Archived Story

Tillman’s heroism has staying power [UPDATED]

Published 7:22am Monday, April 28, 2014 Updated 9:22am Monday, April 28, 2014

The intrigue of pro football and the reality of soldiers dying in the heat of battle cross paths at the University of Phoenix Stadium, home of the Arizona Cardinals.

A bronze statue of the late professional football player and Army Ranger Pat Tillman is in place outside the stadium just west of Phoenix.

Ten years have passed since Tillman died while serving his country in Afghanistan.

I toured the stadium and stopped at the statue with my son, Mark, on April 18, just four days before the 10th anniversary of Tillman’s death.

I’m like many people who are surprised that a decade has already gone by since his passing.

Early during the stadium tour, our guide made it a point to have all 35 of us look up and see Tillman’s name recognized as part of the Arizona Cardinals ring of honor.

Tillman was the first pro football player to die in the heat of battle since Bob Kalsu gave the ultimate sacrifice in 1970, during the Vietnam War. Kalsu played for the Buffalo Bills.

Sadly, it was discovered that Tillman died as a result of friendly fire. He and two other Americans were walking with an Afghan Militia Forces allied soldier.

Fellow Americans, less than 100 yards away, saw only the Afghan who they thought was the enemy and they opened fire.

Tillman and the Afghan allied soldier were killed.

The platoon leader for Tillman and a radio telephone operator (RTO) were wounded.

Our fallen hero, who was only 27 when he died, grew up in Fremont, Calif.

Tillman started his college football career as a linebacker for Arizona State University in 1994.

He was drafted in 1998 by the Arizona Cardinals and moved from linebacker to the safety position.

“It amazed me when Pat, later on in his career, turned down a five-year $9 million contract offer from the St. Louis Rams and out of loyalty stayed with the Cardinals,” said our stadium tour guide, a retiree who formerly worked in the Twin Cities and in Colorado.

The events of Sept. 11, 2001, prompted Tillman and his brother, Kevin, to enlist in the Armed Forces in May the following year.

In 2003, Tillman graduated from the Ranger School in Fort Benning, Ga.

Tillman married his high school sweetheart, Marie Ugenti, just prior to his enlistment with the Army Rangers.

After his death, the Pat Tillman Foundation was established.

The mission is to carry forward Tillman’s legacy “by inspiring and supporting those striving for positive change in themselves and the world.”

Tillman’s high school football complex in California is named in his honor. A highway bypass around Hoover Dam on the border between Nevada and Arizona has a bridge bearing Tillman’s name.

The Cardinals retired his number 40 and Arizona State did the same for his number 42 that he wore while playing for the Sun Devils.

The statue was erected at the Cardinals’ stadium in 2006.

In 2004 the National Football League donated $250,000 to the United Service Organizations to build a USO center in memory of Tillman. The Pat Tillman USO Center, the first of its kind in Afghanistan, opened at Bagram Air Base in April 2005.

Life goes on, as witnessed by the life of Tillman’s widow, Marie, the past 10 years.

She remarried and now lives with her husband and two children in Chicago.

Marie has, however, stayed at the forefront with the Pat Tillman Foundation.

“Tillman, before his death, declined to go into detail about why a man in his athletic prime would walk away from a lucrative football career to risk his life at war,” said Michael Smith of NBC Sports on the 10th anniversary of Tillman’s passing.

“We never heard in Tillman’s own voice an explanation of why he did what he did. And so, we’re left knowing that Tillman was a brave man, a selfless man.”









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