From a Second-Chance Kid to a Hero

Pat Tillman epitomized values that Americans hold dear, including sacrifice, selflessness, modesty, courage, loyalty and determination. Although he lacked size and speed, he became a star on the football field, first at Arizona State University and then with the Arizona Cardinals. After 9/11, he left the National Football League, forgoing fame and fortune to serve his country in the war on terror. On April 22, he died in Afghanistan, and last week he was posthumously awarded the Silver Star for bravery on the battlefield.

Tillman made the most of his opportunities to become an American hero, but he needed a second chance to do so.

In 1993, as a high school senior in San Jose, he was involved in a brutal fight outside a pizza parlor. He severely beat his opponent and was charged with felony assault, but his case was handled by a juvenile court. He pleaded guilty and spent a month at a juvenile detention facility; later, his conviction was reduced to a misdemeanor. As a result, he was able to keep his college football scholarship. He went on to graduate in four years from Arizona State with a 3.84 grade-point average in marketing before being drafted by the NFL.


Although Tillman had committed a violent offense, the decision to treat him as an adolescent instead of an adult made all the difference. “I’ve learned more from that one bad decision than all the good decisions I’ve ever made,” Tillman told a reporter from Sports Illustrated. “It made me realize that stuff you do has repercussions. You can lose everything.”

Tillman was right. Starting in the 1990s, almost every state passed laws making it easier to prosecute juveniles as adults. According to Amnesty International, about 200,000 minors (age 18 or younger) were tried annually in the U.S. adult criminal justice system from the mid-to-late 1990s (the most recent available data).

Those who were found guilty didn’t get the kind of second chance Tillman got. They were earmarked primarily for punishment, not rehabilitation. Instead of landing in a detention facility, they were sent to prison with adult inmates, where they were more likely to be sexually abused, less likely to have adequate educational opportunities and, once released, more likely to commit crimes again. It makes one wonder how many Pat Tillmans may have been lost.

Juvenile court, the first of which was established in Chicago in 1899, is arguably the most-copied American legal innovation. Almost every industrialized democracy in the world has one. Its founders believed that the cases of young people, even those like Tillman who commit serious offenses, should be handled in a separate justice system that could take their developmental needs into account and apply an individualized rehabilitation plan.

Historically, this system has been much more successful at returning kids to society than the adult criminal justice system.

When we remember Tillman, we should remember that the juvenile court also embodies American values of hope and faith. It was built on the firm conviction that young people, if given second chances, can mature into productive citizens and perhaps even into American heroes.


David S. Tanenhaus is a professor of history and law at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and the author of “Juvenile Justice in the Making” (Oxford University Press, 2004).