LOS GATOS, Calif. - Alex Garwood opens one of the boxes stacked against the back wall of his garage.
He pulls out a Purple Heart and shows it to his visitor. So many of the medals have come in the mail. Eight, he thinks. He can’t be sure.
There’s a Bronze Star, too. A delicately folded U.S. flag. A quilt hand-made by students at an Oregon elementary school.
Garwood is the unpaid executive director of the Pat Tillman Foundation. Every couple of days, he checks the foundation’s post office box in nearby Almaden, Calif.
He never knows what he’ll find. Some people have written checks for the amount of $40.42. Tillman wore No. 42 at Arizona State University, No. 40 for the Arizona Cardinals.
Others send mementos — songs they’ve written and burned onto a CD; a football signed by kids at a reform school; an old, worn pair of Army boots.
The letters keep coming.
"There’s a couple of drug addicts in Britain whose families have written in to say they’re using Pat’s example to try to keep their sons clean," Garwood said.
Tillman died April 11 in a fire fight in Afghanistan. The Cardinals will honor him before and during halftime of their game today against the New England Patriots at Sun Devil Stadium.
Every fan will receive a No. 40 lapel pin, a video tribute will be shown, and the Cardinals will retire Tillman’s jersey and present it to his family.
In addition, players from all 32 NFL teams will wear a decal with the No. 40 on it for the rest of the 2004 season.
Garwood, whose wife, Christine, is the older sister of Tillman’s widow, Marie, will be at the Cardinals-Patriots game.
Once a salesman at Brocade Communications, he’s found a higher calling: Keeping Tillman’s name alive.
"I love my job but with an asterisk," Garwood said. "Because I wish I didn’t have to do it."
Garwood is reluctant to do another interview. Tillman never spoke publicly about his decision to enlist in the Army. His desire was to be viewed as just another solider.
The Tillman family has continued to honor that request. They’ve rejected movie, book and TV offers.
But if Tillman’s reasons remain private, his example was there for all the world to see, and it’s the foundation’s goal to help others follow his lead.
"What you’ll find is that even if you are slightly cynical and you think he was too good to be true, he wasn’t," Garwood said. "He wasn’t perfect, but he’s the kind of person you want to be like."
The board of directors, which includes Marie and Tillman’s brother, Kevin — who enlisted with Pat and is still serving in the U.S. Army — wasn’t quite sure at first how to preserve his legacy.
"We knew we weren’t just going to go and do something frivolous," Garwood said. "We wanted to do something that made a difference. What you’ll find is there are a hundred zillion charities out there doing good stuff. What we wanted to do was something nobody else was doing."
Eventually, the board decided its mission should be to inspire people to make positive changes in their lives. One way to do that: Fight apathy, whether it involves education or poverty.
For if there was anything that defined Tillman’s life, Garwood said, it was his interest and concern for others.
"People don’t care. Pat did," Garwood said. "This foundation wants to inspire people to do that."
How to go about that is still a question, Garwood said. One idea: Create an educational program in which junior high and high school kids will hear about Tillman’s life.
"Get off your butt and do something," Garwood said. "That’s Pat. He lived it."
Another possibility: Ask kids to write a letter to a soldier overseas, or possibly a member of Congress.
"We’re not sure of anything yet because Kevin and Marie really need to think about this," Garwood said. "This is not something we’ll do for a couple of years then move on. It’s more important to do it right than do it fast."
For now, the foundation is a makeshift operation. Garwood’s office is in his laundry room at home.
But Garwood has no doubt the foundation will be successful. Every time he opens another box or reads another letter, he knows how much Tillman’s life and death touched others.
"A lot of letters start off with, ‘I never knew Pat,’ " Garwood said.
Such as the boy in Odessa, Texas, who asked friends to donate to the foundation rather than give him gifts for his birthday.
Or the couple that insisted in lieu of a wedding gift, guests contribute to the foundation.
Or the child who sent a check for $4.47.
The foundation has received more than 400 unsolicited donations, said Garwood. The biggest check was for $10,000.
"It’s pretty incredible that people are so inspired by Pat that they’re going to find a Web site and send money to a post office box," he said.
Rummaging through the boxes can be difficult for Garwood. There are so many reminders of his friend. But they also are an inspiration.
"It’s a fascinating book we were reading but all of a sudden the last four-fifths have been torn away," Garwood said. "I didn’t sign up for that . . .
"The damnable misery of the thing is we’ll never accomplish what he did. But it’s our job to try."
Pat Tillman Foundation
Write: P.O. Box 20053, San Jose, CA 95160