Pat wasn't new to
mayhem--once, at a pal's south-of-the-border bachelor party, he'd ended up in a
Mexican clink. But he'd learned something crucial about life and about the
swirling fog when he was 17, outside a Round Table Pizza not far from his
He'd always been
protective of Jeff Hechtle, a high school buddy who'd undergone more than a
dozen operations as a result of cancerous moles that covered two thirds of his
head. So when someone ran into the pizza parlor and shouted, "Jeff's
getting jumped!" Pat, who'd been drinking at a party earlier that night,
bolted into the parking lot, where several guys were tangling with his friend.
As a child Pat was so sensitive that his eyes filled with tears when he saw
homeless people. Even as a teenager he would still pack Keek, the cat pillow
his grandmother had sewn for him when he was a toddler, and Fluff, his baby
blanket with a bunny on it, for overnights at friends' houses and even, in
later years, for Arizona State football camps. That softness could undermine
his extraordinary aims, and so he'd paved over it with a hardness to match.
Both drove him out of that pizza shop to defend Jeff.
He caught the tail
end of the melee and went after a man in his early 20s who, it turned out,
wasn't the one who had initiated the fight. The man, and several of his teeth,
ended up lying on the asphalt.
Everyone took off
but Pat. Already, even in the wake of high school pranks that backfired, he
lived by a creed of accountability, by a motto he'd soon hear from his Arizona
State football coaches and make his own: Take it in the forehead. He gave his
battered opponent his name and phone number. The Tillmans got a phone call
later that night, the young man's father saying that his son was hospitalized
and vomiting from a head injury. Suddenly Pat was staring at a felony assault
charge, the threat of a lawsuit and a potential football scholarship going up
in smoke, and in the crossfire between two parents whose marriage would
dissolve two years later. His mother wanted to take the $40,000 that she'd just
inherited from her grandmother and pay off the aggrieved family. His father, a
lawyer, insisted that Pat had done the right thing and that offering money
would be an admission of guilt. Pat reeled out of his house, sobbing, and
climbed a eucalyptus tree.
Through his tears
he looked down on a home where a boy could be a dreamer, an adventurer ... a
child. A home with a small black-and-white TV that received just one fuzzy
channel ... surrounded by a yard that hawks, deer, raccoons, wild boars and
feral cats tumbled into from the hills of a 4,000-acre park, crawling with
trails that he and his brothers roamed ... nestled across the street from a
creek that fed a reservoir where ropes hung from thick branches that begged a
boy to grab and swing and let go.
He came down, at
last, from the eucalyptus, into a world where a knight rushing to the aid of a
companion in distress could be a villain, where a man too hasty and too sure of
doing the right thing could wreak a bloody, tangled mess. He pleaded guilty to
felony assault, entered a juvenile detention center a few days after his high
school graduation and was mistakenly placed in solitary confinement for the
first week. He served 30 days, did 250 hours of community service, and his
family paid $40,000 in damages.
something large. He learned that he'd better begin really learning, that
truth's more slippery and the consequences more dire than he'd ever dreamed
when he sketched out that path for himself in his journal as a 16-year-old. But
he wouldn't abandon it. "We've got to strive for more," he'd invariably
conclude in those debates about the world's woes around the Tillmans'
front-yard fire. "Just because it hasn't been done doesn't mean it can't be
Weeks passed after
that wild night at the Steilacoom Deli & Pub. Pat and Kevin left Fort Lewis
to enter Ranger School, the 61-day trial by hellfire that a man had to pass to
become a tabbed Ranger. It culminated with a week and a half in the swamps of
Florida that slashed 16 pounds off the average trainee, caused hallucinations,
skin diseases and even hair loss due to malnutrition, stress and 20-hour days
exposed to the elements, and made sure that nearly half of all candidates never
stitched the sacred black and gold Rangers tab onto the left shoulder of their
uniforms. The Tillmans stitched theirs, then Russ got his too, and Pat greeted
him back at Fort Lewis with a brother's hug.
Next came months
of drudgery, days on the base filled with mindless tasks and barracks gossip.
Pat grew restless--the Rangers' intensity didn't match his. Bob Ferguson, the
Seattle Seahawks general manager who had drafted Pat when Ferguson was with the
Cardinals, called Pat's agent, Frank Bauer--the only NFL agent whose job was to
say no to every commercial offer made to his client, on philosophical
grounds--and told him that he wanted to make a Seahawk of the man who'd been
Fergy's favorite player in 30 years as an NFL administrator.
said Bauer, "he's got a year left in the Army." But then someone told
him that Pat's circumstances were unique and that he might, having already
served a tour in a war zone, be able to get an early discharge.