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Folktales: Legendary Locker
The story behind saving a piece of Pat Tillman's legacy
By Darren Urban May 30, 2022
Photographs By Arizona Cardinals/AP/Tillman Foundation

This story was originally published on Sept. 8, 2021.

The days go by when Dennis Gardeck passes by Pat Tillman's locker and he doesn't notice much at all.

Then there are the days when Tillman's legacy matters, when his memory inspires.

"Day to day, it can be in the background," the Cardinals linebacker said. "But it seems like when you need that motivation the most …

"There is a picture of Pat right in the training room. It was a gut check day (during ACL rehab) and I saw it and it was like, 'You know, let's go!' So it seems like it shows up when you need it, when you need that motivation."

The story of Tillman eschewing a multi-million dollar contract from the Cardinals to join the Army Rangers is legendary. So too is the story of Tillman's death during active duty in Afghanistan, cut down by friendly fire while serving his country. Less so is the story of how the actual locker Tillman once inhabited was saved so his memory would have a tangible reminder in the Dignity Health Arizona Cardinals Training Center.

The locker wouldn't be around if it weren't for the work of Jim Omohundro, the team's senior manager/producer of broadcasting who has worked in some form or fashion for the team since he was a teenager and who has been around the franchise since the day he was born – his father John was the team's longtime athletic trainer.

A couple of years after Tillman's death, Omohundro was watching some old video clips from the locker room and noticed Tillman's stall in the background.

"I always put it in the back of my head," Omohundro said. " 'I want to save this locker. That would be kind of cool.'

"I didn't want Pat to be forgotten."

When the team finally renovated the facility in 2015, Omohundro – through persistence and more than a little luck – made sure the locker was saved. Tillman's name hadn't been on the placard since 2001. Multiple players had cycled through, which is why it nearly feel through the cracks.

Owner Michael Bidwill eventually made sure it was given a prominent place near the new locker room, in a hallway next to the cafeteria and doors to the practice fields so that players and coaches would see it every day.

For those who played with and knew Tillman, the gesture resonates.

"It's telling the players to live your trueness," said former Cardinals quarterback Jake Plummer, a close friend of Tillman's dating back to their time at Arizona State University. "Don't go against the grain just because you want to go against the grain.

"But if you have a feeling and it's a thought and it's something you believe in and if it's against the grain, do it and trust yourself."

Had Tillman just stayed in the NFL his locker would've just been his locker, one player in a long line of guys who took up space in that area, including post-Tillman-career tenants like defensive linemen Gabe Watson and David Carter, or the final resident in 2015, soon-to-be-released-in-training-camp offensive lineman John Fullington.

Perhaps he would've even played for the Cardinals long enough to get a different stall, after the room was rearranged into position groups.

But once Tillman made the decision that completes every telling of his story – turning down a three-year, $3.6 million contract from the Cardinals to join the Army Rangers – the path was set.

"I wasn't surprised," said Rod Graves, the team's vice president of football operations at the time.

Graves, like many, had seen the breadth of Tillman's interests. If anyone was going to walk away from football, it was Pat. Just a few days before Tillman made his decision, Graves ran into Tillman at a local coffee shop. Tillman was by himself, reading. The book was the Quran.

"I said, 'Are you a follower?' " Graves recalled. "He said, 'You know, Rod, I just want to learn the difference between the Holy Bible and the Quran.' That's the kind of guy he was. Inquisitive and very, very knowledgeable.

"He was extraordinary in that way, and no one played the game harder than Pat. If you could put 11 players or 22 players on the field with those types of attributes, you'd be a winner every year."

Tillman was at the Cardinals' facility the day the World Trade Centers came down on Sept. 11, 2001, at one point staring at the TV in the team's media relations area, the carnage and destruction playing out on the screen.

The football game the Cardinals were supposed to play in Washington five days later suddenly insignificant, Tillman could only say of pro athletes "we're worthless, we're actors" given what had happened. Thinking of a greater purpose than sports had long been on Tillman's mind; 9/11 simply pushed him harder toward finding such purpose.

There is an irony that comes with Tillman's locker living on. Tillman never wanted to make a big deal of his transformation from NFL player to military man. He told precious few in the organization; he told then-head coach Dave McGinnis it would be McGinnis' job to tell the world.

McGinnis told a small group of reporters, letting them inform the public. Tillman made sure he avoided the spotlight. The last time he was around the team – when the Cards played at Seattle at the end of the 2003 season – Tillman stayed in the team hotel and then visited the players in the postgame locker room, but the media was not allowed in until after Tillman had escaped out a side door.

"One of the things that really resonated with me was his refusal to talk about it, ever," longtime Arizona Republic beat writer Kent Somers said. "It was like, 'I'm not in it for that. I'm not in it for the stories, I'm not in it for a future movie, or to set myself up for business later. I have my reasons for doing it. I'm not going to share them.' "

Right before Tillman left for basic training, he stopped by the team's Tempe facility to say his goodbyes to staff members. In doing so, he came through the media room, where a pair of beat reporters noticed with widening eyes.

When Tillman was finally walking out, one of the men – Somers – wished him luck and reminded Tillman that there were friendly local reporters ready to talk to him about it.

"I appreciate that but it's not going to happen," Tillman said.

It never did.

Tillman was killed in action not quite two years later, on April 22, 2004, in Afghanistan. It was draft weekend in Arizona, when new Cardinals media relations man Mark Dalton was spending his first days on the job. Larry Fitzgerald became the team's first-round pick.

"This isn't just a local story, and certainly not just a football story or sports story," Dalton said. "But this was a story of tragedy and heroism that resonated with so many people. So that that was an amazing first day. And then on the second day, we had the third pick and we took Larry Fitzgerald. So however you want to decide who should be on a Mount Rushmore of Arizona Cardinals, I would think we're all in agreement, those are probably two faces that you'd have."

Nearly a decade after he first had a thought of preserving Tillman's locker when the time came, Jim Omohundro was at Oregano's – a local restaurant – in February of 2015 waiting for his salad and slice to arrive at his table.

He checked Twitter. He saw a Tweet that included a photo of the demolition of the facility's locker room, which was undergoing renovations. After uttering an expletive under his breath, he called vice president of marketing Lisa Manning to see how far the workers had gotten.

"You better hurry up," was her reply.

Omohundro threw a $20 bill on the table, his food not yet arrived, and scrambled out of the restaurant. He raced back to the facility, which was just down the street, and sprinted through the building toward the locker room. He lost his right shoe after some exposed carpet glue sucked it off his foot, and he hopped his last few feet where he saw one of the workers with the electric saw being used to cut up the old wood lockers.

Fortunately, there were still a handful of lockers left to dismantle – including Tillman's, which was next to be taken down.

"Wait, wait, wait, hold up," Omohundro said.

Message received. The locker was carefully cut out and saved, moved to storage until its current display was put together.

"It's in a perfect area," Michael Bidwill said. "It's really a landmark within our building, and serves as an important reminder for (Tillman's) sacrifice and also his spirit."

Frank Sanders was a wide receiver who played four seasons with Tillman, one of the few who Tillman told his military aspirations before they unfolded. For Sanders, Tillman's story is special in part because it underscores that players are more than the game they play.

"There's another version of your life, and what motivates you and moves you needs to be expressed and learned or followed," Sanders said. "No one could believe the idea, you will give up the NFL … and go to the army. And then not just go to the army, but go to the army and say, 'Don't associate me with any of the NFL. I'm here as a soldier, treat me as a soldier, because I want to learn how to be the best at this the same I was (in football), no bars, no stripes, just let me go do my job. And I want to do it effectively.'

"I think that should be told, and every kid (should) pay attention to that."

Anchored in the hallway, current players have no choice but to see the locker. It's a frequent stop for players who have just signed with the team as they take in the facility for the first time.

Defensive lineman J.J. Watt had already done work with the Pat Tillman Foundation before he ever signed in Arizona. Tillman's stall now provides an in-house symbol of what Tillman was about.

"It's obviously extremely inspirational," Watt said. "At the same time, it reminds you how fortunate and thankful we are that there are people like Pat who are willing to sacrifice everything so that we are able to do what we do every day.

"When I walk past it every day to practice, I'm thankful I don't have to do what he did, because he and so many like him were so brave and so courageous to protect our freedom."

Passion and emotion marked Tillman's career and life, housed, for however brief a time, by a locker that will stand forever.

"If you can walk past that and not get something inside of you turning," one-time Tillman teammate Mark Maddox said, "we've got some issues."

Images from the career -- and remembrance -- of Pat Tillman.

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