Remembering Pat Tillman

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One of the most moving stories in American history is unfolding in our country.

Former Arizona State University and Arizona Cardinal Football player Patrick Tillman, a Specialist in the elite U.S. Army Rangers, was killed Friday in a firefight in Southeast Afghanistan.

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Pat Tillman

The news that the 27-year-old Tillman had been killed in a mountain ambush saddened and deeply touched almost every American. He is being remembered as one of our country's greatest heroes.

For those of us who live in the Rim country, our close-up connection to Pat Tillman might be Camp Tontozona.

Each August from 1994-1998, Tillman was an obvious fan favorite among those who visited the scenic mountain retreat east of Payson to watch the Arizona State University Sun Devils train.

At Tontozona, I usually tried to negotiate positions on the sidelines near one of the water coolers where I could chat with Tillman during breaks.

I'd introduce myself as an ASU alum and then probe his feelings about the next showdown against those dreaded Arizona Wildcats.

It was obvious at Tontozona, Tillman had a charisma that made him unique among his Sun Devil teammates.

While attending ASU, Tillman's roommate was former Snowflake football star Paul Reynolds.

The ex-Lobo says he remembers Tillman saying there was more to life than football and he wanted to contribute to society and to help people.

That was a hint of things to come.

Friday, on the campus of Arizona State University a bit more than an hour-and-a-half's drive from Tontozona, flags were lowered to half staff and a memorial was set up outside Sun Devil stadium. It was in that stadium where Tillman built a reputation as one of the most heady and gutsy players to ever don an ASU uniform. School officials immediately ordered the No. 42 jersey he wore at ASU be retired.

A memorial at the Arizona Cardinals training facility in Tempe also drew hundreds of mourners who were there to pay tribute to Tillman for making the ultimate sacrifice for his country.

The Cardinals also plan to retire Tillman's No 40 jersey and are teaming up with ASU to form the Pat Tillman Memorial Scholarship award.

A plaza at the new Cardinals stadium in Glendale will be named the Pat Tillman Freedom Plaza.

According to Cardinal officials, it will be open year-round to celebrate freedom and Tillman's legacy.

At the Arizona Diamondbacks game Friday evening, a moment of silence before the national anthem was held as a tribute to Tillman.

Thousands of mourners also logged on several websites to post their memories of Tillman.

Arizona Congressman Jeff Flake, who represents the Sixth District, expressed his sadness upon learning the former ASU standout had been killed in action.

"Pat Tillman exemplified the sacrifice, selflessness and service of the U.S. military," he said. "Nowadays, genuine role models in professional sports are few and far between, but Tillman proved that there are still heroes in sports."

Flake plans to organize a series of speeches on the floor of the House of Representatives next week to honor Tillman.

The White House issued a statement that praised Tillman as "an inspiration both on and off the football field."

What made Tillman so special?

The outpouring of support shown Pat Tillman is unparalleled in state history partly because losing him was like losing a best friend.

To those who knew him, who watched him on TV or cheered him in action at ASU or as a Cardinal, he never seemed impervious and untouchable as many of today's pampered athletes do.

Those of us who visited the Cardinals pre-season training camp at Flagstaff, probably remember him riding around campus on a bicycle so beat up it probably should have been junk-yarded long ago.

Between Cards practices, Tillman was most always the fans' favorite, especially among the children.

Although his aura was of a quiet, introspective man, he came across as being accessible and friendly.

If was football, however, that appeared to be Tillman's passion. For us old football coaches, he played the game the way it was meant to be played -- with zeal, fervor and a crazed delight.

On defense, he resembled a heat-seeking missile tracking down an elusive target.

After his ASU career, almost everyone predicted he was too small, too slow and too white to play a strong safety position in the professional ranks. His relentlessness, however, made him an attractive NFL option.

Although he wasn't drafted until the seventh round of the 1998 NFL draft, he went on to set a Cardinals record with 224 tackles.

After making a name for himself on the Arizona team, he turned down a $9 million contract to jump to the St. Louis Rams.

At the time, he said he wanted to remain with his hometown Cardinals to help turn the team into a winner.

What made Tillman truly unique in today's society was his willingness to give up a lucrative $3.6 million three-year contract with the Cards to join the U.S. Army's elite Rangers.

In today's society, no pro athlete has ever walked away from millions of dollars and the glitz of sports to enlist in the military.

Some say the events of 9-11 deeply affected Tillman and stirred his patriotism to make a greater contribution to his fellow man than he could on the playing field.

As much as Tillman will be remembered as a football player, he will be recalled even more as an extraordinary human being.

From all accounts, he had a sensibility, politeness and respectfulness that is uncommon in today's professional athletes.

He also seemed unassuming and to never let his stardom go to his head.

Possibly, for those reasons he and his brother Kevin enlisted in the U.S. Army as mere privates rather than taking the higher road to officer's candidate school.

He had graduated from ASU summa cum laude with a 3.84 GPA and would have been an attractive officer candidate.

Once in the military, Tillman and his brother refused interviews and shied away from any publicity for their courageous decision.

Most every sports reporter in the country was anxious to interview him and learn why he turned away the wealth and fame of a professional athlete to become a grunt in the U.S. Army.

Tillman never did an interview and when he and his brother received the Arthur Ashe Courage award at the 11th annual ESPY, he sent family members to receive it.

His motives in darting from the Cardinals into the Army were clear -- he felt a sense of duty and responsibility to his country.

Tillman's death has devastated the state and nation. But in his death, his acts of great courage and bold heroism will inspire men for generations to come.

Someone once said a life lived without passion is a life wasted.

Pat Tillman didn't waste a moment -- his life was overflowing with passion.

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