Devil to Pay : Ohio State Will Find Arizona State's Once-Ignored Pat Tillman an Angry--and Talented--Opponent

TIMES STAFF WRITER

He plays angry, and with good reason.

He is angry.

Still. Even after three years.

Pat Tillman, Arizona State's mercurial, irreverent, volatile, long-haired outside linebacker, had a phenomenal prep football career at San Jose's Leland High.

On defense, he had 110 tackles his senior season. On offense, he accounted for 31 touchdowns, 14 rushing and 12 passing, two on kickoff returns, two on punt returns and one on an interception return.

One coach, after watching Tillman score all four touchdowns to beat his team, 28-27, called him the best high school athlete he'd ever seen and compared him to Ronnie Lott.

Tillman played six positions in high school.

If the NFL played one-platoon football, Sun Devil Coach Bruce Snyder said Tillman would be a first-round draft pick next year.

Except for his size.

He is 5 feet 11, 202 pounds.

After three seasons at Arizona State, he has gained only seven pounds.

"It's just how my body is," said Tillman, a junior.

"No matter how much I eat or lift, I can't gain weight. But I think I've shown I can play this game."

So, why is he angry?

Because college coaches, with the exception of Snyder, failed to offer him a scholarship.

"I couldn't believe it," Tillman said. "I thought I had a great senior season in high school. And all I got was a few of those routine form letters. No one wanted me. Stanford gave me a visit, but when I got there, they checked me out and basically told me to beat it.

"BYU and San Jose State offered me scholarships, but I wasn't sure how badly they really wanted me. Cal told me they wanted me to walk on and play fullback for their scout team.

"So about the time Arizona State contacted me, I was really angry. I'd decided if I couldn't play in the Pac-10 I was going to quit football. But Coach Snyder, I think, liked my attitude, the confidence I showed him that I would be a good player for him."

Even so, Tillman added, Arizona State didn't exactly seem overwhelmed to have signed him.

"Basically, they offered me a scholarship because someone changed his mind, or quit the team . . . something like that," he said.

Tillman was one of this year's most recognizable Pacific 10 players. With his hair flowing from beneath his helmet, Tillman played with a reckless style that put him on the All-Pac-10 second team.

Against Oregon, he had a key interception, recovered a fourth-down fumble, had a sack and five unassisted tackles, two of them for losses.

He played 104 snaps against Oregon, 82 on defense and 22 on special teams.

Against UCLA, he broke up three passes and had nine tackles, three for losses.

And with every helmet-rattling tackle, it seemed he was trying to make a point: He should not have been overlooked.

"He's very bright, and he's opinionated," Snyder said. "He doesn't take anything at face-value. When I tell him something, I see the light go on in his eyes, like he's evaluating it."

When Tillman showed up in 1994, Snyder asked him to redshirt his first year.

Tillman's response: "No."

"I just told him I was going to graduate in four years, that I had other plans for my life," Tillman said.

Tillman has an intense manner, and a cold glare when he talks about being challenged by Ohio State. He was asked how he expects Ohio State to attack his defense.

"They're going to try to show us that they're tougher than we are," he said. "They're going to try to run the damn ball right down our throats. It'll be blast, blast, blast. Nebraska tried that too, but it was out of an option."

Tillman is said to have been a major factor in a stormy players-only meeting the night before the Sun Devils' 19-0 upset of Nebraska on Sept. 21.

"Basically, we were all pretty keyed up and it started out with everyone screaming and yelling at each other, and then it kind of got out of control," he said.

"Tables and chairs were flying through the air, like that, and it got pretty intense. We kind of fed off each other. When we came out, the coaches were all outside and I remember the expressions on their faces. It was like: 'What the hell's going on in there? Was there a fight?' "

Against Nebraska, Tillman's assignment was to take away the pitch play to the Huskers' Ahman Green. Green wound up with 20 carries and 87 yards.

After graduating, Tillman, a business administration major with a 3.86 grade-point average, plans to tackle the business world.

"I've got a couple of schemes in mind," he said. "There's a lot of opportunity out there in this country and I'm going to reach for the sky."

But Tillman is making no brash prediction for Jan. 1.

"All I'm saying is a loss on our [11-0] record this season would really be annoying," he said. "We don't want that."

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