Most of us had forgotten there even was a war in Afghanistan.
After a year of whitehot headlines from Iraq, Afghanistan was an afterthought, if it was even thought of at all.
But Afghanistan was the first foreign theater in the war on terror launched by President Bush after Sept. 11, 2001.
In 30 months, it has claimed 110 American lives.
On Friday it stabbed the East Valley in the heart with news that Pat Tillman, a former football star with Arizona State University and the Arizona Cardinals, had been killed in fighting there.
Tillman was by far the most famous, and possibly the richest, of the Americans who joined the military after Islamic terrorists murdered some 3,000 people on U.S. soil 2 1 /2 years ago. He left a $3.6 million, three-year contract offer from the Cardinals, and his newlywed wife, Marie, to join the U.S. Army’s elite Rangers.
His death at age 27 prompted a flood of tributes almost unparalleled in Arizona history Friday, many focusing on themes of patriotism, self-sacrifice and character. And it cut a deep swath of grief through the ASU and Cardinals football fraternities.
‘‘In sports we have a tendency to overuse terms like courage and bravery and heroes, and then someone like Pat Tillman comes along and reminds us what those terms really mean,’’ said Cardinals vice president Michael Bidwill, son of the team’s owner, Bill Bidwill.
A memorial grew Friday afternoon outside Sun Devil Stadium, where Tillman made his reputation as a smart, gutsy player on one of ASU’s greatest teams, which went to the 1997 Rose Bowl, and then for the lesssuccessful professional Cardinals.
Scottsdale resident Jim Jacobson brought his preschool daughter to the memorial to pay tribute to a man he characterized as a true American hero. "I really wanted my daughter to see this," he said, "and I hope she remembers this."
The Pentagon had not officially confirmed his death as of late Friday but the White House issued a statement that praised Tillman as ‘‘an inspiration both on and off the football field.’’
Lt. Col. Matt Beevers, a spokesman for the U.S. military in Kabul, Afghanistan, confirmed that a U.S. soldier was killed Thursday evening, but would not say whether it was Tillman.
He said the soldier died after a firefight with anti-American militia forces about 25 miles southwest of a U.S. military base at Khost, which has been the scene of frequent attacks. Two other U.S. soldiers on the combat patrol were injured, and an Afghan soldier fighting alongside the Americans was killed.
The Washington Post reported this week that American efforts in Afghanistan have slowed since U.S. and allied forces overran the country in late 2001, rooting out the Taliban regime that had provided safe haven for al-Qaida terrorist operations.
The Post said Afghanistan still seethes with violence sponsored by warlords and that the country’s opium trade has bounced back, now accounting for about 40 percent of Afghanistan’s economic output. The country’s 9,000-man army is greatly outnumbered by some 45,000 people in opposition militias, the Post said.
It was not clear how long Tillman had been in Afghanistan. His brother, Kevin, a former minor league baseball prospect in the Cleveland Indians’ organization, also joined the Rangers and served in the Middle East. Pat Tillman is believed to be the first soldier with a direct Arizona connection killed in fighting in Afghanistan.
NO PUBLICITY, PLEASE
Teammates said Tillman was profoundly affected by the events of Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists hijacked four U.S. airliners. They crashed two into the World Trade Center towers in New York City, destroying the complex and killing about 3,000 people. One was flown into the Pentagon and the fourth crashed in Pennsylvania before it could be flown into another highprofile target in Washington, D.C.
As the events unfolded on a television in the Cardinals’ Tempe complex, Tillman came in to watch. The team’s season opener was supposed to be played the following Sunday, but Tillman didn’t even want to talk about it.
"The importance of football ranks zero compared to what happened," Tillman said while staring at the screen. "When you compare it . . . we’re worthless. We’re actors."
Tillman played that season — his fourth — with the Cardinals, but the next spring he told then-head coach Dave McGinnis he was joining the Army. His decision came not long after he was offered the lucrative contract extension with the Cardinals.
McGinnis told him it was going to create a media frenzy and asked if he was prepared. Tillman told him, "I’m not going to tell people. You are."
Indeed, Tillman’s decision made national news. Peggy Noonan, a former speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan, even commented on it in The Wall Street Journal.
But Tillman resolutely refused requests for interviews, photos and other media attention. Arizona Sen. John McCain took note of that Friday in reacting to Tillman’s death.
‘‘He viewed his decision as no more patriotic than that of his less fortunate, less renowned countrymen who loved our country enough to volunteer to defend her in a time of peril,’’ McCain, a Republican, said in a statement.
McGinnis said Friday he felt both overwhelming sorrow and tremendous pride in Tillman, who ‘‘represented all that was good in sports.’’
‘‘Pat knew his purpose in life,’’ McGinnis said. ‘‘He proudly walked away from a career in football to a greater calling.’’
ARIZONA’S GROWING TOLL
Gov. Janet Napolitano ordered flags flown at half-staff on the ASU campus.
"I think I join all Arizonans in shock and sadness," Napolitano said. "What he did in terms of giving up fame and fortune on the football field to serve his country after (Sept. 11), put his life at risk, symbolizes the best of America, symbolizes the best of Arizona."
Napolitano also pointed to Arizona’s larger sacrifice in the war on terror and the war in Iraq. "We’ve now had, I want to say, something on the order of 22 or 23 Arizonans killed in the last year in Iraq and in Afghanistan. We have many who are still serving and their families are here. So every time an Arizonan gets killed, particularly one who’s as well known as Pat, we also think about those men and women and their families as well."
Tillman’s agent, Frank Bauer, has called him a deep and clear thinker who never valued material things.
In 2001, Tillman turned down a $9 million, five-year offer sheet from the Super Bowl champion St. Louis Rams out of loyalty to the Cardinals.
The 5-foot-11, 200-pound Tillman was distinguished by his intelligence and appetite for rugged play. As an undersized linebacker at Arizona State, he was the Pac-10’s defensive player of the year in 1997.
As a Cardinal he played in the defensive backfield. He set a franchise record with 224 tackles in 2000 and warmed up for 2001’s training camp by competing in a 70.2-mile triathlon.
Tillman carried a 3.84 grade point average through college and graduated with high honors in 3 1 /2 academic years with a degree in marketing.
‘‘You don’t find guys that have that combination of being as bright and as tough as him,’’ Phil Snow, who coached Tillman as ASU’s defensive coordinator, said in 2002. ‘‘This guy could go live in a foxhole for a year by himself with no food.’’
ASU will retire his college number, 42, and the Cardinals are doing the same with his No. 40 pro jersey.
Nov. 6, 1976: Tillman is born in Bay Area city of Fremont, Calif., to Patrick and Mary Tillman.
August 1994: Enrolls at Arizona State University after earning Central Coast co-player of year honors as linebacker and running back at Leland (San Jose, Calif.) High School.
Jan. 1, 1997: Starts at weak side linebacker as ASU falls just short of undefeated season and national championship in 20-17 loss to Ohio State in Rose Bowl.
Nov. 24, 1997: Becomes first Sun Devil to be named Pac-10 defensive player of the year since award was initially presented in 1983. Led Sun Devils in tackles with 97.
December, 1997: Graduates summa cum laude from ASU with 3.84 GPA, earning marketing degree in three years.
April 19, 1998: Arizona Cardinals select Tillman in seventh round (226th overall) of NFL draft.
Sept. 6, 1998: Becomes first rookie starter at safety since Cardinals moved to Arizona in 1988, recording five solo tackles, four assists and one deflected pass in season opener at Dallas.
Dec. 24, 2000: Sets Cardinals team record with 224 tackles.
Jan. 6, 2002: Records team-high 18 tackles in final Cardinals game, a 20-17 loss to Redskins in Washington.
May 23, 2002: Turns down three-year, $3.6 million deal from Cardinals to join Army Rangers with younger brother Kevin.
July 7, 2002: Starts basic training at Fort Benning, Ga.
Oct. 24, 2002: Graduates from Army’s Infantry Training Brigade at Fort Benning’s Sand Hill where he served as guidon bearer for B Company of 1st Battalion, 19th Infantry Regiment.
March 2003: The Tillman brothers are deployed to the Middle East.
July 16, 2003: Tillman brothers win the Arthur Ashe Courage award at the 11th annual ESPY Awards, presented annually to individuals whose contributions transcend sports.
Dec. 21, 2003: Pays a surprise visit to his former teammates following the Cardinals’ 28-10 loss to the Seahawks in Seattle.
April 1, 2004: Leaves a voice message for ASU associate sports information director Doug Tammaro saying he is "training, staying in shape and getting ready."
April 22, 2004: Is killed in Afghanistan in a firefight with anticoalition militia forces about 25 miles southwest of a U.S. military base at Khost.