The locker was close to being gone for good.
Renovations of the Cardinals' locker room at the team's Tempe practice facility started with taking down what was already there, and workmen were in the process of dismantling and throwing out the old wooden stalls that had served players since the facility opened in 1990.
But one locker the team was hoping to save. Pat Tillman's last stall when he played for the team, one over from the south end up against the east wall, was a keeper. At least, that was the plan, and fortunately, Jim Omohundro -- the team's broadcast and new media manager – got back in time to make that happen.
Eventually, the locker will be put together for public display, most likely stationed in the lobby of the same practice facility it has always lived. It will serve as yet another reminder of the one-time safety who left the Cardinals to join the military after the 2001 season and later lost his life in combat on April 22, 2004 – right before the NFL draft. With the anniversary of Tillman's death approaching and the annual 4.2-mile run held in his honor a week from Saturday, it is the time of year when Tillman's legacy resonates.
There are already small reminders of Tillman in the facility, including his portrait framed on the wall in the training room – a gesture done by former head athletic trainer John Omohundro, Jim's father – and a print of Tillman's iconic "scream" picture hanging in the office of current head athletic trainer Tom Reed.
The locker will be part of that.
The idea for keeping the locker germinated in 2006, when Omohundro was looking through old video tapes of the television segment "Wednesdays with Frank," a bit hosted by then-wide receiver Frank Sanders in the team's locker room after practice. In one standup during the 2000 season, Omohundro noticed Tillman's locker in the background.
Omohundro – who has worked for the franchise in one fashion or another since 1990, when he was 14 -- noted its location and figured someday, the team might want to keep it around. In the meantime, he would make sure to approach every player who was granted that spot and tell them its history with Tillman. In recent years that corner of the locker room served the defensive line, so players like Gabe Watson and David Carter worked there. The final inhabitant was offensive lineman John Fullington, who signed on to the practice squad late last season and remains on the roster for 2015.
"I heard (Tillman's) story and thought, 'What a courageous thing to do, to retire from this job to serve in the armed forces,' " said Fullington, who was only 12 when Tillman was killed. "To die in a tragic way is heartbreaking. But when I heard I had his locker, it was pretty crazy. Gave me goosebumps thinking about it. It's an honor."
Renovating the facility, and specifically the locker room, caught Omohundro's attention.
"I thought, 'Someone is going to want that locker.' " Omohundro said. "Whether it was us, or the Hall of Fame or the (Tillman) Foundation. Someone. I kept it in the back of my mind."
Fortunately, Omohundro didn't let it go too far to the back. When work quickly began post-Super Bowl to move on the locker room change, Omohundro happened to notice a blog post on azcardinals.com that pictured the lockers coming down. Away from the facility at the time, Omohundro rushed back to make the save. Coming around the corner he feared he was too late, but one final turn to the area showed that Tillman's former stall was one of only a few left – and a worker headed to the corner with an electric saw, ready to take them down.
"I was like, 'Whoa, whoa, whoa. Can we carefully cut this one out and set it aside?' " Omohundro said. "I explained it was Pat Tillman's locker."
It was saved. The equipment staff later slid back in a Tillman nameplate – replete with the "old" Cardinals logo of Tillman's era – and it waits for the next step.
"I've got to salute Jim Omohundro for remembering that day the demolition was starting," team president Michael Bidwill said. "It was great he was able to preserve that not only for the organization but all the fans. It will make a great display to honor Pat Tillman and everything he stood for as a Cardinal, as a Sun Devil, as a soldier and as a great person."
We take time to honor a great Cardinal and a great American, Pat Tillman.