Even as a boy Pat Tillman felt a destiny, a need to do the right thing whatever it cost him. When the World Trade Center was attacked on 9/11, he thought about what he had to do and then walked away from the NFL and became an Army Ranger....
Posted: Tuesday September 5, 2006 11:37AM; Updated: Tuesday September 5, 2006 5:54PM
Tillman (third from right) with members of his Army Ranger squad in Afghanistan in April 2004.
Courtesy of Tillman Family
By Gary Smith
One day, God willing, Russell Baer was going to tell his son this story. One day, after the boy's heart and brain had healed, he was going to point to that picture on the kid's bedroom shelf of the man doing a handstand on the roof of a house, take a deep breath and say, Mav, that's a man who lived a life as pure and died a death as muddy as any man ever to walk this rock, and I was there for both. That's the man, when your heart stopped for an hour and they slit you open neck to navel, who I prayed to because ... well, because you wouldn't exist if he hadn't died, and I wouldn't be half of who I am if he hadn't taught me how to live. That's Pat Tillman, the man you take your middle name from, and I've been waiting for you to ask since the day you were born.
Russ never got that chance: Maverick Patrick Baer died on Monday. So now Russ has Pat's story stuck in his heart....
Maybe it's best to keep it simple, to start with the day Russ first laid eyes on Pat, keep the moralizing to a minimum and let everyone figure out what Pat's story says about human beings and fear and the country in which we live.
Start with the day, in December 2002, when the big green duffel bags hit the ground in front of the barracks at Fort Lewis in Washington, followed by the boots of the new Rangers joining Russ's platoon, the Black Sheep. Russ watched them, trying to guess which one of the cherries was the famous football player, the one -- truth be told -- he had never heard of until his mates began saying, "Did you hear? Pat Tillman's been assigned here."
Maybe it was because Russ wasn't raised on the religion of NFL Sundays, or because the whole world disappears for a man once the Army begins melting and molding him into a Ranger, but somehow -- even though he had grown up only 40 miles from Pat's home in San Jose -- Russ had never heard of the guy or his much-ballyhooed decision to walk away from the Arizona Cardinals and a $3.6 million contract to enlist in the aftermath of 9/11. So 22-year-old Private First Class Baer kept quiet and listened to the chow-hall chatter.
"I'll treat him just like a normal person," one platoon mate vowed.
"He's nothing special," said another. "I'll make him do push-ups."
"That dude was stupid to give up football," more than a few said. "I'd never do that."
Pat's younger brother, Kevin, fresh out of the Cleveland Indians' farm system, was coming too. Likely a couple of meathead jocks, Russ thought, remembering the big-shot athletes at his high school in Livermore, Calif. It wasn't hard to pick out Pat from the pack of rookie Rangers: Had to be the guy carrying those big green bags into the barracks as if they were marshmallows.
The newbies -- Rangers who hadn't undergone the last and harshest phase of the weeding-out process required to become "tabbed Rangers" -- spent those first two days scurrying like headless chickens, stammering and spilling socks from their bags as officers barked at their heels, outraged by gear that wasn't tied down properly, unit identifiers that weren't sewn onto everything just so. Not the Tillmans. They didn't rattle.
But a man can't walk into a Ranger unit with Pat's self-assurance, reputation and anvil jaw without every antenna on the base going up, probing for arrogance. Russ conducted his own reconnaissance, poking his head into a smelly little squad room to watch Pat receive his lessons. Man, he walked away thinking, he liked Specialist Tillman. Humble, soft-spoken, polite, tuned in; swift to volunteer for crap chores, swift to knock out the 25 push-ups the punks four years younger than he was -- but with one more stripe -- ordered him to do.