Dogged pursuit

Lost: Dog tags.

Name: Pat Tillman.

If anyone knows of the whereabouts of two dog tags that once adorned the neck of a former NFL star who was killed while fighting for his country in Afghanistan, please come forward.

His former team, the Arizona Cardinals, play Sunday in the Super Bowl

His former Cardinals roommate, Zack Walz, is desperate to wear them again.

Walz was given the tags by Tillman as a gift shortly before his death. With trembling hands, he held them aloft during his eulogy at Tillman's nationally televised memorial service.

Several months later, he says, they were ripped from his neck.

"The tags were yanked off in a crowded bar, I don't know how it happened, I was devastated for a long, long time," Walz said. "I blame myself, and I would do anything to get them back."

He has advertised on Craigslist, he has offered money on EBay, yet nobody has responded, and a nagging fear is becoming real.

If somebody doesn't return them this week, with Tillman's team on a national stage for the first time in history, will they ever?

"If anybody out there has them, no questions asked, please, I want them back," Walz said. "We're not talking about some football player here. We're talking about something much, much bigger."

Lost: Memories

Name: Pat Tillman

This is a story not only about a missing tag, but a missing legacy.

The Super Bowl is here, but any mention of the most nationally beloved alumnus of either team is not.

Pat Tillman played for the Arizona Cardinals from 1998 through 2001, yet, as you watch the Cardinals play the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday, you might never know it.

The NFL loves to wrap itself in the flag, yet the league has no plans to remember him.

The Cardinals have a statue and reflecting pool dedicated to Tillman outside their stadium, but nothing on their jerseys.

Tillman's foundation has no knowledge of any involvement. A Tillman family member said he was unsure of any family plans to attend.

An NFL spokesman said there may be something about Tillman on the NBC television broadcast, but there were no guarantees.

"I just think there's some missed opportunities there," said Walz, a linebacker who was Tillman's training camp and road roommate during their four-year Cardinals career. "Given what Pat represented, you would think they would do something."

In walking away from football and a multimillion-dollar contract at the height of his career to join the Army, he represented the ultimate patriot.

In agreeing to two tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, he represented the ultimate veteran of all wars.

In dying in Afghanistan in April 2004 by "friendly fire," he represented the horrors of those wars.

Because Tillman embodied the best of the human spirit, many forget that he also once represented the worst of pro football franchises.

The Cardinals were 25-39 during his four years there, even with one trip to the playoffs. One season they won three games. Another season, their defense was ranked 30th out of 31 teams.

The Cardinals were considered so awful, when Tillman stunned the nation by walking away from the game to join the Army, one notable player said he couldn't have been that good anyway.

"He was good enough to play in Arizona, but that's just like the XFL," linebacker Simeon Rice said.

The Cardinals weren't great, certainly, but Tillman was the model for what made them great today.

In turning down a $9-million offer from the St. Louis Rams to stay in Arizona, he was the first Cardinal in recorded history to show loyalty to a franchise that wouldn't pay him half as much.

With his flowing blonde hair and a nonstop motor that led him to become an All-Pro safety, he was one of the first Cardinals to show the fire that all of them show today.

"There might be only 16,000 fans there, but, man, they all loved him, and he loved them," said Walz, who still lives in the Phoenix area. "There weren't many fans, but he could get them standing faster than anyone I've seen."

Yet, typically, it was in the shadows that Tillman made his biggest mark.

Once, when they were both Cardinals rookies, Walz was taped to the goal post by the hazing veterans. After Walz stood there in 100-degree heat for 10 long minutes, Tillman walked out to rescue him.

"He walked past all the veterans who warned him not to touch me," Walz said. "But he just kept walking."

Tillman cut the tape and freed his friend and the veterans never did anything about it.

His toughness became further evident during the afternoon of one of his first training camps in Flagstaff, Ariz. While most of the players were resting before the evening workouts, he was outside running through an ROTC obstacle course.

Then there was the time he was helped from the field because of an ankle injury that would require him to sit out as much as a month.

"Later that week, we saw him alone on one of the practice fields trying to sprint and cut," said Walz, pausing. "While wearing an ankle boot."

Tillman thought as eccentrically as he played. During training camp he could be found reading a book while sitting in a tree. During the season, he studied his playbook at an Irish pub.

"We all knew he was just a different kind of person," Walz said. "We all knew he was special."

Walz was driving through Phoenix in the spring of 2002 when he realized just how special. It was 8 a.m., and Tillman was on the phone with some news.

"He told me he was going to leave football and join the Army," Walz said. "I cannot put into words how I felt when I heard that. But I know I felt small."

Tillman, who once said he had been angered and inspired by 9/11, shunned publicity and virtually disappeared into the U.S. Army Rangers.

It wasn't until about a year and a half later that Walz, who has since retired, saw him again. He was in San Jose visiting family when he was literally tackled in the bar by another local kid.

"I got up ready to fight, and then I realized it was Pat," Walz said.

Tillman was home from a first tour in Iraq, he was still only 27, and he had been offered millions of dollars from NFL teams confident he could be discharged early. But he refused to leave the Army before the end of his three-year commitment.

"He said he had to stay," Walz said. "That's when I asked for his dog tags."

Tillman mailed Walz an extra set of the tags, then was deployed to Afghanistan, where, on April 22, 2004, while on patrol, he was killed by gunfire from a U.S. weapon.

The government didn't admit this at first, engaging in a lengthy cover-up, telling the press that Tillman was killed fighting the enemy, engaging in lies that became a centerpiece of the war resistance movement.

But none of this touched the memory of Tillman's sacrifice, the results of which will be evident again Sunday when his former team and its opponent will feel safe enough to run onto an outdoor field and compete in this country's biggest sporting event.

There is a chance if Tillman were still alive, he could be playing in this Super Bowl, a 32-year-old raging special teams star finally being rewarded for his Cardinals devotion.

"He'd be everywhere, he'd make a big play in that game, you know that," Walz said.

In his absence during Super Bowl week, it would be fitting if the football writers would elect Tillman into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. After all, a group including everything that is wrong about sports -- O.J. Simpson -- should also be big enough for everything that is right.

Barring that, it would be great if Zack Walz would just get his dog tags back.

"Nothing for Pat was ever out of the question, nothing was ever out of reach," Walz said. "He would have been so proud of his Cardinals."


Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World