SAN JOSE, Calif. - Three months ago, Doug Tammaro had dinner in Seattle with Pat and Kevin Tillman, the brothers who left pro sports to become elite soldiers. The night was so memorable that Tammaro now sees it in his sleep.
Pat, the older brother, couldn’t find his way into the restaurant — "10 more seconds and I was going to light a charge on that window," he said, laughing.
He told a story about a training exercise, referring first to "a packet of people," then a "pocket," then a "pouch." Kevin burst out laughing. "Dude, is it a packet, a pocket or a pouch? Pick one." "Shut up, dude," Pat said. "They were so awesome together," said Tammaro, the sports information director at Arizona State University. "You could just tell how close they are.’’
Now, Kevin Tillman is escorting his brother’s body home, according to the Army Human Resources Command. Pat, a 27-year-old former safety with the Arizona Cardinals, was killed Thursday after his elite Ranger unit, which called itself the "Black Sheep," was ambushed in Afghanistan.
The brothers, who were two years apart, decided to join the military together. Pat had forfeited a $3.6 million contract extension from the Cardinals. Kevin had signed with the Cleveland Indians for $1,000 as an undrafted free agent. A minor league second baseman, he had already made his mark by legging out a game-winning hit one afternoon, then collapsing onto first base before he was taken to the hospital with severe dehydration.
"They were tighter than you could ever possibly know," said a close family friend, who asked not to be identified because Tillman’s family has asked people to avoid singling out their son over other soldiers who have died. Although different in many respects, the Tillmans shared a common vision:
Rambunctious, self-effacing intellects whose humility and work ethic allowed them to blend in with their fellow Rangers.
Pat and Kevin were assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment at Fort Lewis, Wash.
They and their youngest brother, Richard, a former quarterback who is now an aspiring comedian, attended Leland High School in suburban San Jose. Their father, Patrick Tillman, a lawyer, was a college wrestler. All had what Dave Frandsen, a Leland physical education teacher, called the "Tillman look" — a high-intensity gaze, intelligent and compassionate.
"All three of the kids, they were never spoiled," said the family friend. "Their father was strict; he never wanted (his sons) to get a big head. There was no cable TV, and they didn’t get the newspaper. Pat had to come over to read in the newspaper that he had 16 tackles the night before. They all just grew up taught that family and friends were by far first and everything else was second."
Pat Tillman’s loyalty is legendary. One of his best friends in high school, Sachin Shah, was a basketball player who was unable to play because of a heart murmur. Frandsen, the coach, had Shah work as an assistant until his senior year, then allowed him to suit up and play Senior Night.
The Leland g ym was packed. Frandsen allowed Tillman to sit behind the bench. When Shah came off the floor, Tillman, in tears along with most of the crowd, embraced his friend.
Afterward, Tillman approached Frandsen, "Coach, I just want you to know that what you did, for one of my brothers, is the most gracious thing I’ve ever seen."
Tillman walked out of a convenience store during his senior year one night, saw a friend getting beaten up, stepped in and pummeled the other boy, landing himself in jail. On another occasion, after hearing a racial epithet used against a black friend, Tillman grabbed the offender by the shirt and threatened to pound him.
Later, during televised games at Arizona State, Tillman would occasionally stand next to head coach Bruce Snyder when he wasn’t in the game. Tillman wanted the camera on him not for the attention but so he could send hand signals to his buddies watching.
"Hey, did you see Pat?" one would say, according to Frandsen.
"Yeah, he smiled at me."
Kevin Tillman had a tough act to follow. At Leland, Pat Tillman was known for his charisma off the field and his intensity on. At Arizona State, despite his relatively small size he was already one of the best defensive players in the Pacific-10 Conference. Kevin Tillman shared his brother’s mischievousness —
"They both had that little grin, that something was up," said Dan Lloyd, a former assistant football coach at Leland — and his toughness, but he was wired perhaps less intensely than Pat.
"Kevin was definitely more mellow, not as outgoing, not so quick to fly off the cuff and say whatever the hell was on his mind," the family friend said.
Unlike Pat, who declined offers to play other sports — he told coaches he didn’t want to take playing time from his friends — Kevin also excelled in baseball. A lefthanded hitting infielder, he earned a scholarship to follow his brother to Arizona State. He transferred to Cal Poly — San Luis Obispo after suffering an injury.
After his senior year, Kevin Tillman went undrafted. Five minutes after the draft ended, Jason Smith, the Indians’ Southern California scout, said he called Tillman and offered him a contract. Smith had wanted Cleveland to select him. Although Tillman was short on skills, he said, he was inspired by his hitting and relentlessness.
Tillman was excited to get his contract but asked to delay it until he started, Smith said. He had a philosophy final.
Smith said they walked back to Smith’s car, where Smith handed him a bunch of Indians equipment: A game glove, cleats, a hat.
"He said, ‘Do you mind if I take an extra hat for my brother?’ " Smith recalled.
Tillman was sent to the Indians’ rookie league team in Burlington, N.C. One scorching afternoon, the Indians played a doubleheader. Tillman had a huge day.
"He was running the bases all afternoon," Smith said.
In his final at-bat, Tillman stepped out of the box and tried to massage his leg. He then stepped back in and hit the ball to the base of the right-center field wall. But he was unable to get out of the box.
"His leg just locked up — like a lead pipe," said Indians assistant general manager John Mirabelli. According to Smith, Tillman "Frankensteined it" to first, where he collapsed. He was taken to the hospital with cramps and severe dehydration.
Mirabelli said an official brought him the tape the following day.
"It was the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen."
Pat Tillman came to Burlington to watch his brother play and looked as happy as if he had been competing, Smith said. The appearance caused a stir. By then, Tillman was playing for the Cardinals. With his flowing blond hair and chiseled physique, it was "like a movie star walked in," he said.
Pat Tillman took the entire Burlington team to dinner.
After Smith heard that Tillman had joined his brother in the military, he told a colleague: "You watch. That guy is gonna come back with Osama bin Laden’s head in a bag."
Tillman returned to the NFL with his brother only to discreetly meet with the Cardinals in Seattle.
"As you sat there and talked to these young men, it became apparent the commitment they both made and the relationship they had with each other," said Dave McGinnis, then the team’s head coach. "You’re listening to their stories, and it can’t help but touch your heart. When they got up to leave, they thanked me so much for letting them come and be with the team. I said to them, ‘I’m the one who should be thanking you.’ "