The 100 Day Sun Devil Countdown now turns the attention to honor Memorial Day with a look at ASU's true hero and a crowning collegiate achievement. We revisit Pat Tillman winning the 1997 Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year.
The 1996 ASU football team holds a special place in the heart of Sun Devil Nation. That scrappy bunch who shocked the world with a shutout win over No. 1 Nebraska then came within two minutes of a national title produced several legends that resonate today. Jake Plummer. Derrick Rodgers. Juan Roque. Terry Battle. Keith Poole. And of course, an undersized defender with an oversized will who would go on to immortal glory for both school and country.
During that season, junior linebacker Pat Tillman earned second-team All-Pac-10 honors on the strength of 91 tackles, four interceptions and two sacks. He earned the love of the fans with his non-stop motor and flowing blond locks emerging from under his helmet.
When that Rose Bowl team lost several key members, the expectations for the 1997 squad plummeted. From a final No. 4 ranking to being unranked coming into the year, the Sun Devils were searching for answers and an identity.
They found it in Tillman.
With the offense undergoing a major rebuilding effort that saw their per-game scoring average go from 40.7 to 27.0, the pressure fell to the defense to carry the load. And they did. Despite losing several key players from the unit, including four to the NFL Draft, the defense actually dropped their scoring average to a stingy 17.5 per game.
At the center of that improvement was Tillman, who was both the heart of the team and the fist, delivering blow after blow to opposing offenses. Stout against the run, a force rushing the passer and nimble in coverage, Tillman filled up the stat sheet: 93 tackles, 15 tackles-for-loss, four sacks and three interceptions.
That dynamic playmaking ability made him the easy choice to take home the 1997 Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year, becoming the first of four Sun Devils to take home that honor.
As great as that was, it was the impact on the team that mattered most to Tillman. He helped the Sun Devils to a 9-3 record, including a Sun Bowl win over Iowa. The Devils finished their improbably excellent season ranked No. 14 in the AP and Coaches Poll.
See the previous entries on House of Sparky's 100 day countdown here.