The Cardinals shared a stadium with Arizona State in the mid-1990s, which allowed Michael Bidwill a closer-than-most view of a certain fiery, long-haired linebacker.
But it took until the Cardinals selected Pat Tillman in the seventh round of the 1998 draft for Bidwill to grasp the full scope of his individuality.
When the rookies reported that offseason, the parking lot filled up with cars – and one bicycle. From the minute Tillman arrived, he didn’t conform, from his choice of transportation to his dismissal of the team hierarchy.
“You could see that he didn’t care about the protocol of being a rookie,” said Bidwill, the Cardinals’ team president. “He didn’t care about working himself into the system. He sort of had his mind made up the way he was going to do this job. He came in and he laid a few people out his first few practices. Word was getting around that he was a tough guy. The question was, were any of the veterans going to take him on? They didn’t.”
Tillman’s zeal extended beyond the football field, as four years later he turned down millions of dollars to join the Army Rangers with his brother, Kevin, following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Tillman fought in Afghanistan and was killed in action there in 2004.
A dozen years later, an extraordinary tale well-known to the American public will be back to the forefront this week as NFL Films unveils “Pat Tillman: A Football Life.” The one-hour documentary can be seen following “Thursday Night Football” or on NFL Network Friday at 6 p.m.
For Steve Menzel, who co-produced the film with Paul Monusky, the challenge was streamlining such an incredible life and giving the audience an all-encompassing look into Tillman’s journey.
The producers worked on the project for six months and conducted many illuminating interviews, speaking to Tillman’s widow Marie, Bidwill, former Cardinals coach Dave McGinnis, former Cardinals quarterback Jake Plummer, Tillman’s former agent Frank Bauer, his high school coach, a high school teammate and many others.
“I think the one thing we realized right away was that everyone we spoke to had an abundance of Pat stories, which made it hard for us,” Menzel said. “We really had to be selective. Our goal was to really humanize Pat. Everyone’s aware of the mythology around Pat, but for us, humanizing him and doing him justice was our goal.”
The documentary starts with footage provided by the Cardinals, when Tillman famously explained on Sept. 12, 2001, the patriotism that swelled inside him and his appreciation for relatives who fought in past wars.
“I really haven’t done a damn thing, as far as laying my life on the line like that,” Tillman says in the video.
While the “Football Life” is another glimpse into Tillman’s personality, many members of the Cardinals had the rare pleasure of knowing him first-hand.
Adrian Wilson was drafted to play the same position as Tillman, and could have been treated poorly by a player worried about getting replaced. Instead, Tillman took Wilson under his wing.
Tillman went on to have a great impact on the world, but it was that small act of kindness that Wilson remembers fondly.
“When you start talking about guys who are legendary, a lot of the stories get blown up to an astronomical sense,” said Wilson, now a scout for the team. “To actually know him and be around him and learn from him, to see the everyday quirkiness that he had and those types of things that people probably really didn’t get to see – he was just like everybody else. The thing that separated him from everybody else was his passion for his life and the things he was willing to do for everybody else. Because, really, he didn’t have to do anything for me.”
Bidwill has made it a priority to honor Tillman and make sure Cardinals fans know his story well. The team has a full-sized statue of him in front of University of Phoenix Stadium, a small statue in the lobby of its training facility and his preserved locker encased in glass by the players’ locker room.
The “Football Life” documentary is another detailed look at his incredible life and legacy.
“I believe it’s the best one that they’ve done,” Bidwill said. “There were things I learned about Pat Tillman in this that I had no clue. And I thought I had heard every Pat Tillman story. It’s a must-watch for every Cardinals fan, for sure.”
Menzel said he was surprised to realize that despite everything he had read about Tillman, he never knew what his voice sounded like. And the most poignant parts of the episode were the interviews with Tillman, spliced in at the beginning and the end.
The “Football Life” leaves you with Tillman’s answer about what he’d like his coaches and teammates to say about him after he retired.
“Passion is kind of an important word for me,” Tillman tells the sports psychologist who asked him in the summer of 2001. “Whether it’s playing sports or whether it’s just living, or whatever you’re going to do, in my opinion, you should just be passionate about it. Or else, why do it? I don’t want to be dramatic, but that’s what I like.”