Most football players fit into a box. They're big, fast and
strong (duh); they submit to authority without resistance; and
if asked to define introspection, they would say it's what
happens when the defense picks off a pass. Those who don't fit
into the box rarely succeed at a major program. Then there is
Arizona State senior linebacker Pat Tillman, who not only
doesn't fit into the box but also would have to consult a travel
agent to find it.
As a senior safety-tailback-kick returner at Leland High in San
Jose, Tillman so detested leaving the field that once, after his
coach pulled the starters at halftime of a first-round playoff
romp, he took the field for the second-half kickoff and ran it
back for a touchdown. The coach, Terry Hardtke, confiscated
Tillman's helmet and shoulder pads and put them under a bench
lest Tillman get the urge to score again. One month later, on
his recruiting visit to Arizona State, one of three Division I-A
schools willing to risk a scholarship on a 5'11", 195-pounder
classified by many college coaches as a too-slow, too-small
tweener, Tillman was asked by Sun Devils coach Bruce Snyder what
he thought of the recruiting process. "It stinks," Tillman shot
back. "Nobody tells the truth."
Taken aback, Snyder filed the comment away. He remembered it the
following August when he sat Tillman down to discuss--as he does
with all freshmen--the concept of redshirting. "I'm not
redshirting," Tillman said. "I've got things to do with my life.
You can do whatever you want with me, but in four years, I'm
gone." Snyder thought, This kid is different.
As different as Tempe is hot in July. At Arizona State, Tillman
not only avoided redshirting but also progressed from special
teams madman (freshman) to situational sub (sophomore) to
defensive standout (junior). He had the second-most tackles and
the most interceptions, pass deflections and fumble recoveries
on a team that reached the Rose Bowl and fell four points short
of a probable national title. "Some games I was hard-pressed to
make a tackle because Pat was everywhere," says Scott Von der
Ahe, who played alongside Tillman in '96 and is now a linebacker
for the Indianapolis Colts.
Along the way Tillman grew his dirty-blond hair from a Marine
buzz to a heavy-metal mane (since trimmed) and made the Sun
Devils coaches his personal debate partners. For instance, last
season defensive coordinator Phil Snow put in a dime package
that took Tillman out of the game in certain passing situations.
Whenever Snow called the scheme, Tillman would stand next to the
coach and say, "Touchdown this play."
This season Tillman has become simply the best player in the
country who doesn't have his own (fill in the blank: Heisman,
Outland, Lombardi, Butkus) campaign, living proof that there is
room at the highest level of the game for a guy without much
size or blazing speed but with a brain and cojones. "He
epitomizes what college football is all about," says Southern
Cal offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, who was an assistant at
Arizona State during Tillman's first two seasons.
The soul of a defense that lost six starters from last year,
Tillman led the Sun Devils to the cusp of the top 10 before last
Friday's 28-16 upset loss to Arizona knocked them out of a share
of the Pac-10 title and a near-certain berth in the Fiesta Bowl.
Last week he was named the league's defensive player of the
year, a remarkable achievement for a guy who bulked up to all of
202 pounds and made many of his plays against the run. He won
the honor over established studs such as Jason Chorak of
Washington and Joe Salave'a of Arizona, and it seemed a sweet
crowning touch to a terrific career. But don't tell him about it.
On Nov. 24, the day he won the Pac-10 honor, Tillman hunched
over a bowl of spaghetti and sausage at a Tempe bistro. He is a
walking, talking contradiction: a little guy who plays
linebacker, a dedicated student who looks like a slacker, a
serious 21-year-old who converses fluently in surfspeak. The
public nature of awards gives him the creeps. "Dude, I'm proud
of the things I've done, my schoolwork--because I'm not smart; I
just worked hard--and this award," said Tillman, a marketing
major who will graduate in 3 1/2 years with a GPA of 3.82. "But
it doesn't do me any good to be proud. It's better to just force
myself to be naive about things, because otherwise I'll start
being happy with myself, and then I'll stand still, and then I'm
old news." He shrugged. Introspection indeed.
"He's driving on the same highway as everybody else," says
Barbara Beard, the athletic director at Leland High, "but he's
on the other side of the road."
He always has been. When he was five, he climbed onto the porch
roof of his family's two-story house during a windstorm, wrapped
himself around a slender tree trunk and swayed in the wind for
fun, until his mother, Mary, coaxed him back onto the roof. He
then developed a propensity for jumping from high places
(bridges, cliffs) into water. He went rock climbing and invented
a bizarre hobby: wandering through the woods by leaping from
treetop to treetop, like Tarzan without a vine. "He has always
liked testing himself," says his father, Pat Sr., a lawyer and
former college wrestler who used to grapple in the living room
with Pat Jr. and his younger brothers, Kevin (a scholarship
baseball player at Arizona State) and Richard (a junior
quarterback at Leland High).
Pat Jr. grew into a ferocious high school football player who
could intimidate with size, speed and attitude. Unfortunately he
often did the same thing off the field. "People in our town were
basically afraid of my brother," says Kevin. "He just has this
tough-man mentality about him."
"If there was trouble, you looked for Pat first," says Beard.
"Usually it wasn't serious." One time it was. In the fall of
Pat's senior year, he went to the aid of a friend in a fight
outside a pizza parlor and, in Pat's words, "beat the s---" out
of his friend's assailant, who was in his early 20s. Several
weeks after the incident Pat was arrested and charged as a
juvenile (he was 17) with felony assault. Before the case was
resolved, he accepted a scholarship to Arizona State (Brigham
Young and San Jose State were the other schools that offered)
but desperately feared it would be revoked. Pat quietly pleaded
guilty to the charge. In the summer of '94 he served 30 days in
a juvenile detention facility, and his conviction was reduced to
a misdemeanor upon his release.
Tillman's incarceration ended two weeks before his first college
football practice. Arizona State never learned of his trouble
with the law. Tillman, however, learned much from it. "I'm proud
of that chapter in my life," he says. "I'm not proud of what
happened, but I'm proud that I learned more from that one bad
decision than all the good decisions I've ever made. I'm proud
that nobody found out, because I didn't want to come to Arizona
State with people thinking that I was a hoodlum, because I'm
not. It made me realize that stuff you do has repercussions. You
can lose everything." He says he hasn't been in a fight since.
Not off the field, anyway. On the field he started fighting,
figuratively speaking, as soon as he arrived in Tempe.
"Everybody called him the Hit Man because he was this little guy
running around laying licks on people," recalls Von der Ahe. "He
had this arrogance about him, as if he knew he was the toughest
guy on the field."
Tillman understood from the start that he was a marginal
recruit--too small to play linebacker, too slow to play running
back or defensive back, the coaches figured, but too intense to
pass up. He would have to establish himself every day. "That's
fine. I didn't need any damn promises," he says. "I figured I
could prove myself when I got here."
He flourished after making the unusual switch from safety to
linebacker in the spring of his freshman year. He learned to
study tape and study people. "He's the best player I've ever
coached at reading body language," says Lyle Setencich,
linebackers coach at Arizona State from 1995 to '96 and now
defensive coordinator at Cal. "One game, he noticed that a
tackle would look inside every time his team ran a draw, and
sure enough, Pat read it and hit the fullback right in the
mouth." His speed is respectable (4.55 for the 40) but not
blinding, yet he is as fast in a game as he is against the
stopwatch, a rare quality.
Tillman wears out coaches with his intellect and preparation,
and has just enough offbeat humor to keep them on their toes.
When Snow told him last year to cut his hair, Tillman said,
"Coach, the women are all over me. I keep it messy so I look
dirty, and they leave me alone." In fact, Tillman has dated UC
Santa Barbara senior Marie Ugenti for four years, and as for
pursuit by other women, he says, "My face and my personality are
Predictably, Tillman isn't ready to retire from football. Just
as he was told that Division I-A was beyond him, he is being
told that the NFL is out of his reach. When asked how many times
he can bench-press the standard 225 pounds, Tillman explodes in
laughter. "How many times?" he says. "Like, dude, I max 225, and
then I rack it." You can't measure or weigh or time guys like
Tillman and get the story.
"I know he can play in this league," says Von der Ahe. "Strong
safety, linebacker in a nickel package, somewhere. He's
tenacious, he's smart, he's got great instincts."
"I've told NFL guys, 'If you don't want him on your team, don't
take him, because he won't let you cut him,'" adds Snyder.
What will Tillman do if he doesn't make the NFL? "Beats me," he
says, grinning like a man with no fear and, just in case, good
grades. Grab a tree and swing in the breeze.
Pat Tillman (above) may never be a household name, but the teams
he played against this year probably will never forget him. Here
are five other outstanding players whose efforts this season
went largely unheralded.
NAME, POSITION SCHOOL HEIGHT WEIGHT YEAR
1. ROBERT HOLCOMBE, RB Illinois 6'0" 210 Sr.
Gained 1,253 yards, 10th most in the nation, for a team that
2. TIM RATTAY, QB La. Tech 6'1" 200 Soph.
Passed for 3,881 yards, 34 TDs; led nation in total offense with
360.7 yards a game
3. JAMIE DUNCAN, LB Vanderbilt 6'1" 235 Sr.
Had 119 tackles for the Commodores, the SEC's top-ranked defense
4. MICHAEL BLACK, RB Washington State 6'0" 206 Sr.
Provided balance for pass-happy Cougars by rushing for 1,157 yards
5. ANTOINE WINFIELD, CB Ohio State 5'9" 180 Jr.
Punishing tackler, solid cover corner. Could be next year's