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Posted: Monday October 5, 2009 8:40AM; Updated: Monday October 12, 2009 12:17PM
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Arizona Cardinals fans continue to honor the legacy of the late Pat Tillman.
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The Tillman saga gets more curious.

I read an article in the New York Times about a trip author Jon Krakauer took to West Point recently to speak to students and promote his new book about late Army Ranger Pat Tillman (Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman, Doubleday). In talking to Times reporter Charles McGrath, Krakauer said he'd been given access by Tillman's widow, Marie, to the diaries Tillman kept as a civilian and soldier. And Krakauer told McGrath, "What really blew me away was that the journals made it so obvious how miserable he was in the military. And that he turned down a chance to get out after two years and join the Seattle Seahawks. I would have been out of there so fast."

My first reaction: Wow. My second reaction: How true could that have been, with Tillman having a year remaining on his three-year commitment to the Army?

"There's real validity to it,'' said his former coach with the Cardinals, Dave McGinnis, now on the Titans staff.

Apparently there was. Since Tillman's death by friendly fire in Afghanistan on April 21, 2004, the story has been that he was destined to do other things after his military commitment. Tillman was sort of a Renaissance man, and friends say he wanted to do many things with his life other than play football.

You'll recall Tillman, an Arizona Cardinals safety, spurned a $3.6 million NFL offer to enlist in the Army in May 2002. He went to Ranger School, then was deployed to Iraq in March 2003. Soon after returning to Fort Lewis in Washington from that deployment, Tillman visited his old coach, McGinnis, on Dec. 20, 2003, in the Arizona team hotel the night before the Cards played Seattle. And he spoke to Seattle GM Bob Ferguson -- who'd gone out on a limb to draft the marginal Tillman out of Arizona State in the last round of the 1998 draft, when Ferguson was the Cards GM.

Ferguson, now a scout with the Colts, told me, "Pat actually called me. He was just back from his first deployment, and he definitely wanted to play football. I told him, 'Pat, you know you'll always have a job with me, wherever I am.''

Frank Bauer, Tillman's agent, recalls a conversation he had with Ferguson in the fall of 2003. "He said to me, 'Frank, we have great interest in Pat. If he can get an early discharge, we'd love to have him,' '' Bauer told me. "When I told Pat, he said to me, 'I'll look into it. Let me think about it.''

Tillman thought about it. He'd have had to seek a release from the Army one year before his scheduled date in May 2005. But he called Bauer four days later, said he decided not to seek an early out, even though he'd become disillusioned with the country's intent in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Instead, he asked Bauer when he'd be needed for NFL free agency in 2005. Bauer told him early in 2005, soon after the Super Bowl. That was fine with Tillman.

"Pat said, 'I'll just serve out this next tour in Afghanistan, come back, get [assigned to a base] back here, where I'll be able to get a cake job, and work out and train so I'll be in the right shape when free agency comes around,' '' Bauer recalled Tillman telling him.

"That was the last conversation we ever had," Bauer said.

Ferguson said he thought Tillman could have had a Rocky Bleier-type career. Bleier, after his rookie season with the Steelers in 1968, deployed with the Army to Vietnam, where he was wounded in both legs. But he recovered to play on four Super Bowl teams of the '70s as a blocking back mostly, though he had a 1,000-yard rushing season in 1976. "If Rocky did it,'' said Ferguson, "I thought, Why not Pat? Even if he'd have lost a step, imagine the kind of locker-room presence he'd have been.''

"At the very least,'' said McGinnis, "I think he'd have come back and been the best special teams player in football, and the best leader. I remember when he came to our team meal before we played Seattle that weekend [in 2003], he just walked into the room and there was silence. The room was stunned. Everyone on that team respected him so much -- and you'd have seen that respect if he went and played again.

"When I asked [Pat] what he planned to do? -- in what turned out to be our last conversation -- he said to me, 'Mac, when I get out, I'm still gonna be young enough to come back and play. I'm playing.' ''

In the last conversation Tillman had with Bauer, he told his agent, "You won't believe the letter I got from Bill Belichick.'' In the letter, Belichick praised him for his courage, his leadership, his willingness to set an example for people in this materialistic society, and he said it was an honor to be in the same league he'd been in.

"In the letter,'' Bauer told me, "Belichick said, 'If you ever need a job when you get out of the Army, give me a call.' ''

So what would have happened if Tillman hadn't been killed? He'd have been 28 at the time of his scheduled discharge. McGinnis was fired by the Cardinals after the 2003 season, and Ferguson canned after the 2004 season in Seattle. Imagine Tillman being on the free-agent market in 2005. St. Louis pushed hard for him in 2002, before he enlisted, and likely would have been involved. Tom Coughlin was coming off a rocky 6-10 rookie season with the Giants; he loves all things military. I bet he and then-GM Ernie Accorsi would have bid for Tillman. McGinnis, the linebacker coach in Tennessee, would have tried to sell him to Jeff Fisher, as would Ferguson with his new employers, the Colts.

I don't know what team would have signed him. But the Patriots, even with Rodney Harrison, then 32, ensconced at strong safety, were not deep on the back end, with only one other solid NFL player, Eugene Wilson (let go two years later). After the Belichick letter, I bet Tillman would have walked to Foxboro and taken any role Belichick would have offered.

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