Remembering A Great American: Pat Tillman

April 23, 2004

By Brian Gomez
Special to TheSunDevils.com

It took a tragedy, but the sports world finally has a true definition for the word 'hero.'

His name is Pat Tillman.

Killed in a firefight in Afghanistan, the former ASU football player was remembered Friday not only for the three-year, $3.6 million contract that he turned down to become an Army Ranger, but also for his uncanny work ethic as a football player and for his indescribable charm as a person.

Stories of Tillman's memorable collegiate career and brief NFL stint with the Arizona Cardinals permeated throughout the ASU community faster than the San Jose native could have ever blitzed from the linebacker position or pedaled his infamous bike around campus.

And everyone had his own memory of the longhaired icon.

Tillman, 27, will always be known more for the headlines he made off the field than for anything he did on it, although it's the remarkable combination that makes him worthy of the 'hero' tag, especially since he valued selflessness over notoriety.

'This is a time where we need to really try to put Pat on a pedestal,' ASU Athletic Director Gene Smith said. 'It will allow us and all of our student-athletes to really see what life should be like. We've just decided that we'll talk about the good things.'

Tillman never liked being in the spotlight, even after he gained national attention by leaving the NFL to fight overseas with his brother Kevin. But on Friday, his tragic death took center stage.

Fans set up makeshift memorials outside the Victory Bell at Sun Devil Stadium and at the Cardinals' Tempe practice facility. They left flowers around Tillman's picture inside the Intercollegiate Athletics Building. And flags across campus were flown at half-mast.

Smith said Friday that a scholarship in Tillman's name will be awarded annually to an ASU marketing student, and that Tillman's No. 42 jersey will be retired Nov. 13 when the Sun Devils host Washington State in the home finale.

The Valley of the Sun Chapter of the National Football Foundation & College Hall of Fame also announced that it would honor Tillman at its annual golf outing, which is scheduled for Monday at the Foothills Golf Club in Phoenix.

'Today is a very sad day,' said former ASU quarterback Jake Plummer, who captained the 1997 Rose Bowl team that included Tillman and a host of future NFL players. 'We lost a unique individual that touched the lives of many with his love for life, his toughness, his intellect and the many unique qualities that he possessed. Pat Tillman lived life to the fullest, and will be remembered forever in my heart and mind.'

Next season, ASU senior defensive lineman Connor Banks will wear Tillman's No. 42 jersey before it's retired, and he'll also carry the American flag onto the field during pre-game introductions.

'It's a great honor to wear the No. 42 for the last time,' said Banks, who is from Richmond, Calif., near Tillman's hometown. 'There's so much pride for what he's done for this community and for this nation, giving up his football career to go overseas and to fight for this country, and for what he feels is right.'

ASU strength coach Rich Wenner recalled Tillman's bizarre morning ritual, when he would sit in the weight room in nothing but shorts, reading the Wall Street Journal and eating apple sauce and drinking grapefruit juice. It was his leadership abilities that prevailed, though.

'If I had to picture what happened to Pat (in Afghanistan) in my mind, I would see him leading the troops,' Wenner said. 'It's planted in my mind. What I would see is Pat Tillman out in front, leading just like he has done here, with the Cardinals and everywhere he has been.'

Said ASU Assistant Athletic Director Mark Brand: 'He came to college and taught us more than we ever taught him.'

Former Sun Devils wide receiver Ricky Boyer recalled Tillman's contributions, including the back-to-back bowl appearances and the 20-4 record that ASU posted in his final two seasons, saying that his desire to succeed set an example for others.

'This was someone who didn't really have to be over there,' Boyer said. 'He gave up a lot here to go over there and fight for this country and for us, so that we could sit here and enjoy the things that we're enjoying.'

Mike McBride, ASU's manager for academic services, played a large role in helping Tillman graduate in 3 1/2 years with a degree in marketing, and he helped him maintain his 3.84 grade-point average.

'He is a hero to individual people that have had interactions with him,' McBride said. 'When you meet him, he'll tell you the truth about yourself, and it might not be something that you want to hear, but it's something that you probably needed to hear.'

Reach the reporter at brian.gomez@asu.edu.

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