Code of Honor

Code of Honor

Pat Tillman gave up NFL riches to fight, and die, in Afghanistan
Pat Tillman gave up NFL riches to fight, and die, in Afghanistan
May 02, 2004

The man saw and heard things,

back in the States where he was wealthy and a Sunday star. The man saw and heard things in his mind's eye and mind's ear when helay on pillows in $200-a-night hotel rooms on the eve of pretend wars surrounded by cheerleaders and screaming fans and breathless 26-year-old reporters. That's why hewas here in the thick-wooded Afghanistan mountains that crawled with al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters traveling in packs of four and five dozen. That's why he would die tonight.

Here in Spera, where the enemy slipped across the Pakistani border a few miles to the east to infest the cliff heads and steep thickets of pine, 27-year-old Army Ranger Sgt. Pat Tillman had no need anymore to lie in bed imagining what a soldier's last gasps sounded and looked like. No reason now to dig at himself in the dark, wondering what right he had to live off the sacrifice of relatives and strangers who'd fought in American wars.

He and the thin detail of Rangers and Afghani fighters in his patrol would be in deep trouble if Muslim militants lay in wait tonight. The nearest U.S. firebase was in Khost, about 30 miles away. The density of trees and tortured geometry of the terrain made it nearly impossible for the Predator drones circling high overhead to detect the enemy and give warning, or for the Chinook choppers back at base to stage a swift rescue.

But there was no longer any lying back in the razor-wire-ringed bases where Special Forces had crouched through much of 2003. Operation Mountain Storm had begun. The Pakistani military was bringing down the hammer, at last, in the east, squeezing Islamic extremists out of sanctuaries there and through the mountain corridors into Afghanistan. The grim chore of the 2nd Battalion of the 75th Army Ranger Regiment was to patrol these twisting gorges, to cut down insurgents on the move, to live in mud-brick villages among the locals who might spill secrets. To find the big dog suspected to be lying low in the region—Taliban chief Mullah Mohammed Omar—and maybe the even bigger one, al-Qaeda No. 2 man Ayman al-Zawahiri, or the biggest one of all, Osama bin Laden. Pat Tillman had left Fort Lewis, Wash., three weeks before and joined Mountain Storm with his 26-year-old brother, Kevin, two Rangers assigned to separate units but near enough, a few times a week, to look into each other's eyes.

Gene Lower/Slingshot

Even before the World Trade Center incinerated, even as a linebacker at Arizona State in 1996 and '97, Pat would lie in bed on the eve of games and picture things that no teammate did. He'd envision the American flag and the blood that had been spilled for it and utter words that football players didn't, shouldn't, just hours before entering battle. "There's more to life than football," he'd say. "I want to contribute to society and help people."

Then came the phone call one September morning from Kevin, an infielder in the Cleveland Indians organization—turn on your TV, right NOW, Pat!—and the live image on the screen of the second airliner hurtling into the second glass tower full of human beings. The next day came Pat's interview with NFL Films, when he said, "I play football, and it just seems so goddam—it is—unimportant compared to everything that's taken place.... I feel guilty even having the damn interview.... My grandfather was at Pearl Harbor and a lot of my family has gone and fought in wars, and I really haven't done a damn thing.... I think of—this, this kinda sounds tacky—but I've always thought about Pearl Harbor and the people in the boats and the bombs kinda coming down and what they were going through ... their screaming and the passion they exuded and how they lost their lives. I think of stuff like that.... I imagine I'll probably have a few other things to think about now. Maybe a fireman running up those stairs...."

Kevin was dead-set. He was going to quit the minor leagues and give up his dream, a life in the bigs, to enlist and attempt to become an Army Ranger. But how, everyone in America would wonder, could Pat do that too? How could he walk away from a three-year, $3.6 million contract with the Arizona Cardinals and end up in a region so riddled with risk that Afghanis themselves trembled to enter unless they belonged to the local tribe?

Pat rattled along the dirt road in the lead pickup truck with his fellow Rangers, allied Afghani soldiers following in a vehicle just behind. For him the question had always been different: How could he not?

Dusk fell.

The shadows twitched with treachery. The Afghanis here, even the locals who collaborated with coalition forces for cash, loathed the Americans. Sixteen months earlier U.S. warplanes acting on faulty intelligence had taken out a convoy of cars carrying several of Spera's revered tribal leaders, and now the woodcutters and shepherds of the Zadran tribe were tipping off Islamic insurgents on the whereabouts of Special Ops patrols so the Americans too would know the taste of blindside death.

At Cardinals training camp, Tillman had one thing that no one else there had—bottomless desire. He lacked one thing that everyone there had—a cellphone. He despised the conveniences and designer doodads craved by all those around him. "Life's too f-----' easy," he muttered to a friend at ASU.

If only Pat could hop out of the truck and move silently, up in those trees, as he had as a 20-year-old in the woods in Sedona, Ariz. It became a game that captivated him during getaways to the red-rock wonderland two hours from campus: How far could he travel, hopping from treetop to treetop along the river, without setting a foot on the ground? Growing up on a country road on the edge of San Jose in a house that abutted a wooded park, he'd always loved trees, even when they bristled with danger. As a five-year-old he climbed onto the porch roof of the Tillman's two-story house during a windstorm, wrapped himself around a frail tree trunk and oscillated until his mother, Mary, talked him back onto the roof.

What would become of a quiet, intense boy governed by a personal code of honor, a machismo that he defined and no one else, a Hemingway character out of the 1920s in Spain transplanted seven decades later to California soil that produced surfers and cyber-boomers and seekers of the next trend?

The 17-year-old who showed up at Arizona State on a recruiting visit in 1994 wore dirty blond hair that fell to his shoulders, flip-flops, a T-shirt and a private grin. He called every male he met "dude," cursed like a sailor, looked and sounded like a classic California slacker. But look and listen closer. When the ASU coach at the time, Bruce Snyder, asked Pat what he thought of the recruiting process—because of his size, only three colleges had pursued the 5'11", 195-pounder—he didn't get a slacker's reply. "It stinks," said Pat. "Nobody tells the truth." When the coach raised the possibility of a redshirt year that would give him extra time to grow and learn the Sun Devils' system, Pat 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."

Mike Haskey, Columbus Ledger Enquirer

Three and a half was all it took for him to nail down his marketing degree, to graduate summa cum laude with a 3.84 GPA. He'd lie on the campus grass in the sun and read books about anything and everything that fascinated him. He'd befriend a student with Down syndrome named Duff, whom he met, according to The Arizona Republic, while taking an elective course entitled Orientation to the Exceptional Child. He'd show up early for off-season conditioning drills and run sprints on bare feet. "Touchdown, this play!" he'd chirp to coaches when they removed him from a game. He couldn't resist a philosophical debate, nor the 200-foot light tower at Sun Devil Stadium, which he'd climb at night to meditate and gaze across the desert and buttes and twinkling airport lights. "The planes flew so close to him that he could damn near reach out and touch them," defensive coordinator Phil Snow told the Columbus (Ga.) Ledger-Enquirer in 2002. "He's just fearless."

No one on campus knew that two weeks before his first college practice, he had walked out of a juvenile detention center after serving 30 days for going to the aid of a friend in a fight outside a pizza parlor and beating up a man so badly that he'd been charged with felony assault. But he so abhorred deception, the slick game of image control, that when a reporter asked if he'd ever been arrested, out tumbled the truth.

He was the last man offered a football scholarship at ASU in '94. Four seasons later, as an undersized linebacker, he was the Pac-10 defensive player of the year and had the second-most tackles and the most interceptions, pass deflections and fumble recoveries on a team that went to the Rose Bowl and was 19 seconds away from an undefeated season and a probable national title. Long hair flying from beneath his helmet, he hurled himself at receivers and running backs, striking them like lightning. In games. In practices. Damn the fistfights he caused. Every moment of life was live. "Braveheart," he was called by Kevin White, the ASU athletic director at the time, and others in his department. The big shots and the backslappers and the media might catch Pat in the locker room after a big loss, taking ownership of it. But not after the big wins, when he'd slip out before they arrived. Their hosannas might undermine the purity of his mission, might make him wonder about his motives, might undo him. "Dude, I'm proud of the things I've done, my schoolwork—because I'm not smart, I just worked hard—and this award," he told Sports Illustrated's Tim Layden after he'd received the defensive player of the year honor. "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."

During a predraft workout, the Cardinals wanted a 15-minute look at him performing drills. He made the coaches and scouts stay for 45 minutes, until he got every drill perfect. Arizona took him as a safety in the seventh round—the 226th of 241 players selected—and he arrived at training camp on a bike, sneakers dangling from his handlebars, pedaling in behind his teammates' Mercedes and BMWs.

Courtesy of the Tillman family

He had one thing that no one else there had—bottomless desire. He lacked one thing that everyone there had—a cellphone. He despised the conveniences and designer doodads craved by all those around him. "Life's too f-----' easy," he muttered to a friend at ASU. He ran a marathon before training camp in 2000. He set a franchise record that year with 224 tackles. He competed in a 70.2-mile triathlon before camp in 2001. The Cardinals kept losing; his teammates kept anguishing. "Don't tell me about the pain, show me the baby," he'd say. "We're not showing the baby right now, we're just bitching about the pain."

After the 2000 season his agent, Frank Bauer, told him that the St. Louis Rams, one year removed from a Super Bowl championship, would pay him $9 million for five years to leave the last-place Cardinals. Pat declined to sign the offer sheet and remained with Arizona for $512,000.

"Do you know what you're doing?" Bauer asked.

"It wouldn't be fair to them to leave," said Pat.

At children's camps that the Cardinals staged, the biggest gang of kids was always packed tight around him, and no one could quite say why.

His grandfather,

Chief Petty Officer Henry Tillman, and his two uncles were sitting ducks at Pearl Harbor when the sky began raining death. Henry's destroyer went down, the first of several ships to sink below his feet during the war. Uncles Jim and Roy Tillman, stationed at the Army base on the harbor's edge, survived the war as well, but Roy took a bullet in the chest and lost a finger and a half. Great Uncle John, on Pat's mother's side, was said to have been the last man to have parachuted from a plane before it was hit, killing everyone still on board behind him. But none of them would talk about any of this. Grandpa Henry claimed he was asleep, that he remembered nothing of the attack. The other relatives caught amnesia too and clammed up. All Pat could do was imagine everything.

"We're worthless.... We're actors," he muttered as he watched events on a locker room TV the morning after 9/11. What did people expect Pat to say a half year later whenhe decided, at age 25, that he couldn't do what every other pro athlete did—keep playing ball and leave it to others to do what had to be done? Talk about it?

"To me," said Kevin White, the former athletic director at Arizona State, "Pat Tillman is without question the biggest hero of my lifetime."

Relatives tried to persuade the Tillman boys to change their minds. Their father—Pat Sr., a lawyer and former college wrestler at San Jose State who had told his sons long ago that he regretted not having followed the family footpath into service—knew that dissuasion would be futile. One day Pat pulled a chair around the desk of then Cardinals coach Dave McGinnis and said, "Mac, we've gotta talk," walking away later that day and leaving Mac to do all the talking to the media.

Pat married his high school sweetheart, Marie Ugenti, that spring of 2002 and honeymooned in Bora Bora. When he returned to Phoenix, he got in a car and drove away from the city where his face had been on television screens for eight years of college and pro ball, and headed to Denver so he could enlist incognito with his brother. Then came the tight haircut, the months of boot camp and Rangers training school, where only 35% of the candidates made the grade, where the average day lasted 19.6 hours and men grew so stressed and fatigued that they tried to insert coins into trees to place telephone calls home.

The Tillman brothers made the Rangers. Pat's reward was a pay cut from the $1.2 million a year the Cardinals would have paid him to $17,316. "I can't stop smiling," his old college coach, Bruce Snyder, told The Miami Herald at the time, "and I'm not really sure why."

Pat called home from the Baghdad airport last summer during a 3 1/2-month Rangers road trip. He began the conversation with his father by reading a list of things about which they couldn't speak, leaving virtually nothing about which they could.

Paul F. Gero/Corbis

Pat returned to the States but kept his distance and his silence as the world offered movie and book deals and awards for courage, the covers of magazines and Wheaties boxes. "I'm not prostituting myself," he said. The offers only went higher.

He couldn't do it. He couldn't possibly hold himself above his Ranger mates, bouncing in this truck through the mountains of Afghanistan last Thursday night, three weeks after he and his brother had been summoned back to the Middle East. He eyed their faces. Many of them, already here for weeks, wore beards and the long scarves that the locals did, so that from a distance they might pass for Afghani tribesmen. But their wraparound sunglasses gave them away, and half the people in Spera could probably have drawn a map in the dust and stabbed a finger at the general area where Pat's outfit rode through the fading light.

A tribesman

rode with them, a Taliban sympathizer. He was a plant who had offered to take the Rangers to a hidden enemy arms dump. Instead he was leading them into a trap. That's what Taliban sources would report later, after the air ripped just outside of Spera at half past seven and everything went to hell.

The Rangers scrambled out of their vehicles as they came under ambush and charged the militants on foot. Suddenly Pat was down, Pat was dying. Two other U.S. soldiers were wounded, and a coalition Afghani fighter was killed in a firefight that lasted 15 or 20 minutes before the jihadists melted away. That's what the American military says.

Pat's truck hit a land mine, and he died from wounds caused by the explosion. That's what an Afghani coalition commander says. Either way, on Monday, four days later, Kevin made the long flight home with his brother's body.

Paul F. Gero/SABA/Corbis

The news whistled through America's soul and raised the hair on the back of its neck. It tapped into people's admiration, their awe, their guilt. In a country where no civilians have been asked to sacrifice anything and where even the cost of the war is being forwarded to their children and their children's children, a man had sacrificed the biggest dream of all. The NFL. During World War II, 638 NFL players served and 19 died in action, but no well-known U.S. professional athlete in a quarter century had volunteered for service, and none had perished since Buffalo Bills lineman Bob Kalsu in Vietnam in 1970.

Memorials sprang up overnight, balloons and flowers and teddy bears and notes left, and a man stood before a photo of Pat outside Sun Devil Stadium—home to ASU and the Cardinals—and blew Amazing Grace through his bagpipes. Scholarships were founded, and the Cardinals announced that a plaza outside their unfinished new stadium will carry his name. Before its story had even been written, SI had received 103 letters about Pat's sacrifice. Pat had no need for the fuss. But the people did. At last they had a face to grieve.

"There is in Pat Tillman's example," said Senator John McCain of Arizona, "in his unexpected choice of duty to his country over the riches and other comforts of celebrity, and in his humility, such an inspiration to all of us to reclaim the essential public-spiritedness of Americans that many of us, in low moments, had worried was no longer our common distinguishing trait."

"To me," said Kevin White, now the athletic director at Notre Dame, "Pat Tillman is without question the biggest hero of my lifetime."

The mist of human motive is as dense as the fog of war. Pat Tillman may have died in the Middle East last week because it was the only place on earth where he could get a good night's sleep. But anytime a man listens to his inner voice, refuses to wall it off with all the mortar and bricks that his culture can possibly offer, it's a moment to stand in wonder as well as to weep.

Elizabeth McKenrick, the wife of 4th Ranger Training Battalion Commander Terry McKenrick, couldn't help herself last Friday. As a rule she shields her three children from newscasts about the war because otherwise she knows that the next time their dad is shipped from Fort Benning, Ga., to the Middle East, she won't stand a chance of convincing them he'll return home. But when she saw the TV report about Pat Tillman, she called her nine-year-old to her side. "Listen," she said. "Listen to the story of what this man did."

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Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
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