Remembering Pat Tillman
Strong-willed and humble, former Cardinals star was indescribably rare
Posted: Friday April 23, 2004 2:35PM; Updated: Wednesday April 28, 2004 4:48PM
Our office called this morning with the news that Pat Tillman had been killed in action in Afghanistan. I pulled open a drawer in my desk and took out a manila folder in which I keep letters sent to me by story subjects. It's a thin file. In 10 years at Sports Illustrated, I've written more than 300 stories and I can count the personal responses on both hands. (Not including agents, PR people, wives and girlfriends.)
This was an ordinary greeting card with a gray wolf on the front cover. Inside the card was blank -- no mass-manufactured poetry -- except for a note written in meticulous blue printing. The card was dated "12/8,'' which was Dec. 8, 1997, five days after a 2,000-word profile that I had written on Tillman appeared in Sports Illustrated.
At the time, Tillman was a senior at Arizona State, the Pac-10 conference's Defensive Player of the Year as a ferocious, 5-foot-11, 195-pound linebacker. I had spent two days with Tillman and his teammates -- and his brother Kevin, who remains in the military -- in Tempe, Ariz., reporting this story.
It was a remarkable experience. Customarily, both the writer and subject understand the mechanics that exist between them. Writer asks questions and tags along with subject. Subject reveals only as much of himself as he wants the writer to know and lets the writer see only as much as he's comfortable with. Somebody forgot to tell Pat Tillman the rules.
He answered questions frankly and without concern for the repercussions.
Question: Have you ever been arrested? (A routine query in this day).
Answer: "Yes.'' (What's more, it was a minor juvenile arrest that was expunged from Tillman's record. He didn't have to tell anybody). Honesty, again.
Question: Can you play in the NFL?
Answer: "Beats me.'' (The usual college stud response is: "Hell, yes.'' Tillman had no idea, so he said so.)
It went on like this for two days. I learned that Tillman was the type of football player who performed fully without regard for his body. He played at 100 percent of his speed, power and passion 100 percent of the time. That quality is indescribably rare. He was also able to use his brain as effectively as his body. Coaches who told him something had to do so only once.
He was also a a strong student who graduated summa cum laude in three and a half years with a 3.82 grade-point average. He bragged about none of this. Why? "Dude, I'm proud of the things I've done, my schoolwork -- because I'm not smart, I just worked hard -- and this award (the Pac-10 defensive honor)," he told me. "But it doesn't do me any good to be proud. It'd be better to just force myself to be naďve about things, because otherwise I'll start being happy with myself and then I'll stand still. And then I'm old news.''
He is terrible news today, because two years ago he left a career in the NFL -- a career that scouts and personnel experts thought he never could achieve -- to enlist in the Army. He didn't give any interviews then, because he didn't want attention called to his decision. No surprise there. He is the kind of guy who probably would have preferred playing football in a parking lot, rather than in stadiums full of fans. There was a rare purity about him. I've not seen it since. I don't expect to soon see it again.
Back in 1997 we ate dinner together with his brother at a cheap spaghetti joint near the ASU campus. Pat was astounded -- and oddly honored -- that I let him pick the restaurant.
I thought about all these things when I opened his card this morning. Here is what he wrote:
Thank you for the time you put into the article, my family and I really enjoyed the way it turned out. Perhaps our paths will cross again someday and you, Kevin and I can have another dinner. This time you pick the place. Until then, take care and tell your kids I said hello.
A few minutes ago my 12-year-old son walked into my home office to check on me. I turned to him, and all I could think to say was, "Pat Tillman says hello.''
Sports Illustrated senior writer Tim Layden weighs in with a Viewpoint every Friday on SI.com.