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....
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.
him just like a normal person," one platoon mate vowed.
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
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.
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.