Uncommon man never felt he was special - East Valley Tribune: Sports

Uncommon man never felt he was special

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Posted: Monday, April 26, 2004 11:23 am | Updated: 5:00 pm, Thu Oct 6, 2011.

Pat Tillman is being painted with broad brush strokes today.

American hero. Patriot. A man of uncommon courage and selflessness.

In death, Tillman’s life is being celebrated. But if Tillman could hear the tributes and see the tears, he’d roll his eyes, shake his head and say, incredulously, "Dude, you have to be kidding."

You see, Tillman never thought he was special. He never considered the loss of his NFL career and the millions of dollars he eschewed much of a sacrifice.

Which, of course, made him special.

"A lot of people knew Pat Tillman because he was a football player. The real sad part is that they didn’t know Pat Tillman as a person," said St. Louis Rams defensive coordinator Larry Marmie, who coached Tillman with the Cardinals. "What we lost in terms of a person is really something that a lot of us would like to have, those kinds of convictions and the kind of character and attitude that he had about living life.

"Pat was a very good player, but that pales in comparison with the things that he had as a human being. When I think about Pat Tillman, I just think about somebody that had a deep commitment to doing the very best at whatever he was involved in."

I first met Tillman in the fall of 1994. He was a freshman at ASU, a Northern California native who sported hair down to his shoulders and a surfer’s vocabulary. Every other word out of his mouth was "dude," and I couldn’t help but think of Jeff Spicoli, the confused teen from the 1982 movie "Fast Times at Ridgemont High."

Tillman played up the image, climbing the light tower at Sun Devil Stadium so he could be alone to think. He sat in the back of the room during defensive meetings, and if a teammate answered a coach’s question incorrectly, he’d yell, "Wrong!"

Tillman may have looked and sounded like an incorrigible, MTV-generation teenager, but there was a 1950s sensibility about him. He married his high school sweetheart, Marie, even as scores of women tried to get him to stray. He was respectful and polite and unlike many athletes, he never let stardom artificially inflate his ego.

Midway through Tillman’s rookie season with the Cardinals, ASU assistant athletic director for media relations Mark Brand asked him to sign 250 copies of a book about the history of Sun Devil athletics. Tillman obliged.

A few days later, an apologetic Brand called Tillman back and said the copies had been lost at the printer’s. If I brought 250 more books to your house, Brand said, could you sign them? "Dude, no problem," Tillman replied. "I’ll come to your place."

"Pat always seemed to do the right thing," said Cardinals center Pete Kendall. "He was his own guy with his own guiding principles, but they always seemed to be the right ones."

Tillman’s greatest strength may have been his relentlessness. He was always moving forward, even when others wanted him to stand still.

Upon arriving at ASU, Tillman was told by then-coach Bruce Snyder that he might be redshirted.

"Do what you want," Tillman replied, "but I’m out of here in four years. I’m graduating."

He graduated in 3 1 /2 years, with a 3.84 grade point average and a degree in marketing.

Tillman was drafted by the Cardinals in 1998, became a full-time starter in 2000 and was living the American dream: Fame, fortune and family.

It wasn’t enough, though. Tillman was, as always, restless. He ran a marathon before the 2000 season, a 70.6 mile triathlon prior to the 2001 season.

"He loved to be challenged," Marmie said.

Tillman’s decision to enlist in the Army in May of 2002 has been draped in the U.S. flag, his response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. In truth, Tillman had been thinking about a career change long before that.

Football couldn’t satisfy his ravenous appetite for life.

"One thing he told me before he went into (basic) training was that it was time for a new challenge," said ASU associate media relations director Doug Tammaro, who became close friends with Tillman and his wife.

So many memories. So many stories. But what I will remember most about Tillman is the dignity with which he served his country.

He could have turned his enlistment into cheap publicity, signed book and movie deals. He was besieged with interview requests, from Larry King to Time magazine.

I, too, made a request, which was relayed by Tammaro.

"Dude," Tillman said, "tell Scott I like him, but I’m not talking to anybody."

The way Tillman saw it, thousands of other men and women were risking their lives, and his sacrifice was no greater than theirs.

"A lot of people don’t know this, but last year we wanted to have a picture of him in his Army uniform in the media guide," Tammaro said. "He called me and said, ‘Dude, if you want to put me in Sun Devil gear, OK, but that’s it.’

"He just didn’t have to have all that other stuff. He just thought he was one of many."

Tillman would have laughed at the fuss being made over his death. ASU and the Cardinals will retire his number. A college scholarship will be set up in his name. The plaza around the new Cardinals stadium in Glendale will be called Pat Tillman Freedom Plaza. Flags at ASU were flown at half-staff Friday.

You’ll have to forgive us, dude.

We’re saluting a hero.

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