The white envelope arrived in a large cardboard box stuffed with hats and T-shirts, a package that looked like an ordinary piece of Jake Plummer's weekly fan mail. But when the Denver Broncos quarterback read this particular letter last week, his eyes nearly filled with tears. An Army Ranger had written to thank Plummer for attempting to honor Pat Tillman's death by fighting the NFL two weeks ago. The man had served with Tillman, and he said Plummer's actions had lifted the spirits of the entire battalion. They had lost a brother when Tillman was killed in April. Suddenly, the Ranger wrote, they had found another.
What that soldier recognized was that Plummer had followed his heart during that brief battle with the NFL over the right to wear a decal bearing Tillman's No. 40. Plummer wasn't merely sticking up for Tillman. He was doing something Tillman likely would've done were he alive, which made the decision all the more notable. Now Plummer operates with a similar passion.
"Pat's death has definitely made me a more motivated person," Plummer said. "I don't want to just talk about doing things anymore. I want to do them. In fact, we're busy with football right now, but I have plans for the offseason and I'm going to follow through with them. That's what Pat was like. He had a plan, and he made it happen. That's inspiration for me to get off my ass and do the things I want to do, and it should be for everybody else."
This doesn't mean Plummer is going to train for a triathlon or climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. He has simpler goals. He wants to continue the piano lessons he started as a child or maybe take up guitar. He's become such an avid handball player that he has set his sights on competing in an Idaho tournament for the top competitors in the state this summer. There will be a couple of road trips as well, though at this point he's not saying what his destinations are.
This is progress for Plummer, who rarely thought about maximizing his free time in the past. He played golf practically every other day when he wasn't working out at the Broncos facility in the offseason. When he played for the Arizona Cardinals, he often filled his days with activities straight out of junior high, like playing H-O-R-S-E or racing miniature Hot Wheels cars in the home he shared with his best friend Ty Hamilton.
Plummer's behavior wasn't unusual. There are plenty of young, wealthy pro athletes who have trouble finding meaningful ways to fill their lives. But the more Plummer watched Tillman, the more he saw a different way of approaching the world. The last time they saw each other was in Seattle a month and half before Tillman's death, when Tillman was home on leave. They chatted at an Irish bar and Plummer noticed that Tillman was talking more about issues around the world and reading more political books. Plummer says that meeting made him "want to be more involved with what's happening in the world and in my life. There are too many things happening to just be focused on golf and working out."
That may have been the moment that set him down the path he arrived at two weeks ago. Plummer says he didn't have a grand plan for creating a controversy over the decal. He simply didn't like the league's decision to honor Tillman for only one game. So after Plummer wore a decal bearing Tillman's No. 40 in Week 2 with the rest of the NFL players, he slapped his sticker back on his helmet after removing it for a week. He discovered how many people supported the move.
Fans offered to pay the fines threatened by the NFL. Veterans called into radio talks shows to protest the league's policies. Denver owner Pat Bowlen also jumped into the fray. He told Plummer he would ask the NFL not to fine the quarterback and if that didn't work, Bowlen was willing to send a donation equal to the fine amount to the Pat Tillman Foundation. In the end, a league that prides itself on public relations made the right move -- it settled the situation quietly without any fines. Plummer agreed to take the decal off, and Bowlen promised to put Tillman's No. 40 in the north end zone of Invesco Field and also to play a public service announcement for the Pat Tillman Foundation at Broncos home games.
Plummer would love to do more. You can hear it when he talks about the need to support the troops and his desire to keep Tillman's memory alive. But Tillman's spirit will live on. It will be there when Plummer takes his next piano lesson and as he drives across the country. It will be there every time he passes on a round of 18 holes and ponders what dream he can pursue next. It will be there because Plummer has learned to copy the conviction of Pat Tillman, which, when you really think about it, is the most touching way to honor a deceased brother.