Pat Jr. grew into a ferocious high school football player who could intimidate with size, speed and attitude. Unfortunately he often did the same thing off the field. "People in our town were basically afraid of my brother," says Kevin. "He just has this tough-man mentality about him."
"If there was trouble, you looked for Pat first," says Beard. "Usually it wasn't serious." One time it was. In the fall of Pat's senior year, he went to the aid of a friend in a fight outside a pizza parlor and, in Pat's words, "beat the s—-" out of his friend's assailant, who was in his early 20s. Several weeks after the incident Pat was arrested and charged as a juvenile (he was 17) with felony assault. Before the case was resolved, he accepted a scholarship to Arizona State (Brigham Young and San Jose State were the other schools that offered) but desperately feared it would be revoked. Pat quietly pleaded guilty to the charge. In the summer of '94 he served 30 days in a juvenile detention facility, and his conviction was reduced to a misdemeanor upon his release.
Tillman's incarceration ended two weeks before his first college football practice. Arizona State never learned of his trouble with the law. Tillman, however, learned much from it. "I'm proud of that chapter in my life," he says. "I'm not proud of what happened, but I'm proud that I learned more from that one bad decision than all the good decisions I've ever made. I'm proud that nobody found out, because I didn't want to come to Arizona State with people thinking that I was a hoodlum, because I'm not. It made me realize that stuff you do has repercussions. You can lose everything." He says he hasn't been in a fight since.
Not off the field, anyway. On the field he started fighting, figuratively speaking, as soon as he arrived in Tempe. "Everybody called him the Hit Man because he was this little guy running around laying licks on people," recalls Von der Ahe. "He had this arrogance about him, as if he knew he was the toughest guy on the field."
Tillman understood from the start that he was a marginal recruit—too small to play linebacker, too slow to play running back or defensive back, the coaches figured, but too intense to pass up. He would have to establish himself every day. "That's fine. I didn't need any damn promises," he says. "I figured I could prove myself when I got here."
He flourished after making the unusual switch from safety to linebacker in the spring of his freshman year. He learned to study tape and study people. "He's the best player I've ever coached at reading body language," says Lyle Setencich, linebackers coach at Arizona State from 1995 to '96 and now defensive coordinator at Cal. "One game, he noticed that a tackle would look inside every time his team ran a draw, and sure enough, Pat read it and hit the fullback right in the mouth." His speed is respectable (4.55 for the 40) but not blinding, yet he is as fast in a game as he is against the stopwatch, a rare quality.
Tillman wears out coaches with his intellect and preparation, and has just enough offbeat humor to keep them on their toes. When Snow told him last year to cut his hair, Tillman said, "Coach, the women are all over me. I keep it messy so I look dirty, and they leave me alone." In fact, Tillman has dated UC Santa Barbara senior Marie Ugenti for four years, and as for pursuit by other women, he says, "My face and my personality are my chaperones."
Predictably, Tillman isn't ready to retire from football. Just as he was told that Division I-A was beyond him, he is being told that the NFL is out of his reach. When asked how many times he can bench-press the standard 225 pounds, Tillman explodes in laughter. "How many times?" he says. "Like, dude, I max 225, and then I rack it." You can't measure or weigh or time guys like Tillman and get the story.
"I know he can play in this league," says Von der Ahe. "Strong safety, linebacker in a nickel package, somewhere. He's tenacious, he's smart, he's got great instincts."
"I've told NFL guys, 'If you don't want him on your team, don't take him, because he won't let you cut him,' " adds Snyder.