The Life and Legacy of Pat Tillman 10 Years Later

In Blog by Eric ByrnesLeave a Comment

As you sit around the BBQ this weekend surrounded by family members and friends enjoying burgers, dogs, a big slice of apple pie and an ice cold Budweiser,  take a minute or several , to remember the very real sacrifice that Americans have made in order for us to enjoy life as we know it within the United States.  Then, go ahead and make sure you find a kid,  could be yours or somebody else’s, and explain to them the significance of Memorial Day beyond getting a day off of school and stuffing their faces with ice cream.   It is our responsibility to teach our children the very harsh reality.  We celebrate Memorial Day because American soldiers have been killed defending our Country.  Have them understand that those soldiers died fighting for our freedoms, liberties and future well being of the exact kid you happen to be talking to.  Teach them that Memorial Day is our way to honor, give thanks and celebrate the lives of those who made the ultimate sacrifice.

September 11, 2001 hit me hard like it did with just about every other American.  Immediately I questioned the life that I was living and thought about how I could possibly help protect the future of our Country.  My great grandfather, grandfather and father all served in the military to help ensure future generations of Americans will be able to live in a free and democratic society.  Now, here I was, representing the future generation that they had fought so hard for and I hadn’t done shit.  Ironically, shortly after 9-11, I saw an interview with a guy that I had always respected and admired that virtually shared the exact same sentiment, Pat Tillman.

I first learned about Pat from watching High School Sports Focus which was a local Bay Area TV show that would run high school football highlights on Friday and Saturday nights.  Pat was a running back and linebacker for Leland High School in San Jose.  Basically, he was unstoppable on both sides of the ball but what made him different was the flare and style in which dominated.  He was by no means an imposing figure physically but add in Pat’s unbelievable quickness, devastating hitting ability and long hair flowing out of his helmet, he might as well have been some sort of greek god playing amongst a bunch of mere mortals.

My Sophomore, Junior and Senior year I played on a football team that won 3 consecutive Section championships and had several guys go on to play D-1 football,  yet for whatever reason just about every single guy on our St. Francis football team was mesmerized by the mysterious surfer looking dude wearing #42 single handily winning football games for a school with a relatively underwhelming football pedigree.  For insecure teen age kids to idolize a peer on another football team was in my opinion unprecedented, or at the very least, extremely rare.  Pat had become so much of a football icon in the area that when a group of my teammates and I were at at high school basketball tournament and spotted Tillman on the other side of the gym,  it literally became some sort of dare to see who was going to sack up and go introduce themselves to the iconic high school legend.  Ironically, that guy was Zack Walz, the same dude who 5 years later would become Pat Tillman’s teammate with the Arizona Cardinals.  After the chance encounter, Tillman went on to become the Pac 10 defensive player of the year at ASU while Walz became the Ivy League defensive player of the year at Dartmouth.  Walz was then selected in the 6th round of the 1998 draft by the Cardinals with Tillman getting selected in the 7th.

The two immediately became great friends and training camp roommates.  I signed with the Oakland A’s that same year and was sent to instructional league in Phoenix where I shacked up on Walz’s couch.  It was during that fall that I had a chance to finally meet and hang out with the guy that I had looked up to for years.   People talk about the “it” factor whether referring to an athlete or a person.  Generally “it” can be described as an aura, confidence and demeanor carried by somebody clearly playing their sport or living their life on a different level… Both on and off the field, Pat had “it.”

Although I was emotional after 9-11,  I eventually put aside any thoughts of joining the military in any sort of capacity that actually would have had a direct impact on the immediate and future safety of our country.  I talked about how cool it would have been to join the Navy Seals.  I talked about what it meant to be an American.  I talked about how I would be willing to do anything to protect our freedom and liberties.  Yet, at the end of the day all I did was talk.  Like many other people I had great intentions but I did not follow through, quite frankly, I wasn’t even close.   I was way too wrapped up in my selfish world of chasing a life long dream of playing major league baseball.  A dream made possible only because of the generations before me that sacrificed their individual dreams for the collective dream of our nation.

Pat did much more than talk.  Despite a multi million dollar contract offer on the table, he walked away from the NFL and joined the Army Rangers.  I became so enthralled with his story that I intensely followed what was happening with Pat and his brother Kevin, who joined the Rangers as well.  Both were assigned to the second battalion of the 75th Ranger Regiment based in Fort Lewis, Washington.  Through Walz, who was one of the very few in contact with Pat during this time, I would get updates.  Originally, they were about the rigors and challenges of becoming an Army Ranger and eventually the updates detailed the brothers trips to Iraq in 2003 during Operation Iraqi Freedom and Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom.  The last briefing I got from Walz was in early 2004 when he showed up at my house with a set of Tillman’s dog tags Zack had begged Pat to send him.  According to Walz, the plan was for Pat to finish out his 3 year commitment to the Rangers and then return to the NFL.  Unfortunately, Pat never got that opportunity.  April 22nd, 2004, while in Afghanistan, Pat’s unit was ambushed while traveling through rugged Eastern Afghanistan canyons.  In a heroic effort to provide cover for his men, Pat Tillman was killed.  I have listened to stories, read books and watched documentaries that have detailed Pat’s death by friendly fire and the massive cover up that ensued.  I am still not sure exactly what to believe but what I am sure about is that we lost one of the greatest Americans who ever lived.

After Pat’s death I made sure I spoke about him and the sacrifice he made every opportunity I had.  My goal has been and always will be to keep his name and legacy at the forefront of American culture.  In 2006 while I was playing for the Arizona Diamondbacks, Richard Tillman, Pat’s youngest brother reached out to me to invite me to Pat’s statue unveiling at the new Arizona Cardinals stadium in Glendale.  It was there that I had an opportunity and pleasure to meet the entire Tillman family.  From that day on,  I knew I wanted to focus my individual fundraising efforts throughout the course of my entire life on the Pat Tillman Foundation.   Without getting all nostalgic, between my connection to Pat through Bay Area high school sports, Zack Walz, and playing baseball professionally in a city in which he became an icon, I felt as if it was something in my life that I was meant to do, my small way to finally do more than talk. The foundation was founded on the basic principles that encompassed everything Pat Tillman represented.  Education, leadership and loyalty.  “Leadership through action”  was the foundations original rallying cry.  The Tillman Military Scholar program was eventually formed and has been expanded throughout the years.  Today, the program is now responsible for putting over 300 Tillman Military Scholar’s and their spouses through schools of higher education.

While with the Diamondbacks, I hosted several fundraising events benefiting the Tillman Foundation.  I have since been able to continue my fundraising efforts through the different Ironman triathlons that I have competed in, each time crossing the finish line with Pat’s Arizona Cardinals #40 jersey flying high above my head.  August 5th and 6th I will play baseball for first time in 4 years when I suit up for the San Rafael Pacifics, an Independent Professional Baseball team just north of San Francisco.  The only possible reason I agreed to play was because of the Tillman Foundation fundraising efforts both the Pacifics and my family have committed to.   What I have enjoyed more than anything is the opportunity to talk about and reflect on the significance of Pat’s life.   It has been over 10 years since Pat’s death and there is now an entire new generation of kids that have no idea who Pat Tillman was.  I relish every opportunity I have to teach my children about the selfless nature of Pat’s decision to walk away from the limelight of the NFL in exchange for the front lines of combat.  Pat’s story speaks for itself and by no means needs me or anybody else to sensationalize it.   The reality is that there have been so many others, just like Pat, who walked away from other life opportunities and ultimately were killed in action protecting your ass and mine.  Memorial Day is our chance to honor all those who didn’t just talk about what it meant to be an American, they showed us what it meant to be an American…