A man who honed his gridiron skills at Camp Tontozona east of Payson was honored Saturday in Sun Devil Stadium as a scholar, All-American football player and a patriot who gave his life for his country.
A fly-over of Apache helicopters just before the 5:15 p.m. kickoff of the ASU vs. Washington State football game signaled the start of the highly emotional tribute to Pat Tillman.
As more than 60,000 fans stood in awe of the four whirling helicopters, one rose from the pack and veered east into the desert sunset. The departure left the other gunships aligned in the traditional "missing man" formation. The spine-tingling military tribute honored Tillman, an Army Ranger who was killed while fighting in Afghanistan.
Many of those in attendance donned No. 42 football jerseys out of respect to Tillman who wore the number while playing for the Sun Devils.
Other shirts said "Hero 42" and some had pictures of Tillman, with the inscription "To remind us what a hero looks like."
At halftime, young and old sobbed as they watched Tillman's No. 42 be retired at a midfield ceremony attended by his widow, Marie, father, Pat, ASU Athletic Director Gene Smith and about 50 of Tillman's former teammates.
The National Commander of the Purple Heart called the former Sun Devil a true patriot as he presented the Patriot Award plaque to Tillman's widow.
The announcer reminded spectators that Tillman was a scholar who managed to earn a bachelor of science degree from ASU's School of Business in three-and-a-half years with a 3.84 grade point average.
That announcement stunned 21-year-old student Rick Fish.
"Graduating in three years with an ‘A' average while playing football is unbelievable ... it's almost unheard of," he said.
As the Sun Devil band formed the letters U-S-A at midfield and played a John Philip Sousa medley, a drape was pulled from the ASU ring of honor just below the press box revealing the No. 42.
While a student at ASU, from 1994 to 1998, Tillman was one of the Sun Devil's fan favorites during the team's annual August training camp sessions at Camp Tontozona.
After being drafted by the Arizona Cardinals, some local football fans continued to follow Tillman during preseason training in Flagstaff.
Following the events of Sept. 11, Tillman turned down a $3.6 million contract from the Cardinals to enlist in the U.S. Army. He served a tour of duty in the Middle East during Operation Iraqi Freedom and was later re-deployed to Afghanistan. He was killed in action April 22, 2004.