SAN JOSE, Calif. — Late on that terrible April day in 2004, hours after she learned that her husband had died in the mountains of Afghanistan, Marie Tillman finally reached for the sealed envelope hidden beneath the clutter on their bedroom dresser.
Tears welled up as she read the handwritten words from Pat Tillman that begged her to do something seemingly beyond her strength.
Through the years I've asked a great deal of you, therefore it should surprise you little that I have another favor to ask. I ask that you live.
Marie would come to see Pat's "just in case" request as his final gift. It helped her navigate the stages of grief and come to terms with being the country's most talked about war widow.
Friday, Pat will be honored at San Jose's Leland High School — where he and Marie began dating as seniors — with the first Pat Tillman Legacy Classic.
And Marie, now the driving force in the Pat Tillman Foundation, has found personal happiness. Remarried and living in Chicago, she has a seven-month-old son, Mac, and three stepsons.
She also has penned a deeply personal book entitled "The Letter: My Journey Through Love, Loss & Life" in hopes that others dealing with tragedy can find something useful in her story.
"I'm in a really good place," said Marie, 35. "I didn't think this was something that was ever going to happen because I had no intention of ever getting remarried. It's been a real difficult journey getting to
this point, but I feel really good about where I am."
Shortly after their wedding in 2002, Pat famously traded an NFL uniform for one of a U.S. Army Ranger in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Following his death, from what investigations would determine was a tragic incident of friendly fire, he was elevated to icon status. There is a statue of Pat Tillman outside the Arizona Cardinals stadium, and players at his college alma mater Arizona State wear "PT 42" patches on their uniforms.
For years, though, Marie kept her pain private. In rare interviews she was guarded and revealed little about herself.
But last week she was open and vibrant as she talked about the foundation, being a new mom and Pat's enduring memory.
"Obviously he was a huge part of my life, but to see the impact he had on other people is amazing," she said by phone. "It still surprises me that when I go to a Cardinals game, his jersey is still the most common one that you see. It speaks to who he was, the way he lived his life and how people remain inspired by the decisions that he made."
He also inspired her to make the toughest decision of all: finding a new life without him.
She begins the recently published book
by saying that the 27-year-old Marie who read the letter that day would be stunned to know that she later would want to chronicle the experience. But she did it for people like that devastated young woman whose life was forever changed when a chaplain and three soldiers in full Army dress appeared at her workplace.
She describes the feelings of loss and depression as well as the kindness of friends and complete strangers. It was a long, uneven process of emotional recovery.
"I started writing very shortly after Pat was killed, but I never had the intention of publishing it," Marie said. "But when I started the book, I went back through all these old journals, and it was interesting to see how much work I had put into getting where I am today."
Friends and family created the foundation as a way to do something good in his name. In 2008, Marie felt she was ready to become more hands-on and focus their efforts on the Tillman Military Scholars program.
So far, $3.2 million has been awarded to 230 students — veterans, active-duty military or spouses of services members — studying at colleges around the country.
"The foundation wouldn't have worked as well as it has without her, and I truly believe it also has helped her move on," said Doug Tammaro, the Arizona State media relations director who was part of launching the annual Pat's Run fundraiser in Tempe, which drew 28,000 participants in April. "People see her at the race and it means so much, especially with the way she has kept the Tillman name. She has really embraced this."
Marie also came to realize that she shared a bond with others who had endured tragedy.
"People always told me that my experience was something that they related to," she said. "I got to a point where I thought that telling my story might be helpful to someone else. I also thought I could be honest about what it's like when your life falls apart and you're trying to put it all back together."
That rebuilding included marrying investment banker Joe Shenton, a divorced father of three.
"Now I have this house full of four kids and it's crazy, but I love it," she said. "The older boys are awesome and have been so accepting of me in their lives. And my husband is so supportive of the foundation and the book. He accepts all of it as part of who I am."
Alex Garwood, Marie's brother-in-law, said the change in her is hard to describe in words. But you can see it on her face and hear it in her voice.
"She is an incredibly strong person, and I know that's something that Pat always saw in her," Garwood said. "Those of us who have been around her know how this hasn't been an easy journey. But it's incredible to see her now."
Marie can't be at the game Friday, but she is pleased that Leland continues to honor Pat. Her parents, she added, live just down the street and you can see the football stadium from their house.
The one named after Pat Tillman.