In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the National Football League postponed a week of games and handed out a million American flags at the turnstiles when play resumed. Many of the league's players also did their part, contributing blood or making donations to victims' funds.
Two years after setting a team record with 224 tackles, the unconventional Tillman is believed to be the first NFL regular since World War II to voluntarily leave the game for military service. In doing so, Tillman, 25, is walking away from a multiyear contract that would pay him an average of more than $1 million a season, to earn between $1,022 and $1,443 a month as a soldier. It's a sacrifice that has not gone unnoticed.
"I was surprised and yet really very impressed by this kind of dedication to serve the country at great personal expense," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a Vietnam War veteran who serves on the Armed Services Committee.
Tillman and his younger brother, Kevin, a minor league baseball player last season in the Cleveland Indian organization, aim to become members of the highly trained Rangers, an elite force that has played a prominent role in the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan, training, advising and fighting alongside Afghan soldiers in the battle against the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
The brothers have so far declined to be interviewed about their decision, telling those around them that they do not deserve special attention for doing what thousands of other men and women do without fanfare. Also fearful their decision will be viewed as a publicity stunt, the brothers have informed only family and close friends of where they are headed for basic training. Most likely, they are bound for Ft. Benning, Ga.
Although the decision caught many by surprise, few who know the nonconforming, high-achieving Pat Tillman were shocked. And no one doubts his determination to resume a pro career after fulfilling his military commitment.
"Pat is a very passionate person," said Jeff Hechtle, a longtime friend who attended Leland High in San Jose with Tillman. "He's always excelled in whatever he does. This is something he feels he needs to do."
While at Arizona State, Tillman talked like a surfer, dressed like a slacker and graduated summa cum laude in 31/2 years with a 3.84 grade-point average in marketing.
"I'm definitely proud of that," he said in a 1998 interview. "But I don't think it's something that needs to be shouted from the rooftops."
Noted for his toughness, the 5-foot-11, 200-pound Tillman not only survived as an undersized linebacker in the Pacific 10 Conference but was named the conference's defensive player of the year in 1997.
He switched to safety in the pros and beat long odds by making the Cardinals as a seventh-round draft pick. As a rookie on the second day of the Cardinals' training camp, Tillman flattened a starting fullback who outweighed him by 50 pounds, injuring him during what was supposed to be a routine drill. The coach fumed. Teammates marveled at Tillman's ferocity.
He also warmed up for training camp last June by competing in a 70.2-mile triathlon.
Despite the wealth his pro career brought him, Tillman maintained the lifestyle of a college kid just scraping by. While other rookies rolled around in BMWs and Land Rovers, Tillman pedaled to practice every day on his trusty Schwinn beach cruiser.
He has never bought a new car and only recently splurged for a used Volvo station wagon.
"If somebody says, 'Those are the neatest shoes I've ever seen,' he'll buy the exact opposite ones. In purple. Just to prove he wouldn't cave in to fashion trends. He's an original," Hechtle said.
He added: "He values his relationships more than anything in his life. Relationships to Pat mean the world." That loyalty was evident last year when Tillman turned down a five-year, $9-million offer from St. Louis to stay with Arizona. He became a free agent this spring and was expected to re-sign with Arizona.
But Tillman informed the Cardinals of his decision last week after returning home from Bora Bora, where the newlywed honeymooned with his high school sweetheart, Marie.
"I'm very proud of him," Cardinal General Manager Bob Ferguson said. "His commitments and life go beyond the selfishness and greed you see in pro sports these days."
Ferguson also said Tillman is deadly serious about this commitment: "Pat wants those tunnels in Afghanistan."
Arizona linebacker Zack Walz, Tillman's roommate on road trips, said Tillman told him the decision had been long in the making, and solidified by Sept. 11.
Time--and age--also played a role: The Rangers will not accept a recruit over age 28. Tillman has enlisted for three years.
"I just called to see how his honeymoon went.... When he told me about the Army. I was like, 'Are you crazy?' He just chuckled. This is something I think he's been thinking about for a long time," Walz said. "That's just Pat. He lives life by a whole different set of guidelines."
Tillman adds to NFL pride over its ties to the military. More than 600 NFL players served during World War II; 19 were killed.
"Not only is there a strong tradition, but a strong kinship between the NFL and the military," said Joe Browne, an NFL vice president. "The military represents some of our biggest fans."
Tillman and his wife spent Memorial Day weekend with relatives and friends in the Bay Area. They attended a graduation ceremony at UC Berkeley, talked until the wee hours with friends in San Jose and kept clear of reporters.
McCain, who has not met Tillman but has long admired him as a football player, recalled days not long ago when it was "uncool" to join or support the military.
"Perhaps [those] last vestiges of the Vietnam War have disappeared in the rubble of the World Trade Center," McCain said, adding: "I don't think there will be any doubts about his capabilities as a soldier but also as a recruiting tool. He'll motivate other young Americans to serve as well."