his academic contributions and an extremely impressive 3.85 GPA

In 1998, there was little surprise when Tillman was drafted to the NFL. The Arizona Cardinals selected Tillman as the 226th overall pick, where he went on to earn his spot as a starter and set a new team record for number of tackles in 2000. His true character was shown when he was offered a contract with the St. Louis Rams, but turned down the higher pay to stay with his team.

Media news broke out in 2001 when Tillman finished his football season and decided to enlist in the U.S. Army when the United States invaded Afghanistan. An important thing that Tillman had said about leaving his football career behind really stuck with me. He said “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.”

Football was something that Tillman was good at. He was talented and born to play. But just because you are born to play something doesn’t mean it will fulfill your life and everything you are meant to do while you are alive. Tillman made the brave decision to enlist in the army because he wanted to feel that what he was doing was worthwhile and important. It takes a very special, brave, and admirable individual to pursue a greater meaning in life – an individual like Pat Tillman.

On April 22, 2004, the world was shocked to hear that Tillman was killed in action. Hostile forces were said to have ambushed his unit and Pat was unfortunately caught in the middle of aggravated fire. However, reports were vague and many felt left in the dark, pondering unanswered questions about his death.

Tillman’s family began to dig deeper, demanding answers from the military. They wanted to know what really happened to their beloved son, brother, and family man. Eventually, the media started releasing more information about Tillman’s passing and the introduced a potential cause of death as accidental friendly fire. Later, documents appeared that the U.S. Army was aware of this possibility but withheld the information from the public and Tillman’s family.

To this day, Tillman’s family and the world are not really sure of what happened that tragic day in Afghanistan. But what is for sure is the lasting legacy he left behind – both as an outstanding football player and even more impressive individual. In May of 2010, he was chosen to be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. Since then, the numbers he wore for the ASU Sun Devils (#42) and the Arizona Cardinals (#40) have both been retired in his honor.

But above all else, the Pat Tillman Foundation has continued to impact the lives of others and carry on his serving nature. In June 2010, the NFL and the Pat Tillman Foundation joined forces to create the NFL-Tillman Scholarship to honor and individual who “exemplifies Pat Tillman’s enduring legacy of service.”

During Super Bowl XLIX, a story ran about the Pat Tillman Scholarship. With the help of the scholarship, Ed Woodward, a military veteran, is now able to pursue his studies and work to become a doctor. While Woodward is busy hitting the books, he will never lose sight of his first dream – to fly F-115 fighter jets for the United States of America.

Ed was granted this scholarship after the Pat Tillman Foundation learned of his passionate and touching story that exemplifies the caring and serving nature of Pat Tillman. While Ed was enrolled in the military, his brother Gene was enrolled in the University of South Florida, studying to become a doctor. Tragically, one night when sharing a car ride together, Ed and Gene were hit by a drunk driving. Ed managed to walk away, but Gene was killed on impact.

At this time, Ed was just five flights short of becoming a pilot. However, Ed was unknowingly experiencing blood clots in his brain. One day while flying, Ed suffered a stroke – abruptly ending his career as a pilot. As his life long dream was taken away from him, Ed, much like Pat Tillman felt he now had a greater calling – a new dream. He decided to continue his life in his brothers footsteps and become a doctor at the USF Medical School. With the help of the Tillman Scholarship, Ed will be able to fulfill this greater calling, preserve the life of his brother, and help turn his second dream into reality.

Tillman’s athletic career would have been a great one had he continued, but he wanted to fulfill his life and give back to other people. By serving in the Army, Tillman showed his true character that sought to bring true meaning to life. This scholarship lives on in his memory, showing us that anyone can act valiantly and nobly, just as he did. The recipients of the Pat Tillman Scholarship are well-deserving, pursing the greater good and chasing their new-found dreams. So here’s to the remembrance of Pat Tillman, whose legacy continues to impact the world.

*Section Photo credit to AP Photo/Photography Plus via Williamson Stealth Media Solutions; Featured Photo (above) credit to Roy Dabner, AP Photo

Campus Sports Exclusive: Interview with DC Young Fly
Campus Sports Exclusive: Interview with DC Young Fly