Last week Cardinals safety Pat Tillman, 25, told the team that he was leaving football to enlist in the Army, with plans to attend Ranger School after boot camp. It's a remarkable story: Star athlete walks away from the game in his prime, leaving millions in cash on the table, to put his life at risk in service of his country during wartime. It is one, however, that you won't hear from Tillman. Given the chance to self-promote and wrap himself in the American flag—on Memorial Day weekend, no less—Tillman instead quietly declined to speak publicly about his career change.
No surprise. His decisions to leave pro football and to decline interviews are pure Tillman. The guy is a fearless nonconformist who has long refused to measure his life against ordinary standards. I met Tillman late in 1997, when he was a senior at Arizona State. He would soon be graduating after just 3� years with a 3.82 GPA, and he had been named Pac-10 defensive player of the year as an undersized (5'10", 202 pounds) linebacker. "It doesn't do me any good to be proud," Tillman said that year, "because I'll start being happy with myself and then I'll stand still and then I'm old news."
At the end of one interview with Tillman, I asked him if he had ever been arrested for anything, a question that unfortunately has to be asked with athletes today. Tillman didn't hesitate to admit that he had been charged with felony assault after beating up a kid while defending a friend during his senior year in high school. He spent 30 days in a juvenile detention facility, and his conviction was reduced to a misdemeanor upon his release. Here's the point: Since Tillman was underage at the time, his arrest record was sealed, and he didn't have to tell me anything. But he did, because he's honest. And smart. He learned from his mistake and never repeated it.
There were doubts about whether Tillman was big enough or fast enough to play college football, but he played superbly. There were much deeper doubts about whether he could play in the NFL, but he has been a four-year starter and in 2000 set a franchise record with 200 tackles. You cannot keep him off the football. Last spring he turned down a $9 million, five-year offer sheet from the Rams and accepted a one-year deal with the Cards for a little more than $500,000 out of loyalty.
Tillman says he'll resume his NFL career in three years, and Tillman does what he says. In 1994 when then Arizona State coach Bruce Snyder was recruiting Tillman, Snyder suggested red-shirting him in his freshman year. "I'm not redshirting," Tillman told Snyder. "You can do what you want with me, but in four years, I'm gone. I've got things to do with my life."
Now we know what things Tillman was talking about. Big things. Wouldn't you want him in your foxhole?