I was nine years old when Pat Tillman was killed in action.
I don't remember Pat Tillman the Sun Devil. I'm not old enough to recall Pat Tillman the Arizona Cardinal. I don't even remember Pat Tillman the Army Ranger. But I know Pat Tillman.
We all know Pat Tillman.
10 years after his tragic death, Tillman's legacy lives on in the minds and hearts of those he touched. Tillman had a contagious aura about him, a warm, inviting spirit that resonated with everyone around him. He touched more lives than most of us will ever begin to understand.
Tillman's story is well documented. An underdog in every sense of the word, Tillman began his football career as an undersized athlete at Leland High School in San Jose, Calif. Upon graduating, he matriculated to Arizona State University, one of a small sampling of schools willing to take a risk and offer him a scholarship.
As a Sun Devil, Tillman faced an uphill battle to even make it onto the depth chart. Yet by his junior season, he played a critical part in helping Arizona State advance to the Rose Bowl. As a senior, the 5-foot-11 Tillman earned the Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year Award, an award that now bears his name.
Even with his collegiate success, Tillman never relinquished his underdog role. He was too small to be considered a serious NFL prospect, but the Arizona Cardinals took a chance on Tillman in the 7th round of 1998 NFL Draft. Tillman's NFL story is every bit as compelling as the narrative from his high school and college days, but that's only part of the reason why we know Pat Tillman.
Tillman's playing days were before my time. I never had the chance to meet or talk to Tillman, but I do remember my first encounter with him.
I was nine years old and reading the San Francisco Chronicle when I stumbled upon Tillman's story. I read the sports page every day before school, and that's how my athletic knowledge was shaped. In the years following 9/11, I was aware of our country's political dealings, but I was still too young to grasp the effects of war until I read about Pat Tillman.
My life was consumed by sports at that age. As the rest of the country tuned into the evening news to hear about Iraq and Afghanistan, I flipped on the radio to listen to San Francisco Giants' broadcasts. Athletes were role models to me, and that's how I became infatuated by Tillman's story.
At nine years old, I could rattle off the salaries of my favorite players and the payrolls of professional teams without knowing exactly what they meant, but it was a concept I could grasp. I probably had a better understanding of salary arbitration than I did multiplication. And that's why Tillman's story first struck me.
Why had an NFL football player turned down millions of dollars during the prime of his career to go fight in a war? His story was unlike any other I came across, and I didn't even know of it until its tragic ending.
Throughout my teenage years, I read countless articles about Tillman's life. I read Jon Krakauer's book, Where Men Win Glory, and in history classes, I studied wars between Athens and Sparta up through present day conflicts. I read the Washington Post investigation into Tillman's death by friendly fire. After reading everything, I couldn't fathom why Tillman enlisted.
I couldn't fully appreciate Tillman's story until I arrived at Arizona State in the Fall of 2012. Over the past two years, I've had the good fortune of speaking with fans, former players and coaches who knew Tillman or know people who did. I've heard former teammates like Jake Plummer and Juan Roque describe his playing style on air and heard about former teachers talking up Tillman's presence in the classroom to their students. Finally, I began to understand why he did what he did.
Pat Tillman dropped everything and enlisted in the Army because that's who Pat Tillman was.
He was a leader, a fighter, an inspiration, a warrior and an example. Pat Tillman was the person people wished they could become. If you knew Pat, you knew you could be a better person and his lifestyle could drive you to pursue that aspiration.
That's why 10 years after his death, Tillman's legacy continues to grow stronger. That's why PT42 means more today than it did yesterday, and why it will mean more tomorrow than it did today.
Around the Arizona State athletic department, Tillman's No. 42 carries a special significance. The number lines the hallways of the student-athlete center and hangs in the corners of the baseball stadium. Nowhere is Tillman's 42 more noticeable than the football stadium.
When the Sun Devil football players put on their helmets, they see a PT42 logo above their facemask. When the Sun Devils take the field, the players run out of "Tillman Tunnel" and follow a picture of Tillman out onto the grass. When they gather in the huddle, the players hear a coach preaching the Gospel of Pat.
"Character, discipline, work ethic and attitude."
Those are just four of the characteristics that Todd Graham associates with his program, and with Pat Tillman. Each day, Graham sports a black wristband with a PT42 engraving on it to serve as a reminder of the way he wants to conduct his program. Graham even introduced camouflage PT42 practice jerseys to be worn by the leaders that best embody the values of Tillman on the field.
Since his arrival in December of 2011, Graham has radically embraced the Tillman legacy, and that admiration has carried over to his players. Former Sun Devils like Brandon Magee and Alden Darby dropped PT42 references talking to reporters. All of this is a reflection of a coach who is determined to make his players better people, and uses Tillman's legacy to do so.
To me, there's something refreshing and appealing about a football coach using Tillman's traits as a model for his players. For awhile, I couldn't quite put my finger on it, but I think I'm beginning to understand why it matters.
Like me, Graham is still relatively new to the desert. Nevertheless, it doesn't take long to get acclimated. In the two years it's taken me to develop an understanding of Pat Tillman, it likely took Graham two weeks. The former players he reached out to, the fans who welcomed him, and the athletic department staff he works alongside are still touched by the influence Pat Tillman had on their lives. They wanted Graham to know that.
It's this community, the Sun Devil community, that doesn't just want to see Tillman's legacy live on, it wants to see Tillman's legacy carried out.
I was nine years old when Pat Tillman died. To me, sacrifice and service were just vocabulary words I would see on a spelling test.
10 years later, I understand. I understand because of the stories I've read, the people I've met, and the way that Tillman is honored at Arizona State on a daily basis.
On Saturday, 35,000 people will flock to Sun Devil Stadium to participate in Pat's Run, to carry out his legacy.
The annual event raises money for the Tillman Foundation, an outstanding organization that supports military veterans and their spouses through educational scholarships. The Tillman Scholars are among the brightest leaders our country has to offer, and each of them is chosen to carry out the military values they have learned and to impart them on the people they meet in the future.
Saturday marks the first time I will be participating in Pat's Run, and I can't wait to support such a wonderful cause. 10 years after Tillman's death, thousands of people like you and me will cross the 42-yard line at Sun Devil Stadium enriched by the experience and the community.
As the participants trickle out of the stadium, we'll leave with Tillman's memory in our minds, and we'll hit the ground running, making the most of our lives, just as Pat Tillman did.