[Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on July 22, 2002.]
The media often focuses on the extent to which athletes are or should be viewed as role models. When we look back on the “greatest generation,” we see whole teams of athletes that went off to fight, serve, and die for their country and fellow man. Today, we often lose sight of the humanity of yesterday’s heroes and the excellence of the athletes of today.
Just before Mickey Mantle’s death in 1995, he lamented his failures in life stating that he was a role model for how not to live a life. If it can be said that Mickey Mantle is an example of how not to live a life, then Pat Tillman is a role model for how to live a life.
Tillman was an undersized linebacker at Arizona State, but went on to become the PAC-10 defensive player of the year in 1997. Picked in the seventh round of the 1998 draft by the Arizona Cardinals, he racked up a club record 224 tackles in 2000.
Now Pat, just 25 years of age and in the prime of his professional football career, has given up a $3-million deal with the Arizona Cardinals in an effort to become a member of an even more elite roster — the storied Army Rangers.
One commentator pointed out that professional football has always been fond of the military, and I think that’s right. Similar to combat soldiers, football players are asked to sacrifice themselves for the team. In professional football, the players eat, sleep, sweat, win, and lose as a team. As a result, they develop what the Marines call an esprit de corps. Those players, many of whom only days, weeks or months before may have been complete strangers, become a “band of brothers” who would fight for the guy sitting next to him.
In the military and especially among the elite fighting forces, such as the Army’s Rangers, the bonds between warriors are well documented. Perhaps the similarities between the professional soldier and football player explain why Tillman, a professional football player, would want to join the military, and specifically, become an Army Ranger.
It seems everyone wants to know what motivates Tillman. He doesn’t seem to fit into any of the usual categories. He’s not motivated by profit or fame. Nor does Tillman fit into the much-maligned Army recruiting slogan, “An Army of One.”
Rather, Tillman represents so many others, like his brother Kevin (who also enlisted), who are not motivated out of selfishness and do not wish to be singled out. Instead, they strive to be part of something larger than themselves. They exemplify the spirit of patriotism, of military service, and the Ranger Creed, which reads in part, “I will never leave a fallen comrade to fall into the hands of the enemy and under no circumstances will I ever embarrass my country.”
Tillman is an inspiration to us all and reminds us of the heroes of the past. For the Rangers this includes such mythic figures as the Swamp Fox, the participants of the Dieppe Raid during World War II and the modern heroes of Task Force Ranger that were portrayed in the popular movie Black Hawk Down.
And, Tillman reminds us of other great athletes that served their country. One such hero, Ted Williams, passed away July 5 at 83 years of age. Like Tillman, Ted Williams was a patriot above all else. Ted answered the call of duty and served in the Marines as a combat pilot during World War II and the Korean War. It has been said that Ted heard three songs when he closed his eyes: the National Anthem, the Marine Corps Hymn, and Take Me Out to the Ball Game — that says it all.
It is difficult to quantify love of country, the ideals of freedom and democracy and why we fight, but I know this: Americans will fight for freedom, they will fight for their country, and they will die for their comrades in arms or for a just cause. And, while we may not know exactly what motivated Pat Tillman to join the Army, we do know that he has sacrificed much already by putting his love of country above self. Like the Rangers they aspire to become, he and his brother Kevin have chosen to lead the way.
As we contemplate a summer filled with recreation and comfort, let’s not forget the men and women who are serving our country around the world, many of whom are in harm’s way. We must never forget that we stand on the shoulders of these men and women who are leading the way; they serve as true role models, and embody the spirit of the great American hero.