The story of Pat Tillman haunts me and will so for years. It is the story of a young man who followed his instincts, his ideals and his heart without regard for society's expectations. He was a successful professional football player, but he turned down a lucrative contract to stay loyal to the team that drafted him. Then, after the horror of Sept. 11, 2001, he showed his loyalty to his country. He risked it all-fame, riches, family-for the selfless pursuit of service to what he thought was right.
Tillman isn't the only soldier to die in this war, but his story is one of the most notable. His story isn't artificial. It wasn't made for TV, but it seems like it could have been.
In the 1998 NFL draft, the Arizona Cardinals took a chance on Tillman, an undersized defensive player with a big heart. He started off in the NFL as a role player and soon became a starting safety for the Cardinals. In 2001, after an outstanding year in which he had recorded a team record of 224 tackles, he turned down a $9 million contract offer from the St. Louis Rams, the then-defending Super Bowl champions, to stay with the Cardinals.
Arizona had been a perennial loser, but Tillman didn't want to desert his teammates. He was prepared to take a three-year $3.6 million offer from the Cardinals, but then came Sept. 11.
Tillman was so moved by the terrorist attacks that it completely changed his life. He said goodbye to most of his family-including his new bride-his team, pro football and the large contract. Tillman and his brother Kevin joined the U.S. Army Rangers and were scheduled to receive $18,000 in annual pay.
It's difficult to understand precisely why Tillman did what he did. Some cynics initially thought he joined the Rangers, one of the military's special operations forces, to drum up publicity. However, he refused interviews and numerous book and movie offers. He and his brother simply enlisted and tried to avoid the spotlight.
An article in Time describes how Tillman spoke about family members who had been involved in war. His great-grandfather had been at Pearl Harbor. The article quoted Tillman as saying: "I haven't done a damn thing as far as laying myself on the line like that. So I have a great deal of respect for those that have."
He and his brother went to training at Fort Benning, Ga. Only about one-third of those who start the course to become a Ranger actually complete it. Both brothers took great pride in the task and became Rangers.
Pat and Kevin were sent to Iraq and fought there for months. They returned to the U.S., but after a six-month leave, were shipped out again. This time their mission was to hunt for Taliban and al-Qaida forces near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Last month the Tillmans' unit was attacked, and Pat was killed. At age 27, he had paid the ultimate price.
Pat Tillman personifies something that is so pure and simple that it almost defies rational explanation. He is one of many who have chosen to serve their nation even though they have had to make dramatic financial and emotional sacrifices.
The stories of the young men and women in uniform remind me of the book Tuesdays with Morrie by sportswriter Mitch Albom. It's about his reunion with a beloved college professor and mentor named Morrie Schwartz, who was nearing the end of his life. It is a chronicle filled with wisdom, love and caring. One chapter is entitled, "The Eighth Tuesday We Talk About Money" and quotes Morrie as saying: "Wherever I went in my life, I met people wanting to gobble up something new. Gobble up a new car. Gobble up a new piece of property. Gobble up the latest toy. And then they wanted to tell you about it. `Guess what I got? Guess what I got?'
"You know how I always interpreted that? These were people so hungry for love that they were accepting substitutes. They were embracing material things and expecting a sort of hug back. But it never works. You can't substitute material things for love or for gentleness or for tenderness or for a sense of comradeship. Money is not a substitute for tenderness, and power is not a substitute for tenderness. ... I can tell you, as I'm sitting here dying, when you most need it, neither money nor power will give you the feeling you're looking for, no matter how much of them you have."
Later Morrie says: "Do the kinds of things that come from the heart. When you do, you won't be dissatisfied, you won't be envious, you won't be longing for somebody else's things. On the contrary, you'll be overwhelmed with what comes back."
We are lucky that so many young men and women are willing to give so much not because of money but because of their love of our country and freedom.