Safety Pat Tillman during his playing days with the Cardinals.
All I remember is that it was early enough in the morning that my wife – a high school teacher – hadn't left for work yet.
The phone call came from a sports producer for one of the local TV stations. "Have you confirmed Pat Tillman was killed?" The TV wasn't on. I hadn't even heard, and at that point, details were just starting to trickle out.
It was April. A Friday. The day before the draft in which the Cardinals, holding the third overall pick, took wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald. Because of that – and because the annual Pat's Run event is held in mid-April every year – it's hard not to think about Tillman right about now.
(Even free agency tends to make me think a little bit about Tillman, since the offseason when he shockingly signed up for the Army Rangers, there was so much speculation about why Tillman – a free agent at the time – still hadn’t signed when the Cards long had an offer on the table.)
So much has been written and said about Tillman over the past years. Delving into the whys of his death is better suited for others. I just remember Tillman as a football player, the guy who meant so much as a teammate and leader the Cards definitely wanted back for a good salary even though he was about to be surpassed by a young Adrian Wilson on the depth chart.
You think of the time he stood in the Jacksonville visiting locker room near the end of the lousy 2000 season after a particularly uninspired blowout loss, in a year where Vince Tobin was fired as coach midway through. "In this league, you have to overcome injuries, problems, coaches getting fired," Tillman angrily said. "Nobody cares (about excuses). Don't tell me about the pain, show me the baby. We're not showing the baby right now, we're just (complaining) about the pain."
You think of the time he stood shivering in the Washington visiting locker room, after a painful loss to the Redskins in the freezing rain in what turned out to be his last NFL game. Lips blue from the cold and shaking, Tillman still fumed at a loss. "It's a joke, dude. I don't know what the hell happened."
Tillman wanted what he was doing to make a difference on the field. He wanted to make a difference, period.
I came in to the Cards' facility on Sept. 11, 2001. It was a Tuesday – the players' off day – but Tillman was there too. And at one point, with the World Trade Center burning but not yet collapsed, Tillman sat next to me in one of the overstuffed, ugly orange-yellow chairs there at the time and lamented the situation. I was a reporter. I knew I'd need to do the "How-the-attack-affected-the-Cards/NFL" story.
"The importance of football ranks zero compared to what happened," Tillman said.
Did I know that day he'd eventually give up football for what he thought was a greater purpose? Of course not. Maybe Tillman did, and maybe he didn't. He never talked about it, having then-coach Dave McGinnis break the joining-the-Army news to a trio of reporters, including me.
It was an amazing sacrifice, and that's even before his tragic end. Yet I don't see Tillman as a mythical figure. He's more like a real-life version of The Most Interesting Man In The World, a guy who decided to take on a triathlon on NFL offseason and explaining it "I just want to say that I've done it. And that's that."
There is something important about that attitude, one of the reasons I have continued to put together an Arizona Cardinals Pat's Run team the last few years (after former Pro Bowler Sean Morey started the idea). I like the idea of honoring the concept of "doing."
That's what I think about Tillman now, and in some ways, what I was thinking about that April morning when I heard Tillman was killed.
"You know, that's something tragic that happened to him, but I said it (before), at the same time it really speaks volumes to the type of man he was," Wilson said Super Bowl week in 2009. "He felt like he didn't do enough in his life to warrant the type of credit he's been getting, so to make a life decision like that and to make a change like that, I think it really speaks volumes of his character."
A few months before his heartbreaking death, Tillman – who didn't have to go back to fight in the Middle East after his initial tour, but instead chose to return – was based near Seattle. He quietly stayed the night at the Cards' team hotel during the team's December road trip and then went in the locker room after the game. He quietly talked to some teammates and, before the media got in the room, he had slipped out a side door.
A few months later, I got the phone call. Pete Kendall was left to talk about his fallen ex-teammate, and new coach Dennis Green wandered around the scene, seemingly unsure what to do – he hadn't known Tillman like so many around the complex had.
That was eight Aprils ago.
This time of year, as much as the talk about 40 times and Mel Kiper, those are the memories that flood my mind.
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