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Revisionist History: Tillman joins the Army

The latest in a series of offseason posts looking back:

__It is Fourth of July weekend, so — while I know everyone knows the Pat Tillman story — I thought I'd take a look back at a thin sliver of the Tillman timeline on this most patriotic of holidays: When Tillman shocked the world and joined the Army.

That offseason began like any other. The Cardinals were coming off a 7-9 season, with some hope going forward after Dave McGinnis' first full season as head coach. The secondary was in flux though — cornerback Duane Starks was a top free-agent target, others were leaving and at strong safety, soon-to-be second-year man Adrian Wilson was being groomed for the starting role over Tillman.

That didn't mean the Cards didn't want Tillman, a free agent. They very much wanted him back, and put an offer (later learned to be three years and worth about $3.6 million) on the table. Yet Tillman didn't sign it. He wasn't at the mandatory minicamp right after the draft in early May, but no one (including me) thought much about it because Tillman was getting married. In hindsight, it did seem strange a guy like Tillman would plan a wedding the one weekend off the offseason he had to be with the team, but again, McGinnis didn't blink an eye at what Tillman — a guy you wanted on your roster — chose to do. Besides, since he hadn't yet signed a contract, it technically wasn't mandatory for him anyway.

At one point, it felt like Tillman was hoping to generate free-agent interest but again, looking back that seems silly. Tillman was the last guy interested in developing leverage in a contract spot. Something was up, however. It was impossible not to get that sense, even though no one was saying anything — and at that point, I don't think anyone really knew.

Your mind starts to race, however. I remember thinking, as a reporter, that maybe Tillman was ill. Maybe he couldn't play football and everyone was trying to keep it under wraps, because why else would he have not signed a contract by that time?

On May 23, 2002, then-PR director Paul Jensen asked three media members — myself, Kent Somers and Mike Jurecki — to come meet with McGinnis about something. We went into a back room, and at that point, all kinds of things are going through your head.

McGinnis didn't wait long. "Pat Tillman has decided to join the Army." And he let it sit there in the air, and I was so shocked my jaw dropped open (I remember because McGinnis good-naturedly reminded me to close it). I thought it was a joke at first but it was most certainly not. With Tillman, it oddly fit. So too did the way the info was disseminated; Tillman had told McGinnis earlier and when McGinnis asked Tillman how he was going to tell the world, Tillman told him, "I'm not going to. You are."

(The Cards knew for a while Tillman likely wouldn't be back with them in 2002, even before the draft. They just didn't know why.)

A few days later, I remember seeing Tillman stopped by the Cards' offices. He was cordial but he wasn't going to talk, on or off the record. That was the last time I saw him.

People tried to guess why he did what he did. They called him a hero before he had even made it into Army Rangers school, which of course, he eventually conquered — like all the things he conquered in his life. And afterward, it was hard not to remember the things he had said the day after the 9/11 attacks, including how much the American flag meant to him.

"In times like this, you realize how good we have it, what kind of system we live under, what kind of freedoms we're allowed, and that wasn't built overnight," Tillman said. "The flag is a symbol of all that. … Many in my family have gone and fought in wars, and I haven't done a damn thing."