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Honoring a gridiron warrior

Mike Marchand | Sunday, April 25, 2004

If only Pat Tillman were more famous as a football player, perhaps more of them would have followed his example of humility and loyalty.He was picked by Arizona State University with their last scholarship, and excelled both in the classroom (a 3.87 grade point average, graduated summa cum laude in three and a half years) and on the football field (won the Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year in 1997 despite being undersized as a linebacker). He was selected as the 229th overall player by the Arizona Cardinals in the seventh and final round of the 1998 NFL Draft, but went on to start 10 games in his rookie season as a safety and set a team record with 224 tackles in his third season.Even his modest, unassuming manner as a player stands in stark contrast to the other football players making headlines recently. Consider Ole Miss quarterback Eli Manning, whose status as the most highly-coveted collegiate player in this year’s NFL Draft evidently went to his head when he “suggested” that the San Diego Chargers should not draft him with the first pick because he didn’t want to play for the Bolts, largely perceived as a terrible team. The Chargers obliged, drafting him but trading him to the New York Giants for their pick, North Carolina State quarterback Philip Rivers, and future draft selections.Had Manning been more like Tillman, he would have simply been grateful for the opportunity and remained loyal to the team that drafted him. In 2001, the St. Louis Rams, who had recently won a Super Bowl and wished to contend for future ones by improving their defense, offered Tillman a five-year contract worth $1.8 million annually. He turned it down to remain faithful to the Cardinals, a team that hasn’t been successful in years and that was only paying him less than one-third of what the Rams were offering.Consider, also, former Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett, whose effort to sue the NFL to gain entry into the Draft failed last week. Clarett was evidently so motivated to impress NFL scouts that he failed to show up at several of his workouts. Tillman, on the other hand, turned a planned 15-minute tryout for the Cardinals into a 45-minute demonstration because he insisted on repeating each drill until he had executed it perfectly.But of course, Tillman’s most astonishing act of humility came when he turned down the Cardinals’ offer for a three-year, $3.6 million contract extension and left the NFL and his family to join the Army’s elite Rangers squad in early 2002. And that was all. No fanfare, no saccharin press conference to serve as a soapbox for self-aggrandizement. He did what he felt he was called for: “My great grandfather was at Pearl Harbor and a lot of my family has gone and fought in wars and I really haven’t done a damn thing as far as laying myself on the line like that.”He traded relative anonymity in a football uniform for relative anonymity in a soldier’s uniform, and most people simply couldn’t comprehend how anyone could walk away from his life to risk it all in some godforsaken foxhole. His then-teammate, Simeon Rice, told a reporter that he thought Tillman was leaving the NFL because he was only an average player and wanted to live out a Rambo fantasy in the military. Rice, by the way, eventually ditched the Cardinals for the more successful Tampa Bay Buccaneers and a contract worth more than $5 million per season.Both Pat and his brother Kevin (who played minor-league baseball in the Cleveland Indians’ organization) completed Ranger training, and served a mission in Operation Iraqi Freedom. On a return trip, he visited his former team and, according to coaches, commanded respect even from the newer players who were never his teammates. His agent informed him that teams were interested in acquiring him, thinking he was home to stay. But he turned down the opportunity to return to the league as a hero, saying “I made a commitment for three years and I’ll fulfill it.”Tillman was redeployed to Afghanistan where, during a routine patrol last week outside the village of Sperah, near the Pakistani border, his unit was ambushed and he was killed in action. Though his death is more known because of the life he left, he is but one of the 110 soldiers killed in Operation Enduring Freedom. Tillman’s family has refused comment, stating that “everyone who has given their lives in the war deserves equal recognition for their sacrifice.” It’s interesting to note that the national motto is “e pluribus unum,” or “one out of many.” Pat Tillman died in that fashion, but lived his life that way as well.Perhaps now that Pat Tillman is famous as a fallen soldier, more of us will follow his example of humility and loyalty.

Mike Marchand, class of ’01, would like to dedicate this column to all those soldiers who have given their lives and all those who still risk theirs, football players or not. God bless you all. His e-mail address is Marchand.3@alumni.nd.edu. “Undistinguished Alumnus” appears whenever he remembers to send it in.The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.