Tillman's Character Lives On


The highly emotional ceremony began Saturday morning in Sun Devil Stadium with a flyover of F-16 fighters. The tribute wrapped up an hour later with the singing of God Bless America and the releasing of 27 white doves, one for each year of Pat Tillman's life.

On this day, the stadium was an impressive site.

Frank Kush field was decorated with Tillman's name in massive red letters. His lifespan, "1976-2004," was in blue.

At the south end of the stadium, huge pictures stood of Tillman as a Sun Devil, Cardinal and U.S. Army Ranger.

Outside the stadium, a roof had been constructed to shield the makeshift memorial that had sprung up in the 17 days since Tillman died in a firefight in Afghanistan.

On A mountain, directly below the huge gold "A" that is a source of pride among ASU students and alumni, a maroon and gold 42 -- the number Tillman wore when he played for the Sun Devils from 1994 to 1998 -- was painted.

Inside the stadium, tributes to Tillman were delivered by Gov. Janet Napolitano, ASU President Michael Crow, former Arizona state coaches Bruce Snyder and Larry Marmie and ex-Cardinals coach Dave McGinnis.

The about 3,000 mourners were respectfully silent while a video tribute played on the jumbo-tron that showed Tillman at his passionate best - sacking a quarterback, doing back flips and wildly celebrating a victory. For a few precious seconds, we recalled Tillman leading the Devils to a 19-0 victory over Nebraska Sept. 21, 1996.

In all of the eulogies delivered, it was Tillman's character, zeal, passion and uniqueness that was most remembered.

Marmie, Tillman's defensive backfield coach with the Cardinals said, "he was always playing checkers and I was always playing chess.

"He wasn't about glamour and glitz -- he was all about the truth."

Napolitano characterized him as a hero and "complex, thoughtful and intense man."

McGinnis, the head coach when Tillman played for the Cardinals, delivered a power-packed eulogy in which he told the crowd that Pat Tillman's spirit was alive and well in the stadium.

That lump in your throat, the tear in your eye is Pat, he said.

I turned to look at my wife Kay and as McGinnis had said, there was a tear in her eye.

Marmie also insisted Tillman's spirit lives on in the stadium where he had some of his finest days as a football player.

He's on the sidelines, in the stands, on the field doing back flips and sitting on one of the light poles, Marmie said.

As a student at ASU, Tillman was known to climb the light poles above the stadium in search of a place where he could find solace.

Snyder, now the offensive coordinator at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, spoke of days at Camp Tontozona. He told the crowd that as ASU's coach he had sat down with Tillman in the camp cafeteria to offer him a red shirt year.

Tillman politely declined saying he was going to be out of college in four years.

The studious and intense Tillman told the coach he had things to do with his life and it didn't include a red shirt year.

Tillman graduated summa cum laude 3 1/2 years later with a 3.84 grade point average.

In Snyder's eulogy, he also told of the great respect Tillman has earned from the huge number of young people he's met on recruiting trips around the country.

There isn't a high school or junior college campus he visits where he's not asked about Tillman, Snyder said.

In my classroom at Rim Country Middle School, I took time out from math studies last week to talk with the teens about what Tillman stood for. We hear a lot about Character Counts in Payson schools, but seldom do we have a role model like Tillman to point to.

Surprisingly, some students had not heard of Tillman's bold deeds and heroic life.

As we talked and I told them what I knew of Tillman, the students listened and soon began to ask questions.

The query most often uttered was one the most often asked among adults.

"Why would someone give up a $3.6 million contract and the fame and adulation of a professional football player to fight in Afghanistan?"

The answer is not a simple one, it can only be found in Pat Tillman's character.

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