Tillman killed in Afghanistan
Former Cardinals safety walked away from NFL to join Army Rangers
Posted: Friday April 23, 2004 8:15PM; Updated: Friday April 23, 2004 11:57PM
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Former NFL player Pat Tillman was killed Thursday while serving as an Army Rangers soldier on a mission in southeastern Afghanistan, Pentagon officials have told CNN. He was 27.
Pentagon sources confirmed that a soldier killed during an ambush on a coalition combat patrol, reported in a U.S. Central Command release, was Tillman.
The incident took place at 7:30 p.m. local time Thursday near the village of Sperah, 40 kilometers southwest of Khowst.
"The enemy action was immediately responded to by the coalition patrol with direct fire and a firefight ensued," the release said. "During the engagement, one coalition soldier was killed and two wounded."
It also said an Afghan Militia Force soldier was killed and that "the enemy broke contact during the engagement."
Tillman, who walked away from a $3.6 million contract as a safety with the Arizona Cardinals to join the military after the Sept. 11 attacks, was in an area where numerous U.S. troops have been killed in battles with suspected al Qaeda and Taliban fighters.
Tillman was a specialist in the 75th Ranger Regiment, a light infantry unit out of Fort Benning, Ga. The White House put out a statement of sympathy that praised Tillman as "an inspiration both on an off the football field."
Former Cardinals head coach Dave McGinnis said he felt both overwhelming sorrow and tremendous pride in Tillman, who "represented all that was good in sports."
"Pat knew his purpose in life," McGinnis said. "He proudly walked away from a career in football to a greater calling."
Several of Tillman's friends have said the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks influenced his decision to enlist.
"In sports we have a tendency to overuse terms like courage and bravery and heroes," said Cardinals vice president Michael Bidwill, son of the team's owner Bill Bidwill, "and then someone like Pat Tillman comes along and reminds us what those terms really mean."
A memorial was set up outside Cardinals' headquarters in Tempe, Ariz., with Tillman's No. 40 uniform in a glass frame alongside two teddy bears and two bouquets. A pen was left for people to write messages to Tillman's family.
Gov. Janet Napolitano ordered flags at Arizona State University, Tillman's alma mater, flown at half-staff.
"Pat Tillman personified all the best values of his country and the NFL," commissioner Paul Tagliabue said in a statement. "He was an achiever and leader on many levels who always put his team, his community, and his country ahead of his personal interests."
Tillman was the first NFL player killed in combat since Buffalo offensive tackle Bob Kalsu died in the Vietnam War in July 1970. Nineteen NFL players were killed in World War II.
Former teammate Pete Kendall, the Cardinals' starting center, said Tillman's death was a jolt of the reality regarding the nation's fight in the Middle East.
"The loss of Pat brings it home," Kendall said. "Everyday there are countless families having to get the same news."
Kendall remembered going out with Tillman and his future wife, Marie.
"We had a meal and a couple of beers," Kendall said. "It was a nice night. I really looked forward to buying him another beer sometime down the road."
Several members of Arizona's congressional delegation released statements on Tillman's death. Arizona Sen. John McCain noted that Tillman declined to speak publicly about his decision to put his NFL career on hold.
"I am heartbroken today by the news of Pat Tillman's death, " Sen. McCain said. "The tragic loss of this extraordinary young man will seem a heavy blow to our nation's morale, as it is surely a grievous injury to his loved ones."
Sen. John Kyl released a statement calling Tillman "a great American hero in the truest sense. He had already given up so much, including an incredible football career and loving family, to fight for his country in the war on terrorism. His patriotism and courage are an inspiration and we are grateful for his ultimate sacrifice."
Rep. Jeff Flake said, "Pat Tillman exemplified the sacrifice, selflessness, and service of the U.S. military. Nowadays, genuine role models in professional sports are few and far between, but Tillman proved that there are still heroes in sports."
Tillman played four seasons with the Cardinals before enlisting in the Army in May 2002. He made the decision after returning from his honeymoon with his wife, Marie. In a 2002 story, Tillman told Sports Illustrated that he planned to return to the NFL in three years.
"He knew what was important to him, and he made his decision and stood by it," said quarterback Eli Manning, expected to be a top pick in Saturday's NFL Draft.
Tillman's brother, Kevin, a former minor league baseball prospect in the Cleveland Indians' organization, also joined the Rangers and served in the Middle East. They committed to three-year stints in the Army.
Some 110 U.S. soldiers have died -- 39 of them in combat -- during Operation Enduring Freedom, which began in Afghanistan in late 2001.
Tillman's agent, Frank Bauer, has called him a deep and clear thinker who has never valued material things.
In 2001, Tillman turned down a $9 million, five-year offer sheet from the Super Bowl champion St. Louis Rams out of loyalty to the Cardinals, and by joining the Army, he passed on millions more from the team.
Tillman turned aside interview requests after joining the Army. In December, during a trip home, he made a surprise visit to his Cardinal teammates.
"For all the respect and love that all of us have for Pat Tillman and his brother and Marie, for what they did and the sacrifices they made ... believe me, if you have a chance to sit down and talk with them, that respect and that love and admiration increase tenfold," Coach Dave McGinnis said at the time. "It was a really, really enriching evening."
It was not immediately clear when Tillman went to Afghanistan.
Denver quarterback Jake Plummer was a teammate of Tillman for seven years, three at Arizona State and four with the Cardinals.
"We lost a unique individual that touched the lives of many with his love for life, his toughness, his intellect," Plummer said in a statement released by the Broncos. "Pat Tillman lived life to the fullest and will be remembered forever in my heart and mind."
In college, Tillman was a long-haired wild man on the field, an all-Pac-10 linebacker always going full speed. Bone-jarring hits were his trademark.
He and Plummer led the Sun Devils to the 1997 Rose Bowl. The next season, Tillman was the Pac-10 defensive player of the year. He graduated summa cum laude in December 1997 with a marketing degree and a 3.84 grade-point average.
The Cardinals took Tillman in the seventh round of the 1998 draft, the 226th player chosen. At first, he made his mark on special teams but played his way into a starting spot at safety.
In 2000, he broke the franchise record for tackles with 223. He had 12 solo tackles, and a hand in 21 overall, in a 16-15 victory over Washington that season.
In practice, coaches often had to make Tillman slow down so he wouldn't hurt anybody in drills that weren't supposed to be full speed. Slowing down was always tough for him.
Before the 2000 season, he ran a marathon to see what it would be like. Before the 2001 season, he gave the triathlon a try.
"You don't find guys that have that combination of being as bright and as tough as him," Phil Snow, who coached Tillman as Arizona State's defensive coordinator, said in 2002. "This guy could go live in a foxhole for a year by himself with no food."
Tillman and his brother Kevin last year won the Arthur Ashe Courage award at the 11th annual ESPY Awards.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.