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My Sportsman Choice: Pat Tillman

Posted: Thursday November 25, 2004 11:11AM; Updated: Thursday November 25, 2004 11:11AM
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By Tim Layden

Pat Tillman
Pat Tillman never enjoyed the view from the sidelines.
AP
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On the evening of last April 23, I found myself sitting in a tall director's chair in the middle of the newsroom at WTNH-TV in Hartford, Conn., the nearest television station to my home. I was dressed in a shirt, tie and jacket with blue jeans (because I would not be photographed from below the waist) and fighting back a galloping sense of guilt and embarrassment that made we want to leap down from the chair and run as far away as I could run.

Around me, dozens of people went about the frenetic business of preparing for the 11 o'clock news, stepping around me as if were a coat rack. Every 15 minutes or so, I would stuff an earpiece into my left ear and perform a "live shot," TV parlance for the oh-so-familiar interview with a guest from some distant location who appears on the screen as a disembodied head, delivering "expert" analysis of some news event, either polished (say, presidential historian Michael Beschloss) or amateurish (say, me).

On this day the news was Pat Tillman's death. I had been called in the morning by SI.com's Aimee Crawford. "I don't know if you heard," she said, "Pat Tillman was killed in action. I thought you might want to write about it in your web column." I felt an immediate and profound sadness that was reflected in a column I wrote just a few minutes later. No sooner had that work ended, the live shots began. Three camera crews came to the house; several others took place at WTNH-TV. I understand the process: Television needs people to fill the long hours of all-news programming and putting the SI name out there is good for the brand. That part is business. And don't ever, ever underestimate the power of television. Seconds after I finished talking to Fox News that morning, an old friend from my hometown in upstate New York, a retired Army Special Forces veteran, called me and told me all about Tillman. "You can't imagine how much guys respected him," he said.

Why did all these TV people want me to talk? Because I wrote a long story about Tillman when he was a senior at Arizona State. It turned out to be one of the only in-depth pieces ever written about Tillman. (I went to Tempe because he was about to be named Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year as a 5-9, 180-pound linebacker. I figured there had to be a story there, somewhere.) In the ensuing years, he became a star in the NFL, turned down free-agent money out of loyalty (rare), enlisted in the Army at the peak of his physical skills (much rarer) and refused to talk publicly about it (off the charts rare).

Point is: Tillman became a symbol of some very powerful things and I had once known him briefly. So I was asked to talk about him.

And there I sat in my tall chair, spouting off and thinking: Tillman would despise this. He would deplore that television anchors and journalists and politicians are making a fuss over his death or worse yet, using his death to push their own agendas. With each passing live shot, I felt more out of place, more desirous of running and apologizing to Tillman's memory. When I was finished I did a telephone interview with Bruce Snyder, who had been Tillman's coach at Arizona State. This time I was asking the questions.

"If Pat could see all this ..." I started to ask.

"... he would absolutely hate it," said Snyder, answering before I could finish the question. Even Snyder was uncertain if he was doing the right thing by answering questions and he turned down many interviews that day.

This all comes back to me now as I pitch Pat Tillman as the Sportsman of the Year. Because, ask yourself, what is a sportsman? I submit that a sportsman is someone who plays games for the joy of playing them and nothing more. Not for fame. Not for money. He plays because in the games he finds a primal happiness. I didn't know Pat Tillman well, but I knew him a little and I talked to people about him. By this definition, he was the ultimate sportsman for this or any other year.

As a high school football player, he once kept re-entering a blowout until the coaching staff hid his helmet so that he could play no more. He didn't want to humiliate anybody, he just wanted to keep playing. He came to Arizona State as a far-too-small strong safety and before two-a-days were finished in his freshman year the upperclassman had nicknamed him "Hit Man" because of the way he threw his body around.

When I interviewed him at the end of the his senior season, he was loathe to talk about his athletic or academic honors because he'd feared he'd become complacent. When I asked Snyder back then if Tillman could play in the NFL, he said, "When teams ask me, I say, 'If you don't want him on your team, don't draft him, because he won't let you cut him.'"

When the St. Louis Rams offered him a huge raise, he turned it down to stay in Phoenix because it wasn't about the money. When he felt a stirring in his soul to go fight wars, he left football because football was no longer enough. It was just a sport.

People play sports for all of the wrong reasons. Little children play because their parents foolishly imagine themselves freed from paying for college because their little boy or girl will win a scholarship. Grown children play because they foolishly imagine themselves fabulously wealthy, hosting a televised tour of the their mansion. Even those who hit the sports lottery drain the joy from the games, playing only for fringe benefits. There's precious little joy in any of this.

Pat Tillman played football because he loved it with a child's passion. As a kid, he used to climb slender trees in windstorms and sway on the breeze. He played football the same way and when he found something more important, he moved on. That's a sportsman. That's my Sportsman of the Year. And he would probably hate that, too.

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Sports Illustrated will announce the 2004 Sportsman of the Year winner on FOX on November 28. Check back every weekday until then to read more Sportsman picks from SI writers.

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