Ten years after his death, Pat Tillman's spirit lives on in a military scholar program
By MARK EMMONS | San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News | Published: April 19, 2014
SAN JOSE, Calif. — Ten years after the death of Pat Tillman in a remote Afghanistan pass, monuments to his memory are everywhere.
A stone marker in San Jose's community of New Almaden. An 8-foot statue in Glendale, Ariz. The Pat Tillman Stadium at Leland High School and the Tillman Tunnel that Arizona State football players run through.
But the most fitting tributes to an admired man are not found in concrete and bronze. They are living legacies of flesh, blood and passion — the Tillman Military Scholars.
Nearly 300 active-duty service members, veterans and spouses inspired by Tillman's story have received college scholarships with the hope they will create a ripple effect that makes the world a bit better.
"We don't know what Pat would have done if he had lived, but I imagine he would have continued to serve for the rest of his life," said Adrian Kinsella, a Marine captain who attends the UC Berkeley School of Law. "That's what all of the Tillman scholars feel like we have to do. Every day I ask: 'Am I living up to Pat's ideal?' "
The San Jose native remains the best-known soldier of the post-9/11 era — an enduring symbol of selfless patriotism for putting an NFL career on hold to enlist in the U.S. Army, and then making the ultimate sacrifice for his country.
And the driving force of the scholars program is Marie Tillman, who found a way to ensure that something positive emerged from the devastating heartache of her husband's death on April 22, 2004.
"The 10-year anniversary really is shocking for me," said Marie Tillman, the president of the Pat Tillman Foundation. "In many ways it feels like it just happened yesterday, even if at the same time it seems like a lifetime ago. It took me a long time to realize that I not only had an opportunity to do something good in Pat's name, but that it also was a responsibility.
"It has become hugely fulfilling to invest in people who are so similar to the way Pat lived his life."
His spirit is represented in the Tillman scholars. Some are studying to become doctors, lawyers or social workers. Others work in high tech, public policy and education. Their common bond: A desire for service.
Kinsella, 28, who was deployed in Afghanistan and plans to become a prosecutor, made headlines earlier this year by cutting through red tape to obtain a U.S. visa for his interpreter, Mohammad, who now is his roommate.
Brian Loftus, a former San Jose cop who did tours in Iraq and Afghanistan as an Air Force security forces officer, intends to create a network of Bay Area bilingual attorneys who can ease the mistrust non-English-speaking immigrants may have about the legal system.
Tim Hsia, an Army Reserves captain who served twice in Iraq and will graduate in June from Stanford with law and MBA degrees, has helped launch a nonprofit called Service to School that aids veterans with the college admission process.
"What happened to Pat was super-tragic and super-sad," Hsia said. "Marie and the whole Tillman family had every right to be angry and resentful because of the way the military handled everything after his death. Instead, look what they've done. Something wonderful has been created."
About 2.6 million Americans have served in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars — less than 1 percent of the U.S. population. Perhaps that's why the conflicts could seem so removed from public consciousness. But while most didn't personally know someone in harm's way, it was nearly impossible not to know of Tillman.
He was a free-spirit who defied stereotypes. Tillman wore his hair long and played football with reckless abandon, but also was a deep thinker and academic All-American at ASU.
Tillman was an overachieving safety with the Arizona Cardinals when he made the jaw-dropping decision to trade uniforms — rejecting a $3.6 million contract offer and the fame that comes with being a professional athlete — to be just another soldier with his younger brother, Kevin. He never talked publicly about his motivations and rebuffed all attempts by the military to showcase him.
Erik Wittreich, who spent 36 months in Iraq and Afghanistan with the Army Green Berets, just happened to try on boots next to Tillman during their basic training.
"I remember how everyone was whispering as he was walking down a hallway, saying, 'There he is,' " said Wittreich, 34, a Tillman Scholar at Stanford's Graduate School of Business.
For the country, Tillman's shocking loss, at age 27, brought the wars home.
The circumstances of his death would only make the anguish more pronounced. Tillman initially was portrayed as a casualty in a mountain ambush. It was only weeks later — long after a nationally televised memorial service — that the military admitted the Army Ranger actually had been killed as a result of friendly fire.
As the years passed, Marie Tillman, who had attended Leland with Pat, was struck by news reports about the difficulty returning veterans sometimes had transitioning back into civilian life. She decided to refocus the fledgling Pat Tillman Foundation to help address that.
"My experience was that military people have a strong sense of service, in and out of uniform," said Marie Tillman, who lives in Chicago and is remarried with two children of her own and three stepsons. "These people have the values of wanting to contribute."
The scholars, in turn, are in awe of Tillman.
Neal Rickner, who served three tours in Iraq as a Marine fighter pilot, said he long has been skeptical of the celebrity culture and always wondered if Tillman's Army enlistment had started as some kind of publicity stunt.
"But as I came to learn more about Pat, I realized just how wrong I was and that he was polar opposite of that life," said Rickner, 40, who works at Google and is the producer of a new documentary about the military-civilian divide in America. "On a pretty regular basis, I'll be facing some challenge and think about what Pat would do. And I just know he would stand by his convictions, and not conform to other people's expectations."
So far, the foundation has helped 290 men and women attend 85 universities, giving $4.6 million in support — largely from the annual Pat's Run fundraiser race, which will be held in Tempe, Ariz., on April 26. Another class of as many as 60 scholars will be named next month from a pool of more than 2,600 applicants nationwide. The process has become selective to the point of agonizing, said Alex Garwood, Tillman's brother-in-law and foundation co-founder.
"Last year we had a Navy SEAL corpsman who had done countless tours," said Garwood, who works at a Silicon Valley data storage firm. "He hadn't been able to save everyone, and now he wanted to become a doctor so he could save more lives. Well, he was the last to be cut. Think about that, and how good the people must be who were named scholars."
The program alleviates some of the crushing debt of college and better allows the scholars to pursue their dreams after school. But, they say, something deeper is at work.
"He already is a legend," Hsia said. "But his lasting impact might not be felt for 20 or 30 years. That's when we can take measure of all the amazing things done by this group who all are linked to one person."
Pat Tillman timeline
Nov. 6, 1976: Born in Fremont
Fall 1993: Starred on Leland High School football team that won Central Coast Section title.
1994: Graduated from Leland and enrolled at Arizona State, one of just three major colleges to recruit him. Tillman famously told then-Coach Bruce Snyder that the Sun Devils could redshirt him as a freshman if they wanted, but he still was only spending four years at the school "and then I've got things to do with my life." They didn't, and he would earn a marketing degree in 3½ years with a 3.84 grade-point average, becoming an academic All-American.
Fall 1997: Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year.
1998: Seventh-round NFL draft pick (226th pick overall) of Arizona Cardinals and quickly established himself as a standout safety despite his modest 5-foot-11, 200-pound stature.
2000: Sports Illustrated writer Paul Zimmerman named Tillman to his NFL All-Pro team after a 155-tackle season.
September 2001: Shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Tillman gave an interview with NFL Films, describing how unimportant playing football suddenly seemed to him. "My great-grandfather was at Pearl Harbor and a lot of my family has gone and fought in wars," he said. "And I really haven't done a damn thing as far as laying myself on the line like that."
May 2002: Turned down a three-year, $3.6-million contract offer from the Cardinals in order to enlist in the U.S. Army for three years with his younger brother, Kevin. Their starting base pay was $1,290 a month. Tillman had just returned from his honeymoon with wife, Marie.
2003: The brothers were part of the initial invasion of Iraq and then attended Ranger School. Tillman turned down the chance to leave the Army early and return to the NFL.
April 22, 2004: Died in Afghanistan during a firefight that initially was portrayed as a mountain ambush by Taliban insurgents. But investigations later determined the military hierarchy had known immediately that it actually was a tragic case of friendly fire and he was accidentally killed by fellow Rangers. That fact was not released until weeks after his death, resulting in accusations by family members that there had been an attempt to conceal the truth. Tillman posthumously was promoted from specialist to corporal, and received Silver Star and Purple Heart medals. He was the first recently active professional football player killed in combat since Buffalo Bills lineman Bob Kalsu died in Vietnam in 1970.
May 3, 2004: About 3,000 mourners gathered at the San Jose Municipal Rose Garden for a memorial service that was televised live on ESPN. "While many of us will be blessed to live a longer life, few of us will ever live a better one," said Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona. "He was a most honorable man."
2004: The Pat Tillman Foundation was created.
2008: The foundation was refocused to provide scholarships for active-duty service members, veterans and military spouses. The program now is affiliated with 85 universities and has produced 290 Tillman Military Scholars. As many as 60 more will be named in May.
2010: Inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
April 26, 2014: Annual Pat's Run will be held in Tempe, Ariz., expecting to draw about 30,000 entrants, with 4.2 mile "shadow runs" occurring across the country, including in San Jose and San Francisco. The events benefit the scholarship program.