Last Friday, when I first heard of the death of Sgt. Pat Tillman, I couldn’t even find the words to express my grief.
Any death of a U.S. military man or woman is cause for grief, but Tillman’s loss was just overwhelmingly personal because of his leaving a multimillion dollar NFL contract behind to serve his beloved nation in a post-Sept. 11 world of al-Qaida and international terrorism.
I hope that every NFL player and all those drafted last weekend never forget Pat Tillman and what he stood for and the freedoms for which he gave his young life. Pat, as most people already know by now, left the Arizona Cardinals to join the elite Army Rangers and did so in a way so uncharacteristic of our celebrity culture. He gave no interviews, answered no questions and even traveled to Colorado to enlist because he didn’t want to stand out among his fellow Rangers and servicemen and women. Wow!
I immediately thought of the words penned many years ago by Gen. Douglas MacArthur: “It’s on the fields of friendly strife that seeds are sown, that upon future fields, on future days will bear the fruits of victory.”
I first saw those words enshrined over the gymnasium at West Point in 1961, when I was quarterback of the San Diego Chargers. On that occasion, the legendary coach Sid Gilman took our team east to play the Jets and we stayed on the campus where he had been an assistant to the great Earl “Red” Blaik. I’ve never ever forgotten MacArthur’s dictum because of all the athletes who fought in our nations’ battles and whose lives and values were shaped on the friendly fields of amateur and professional sports.
Pat Tillman was an extraordinary American, and as NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue said at the opening of the 2004 NFL draft, Pat exemplifies the best of what professional football stands for. I believe this so much that I think Pat, and his story, should be enshrined in the NFL Hall of Fame as a testimonial to the humanity, the sacrifice and enduring spirit exemplified in the life of this NFL star, this all-American hero, this Army Ranger who was just doing his job in harms way.
Professional football is more than friendly strife, it is sometimes violent competition, but it certainly does not rise to the level of war. Too often, however, football is poetically described in terms of war, pitched battles, heroic feats and as a matter of life and death. How trite those words seem when juxtaposed against the sacrifice of real heroes like Tillman and my old Buffalo Bills teammate Bob Kalsu, who was killed in Vietnam in 1970, and thousands upon thousands who gave their lives at Normandy, in Vietnam and from Kabul to Baghdad.
Tillman represents so many others, like his brother Kevin (who also enlisted), who put others first and don’t 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 certainly lived up to that creed, and honored all his country and countrymen.
Pat Tillman: what a man, what a life and what an example. The seeds sown early in his life were dedicated to helping lead and win the ultimate victory over terrorism. To my friends in the NFL, is this not reason enough to enshrine Pat Tillman in Canton, Ohio, at the NFL Hall of Fame?
My prayer for America is that we never forget those upon whose shoulders we stand, and we must never forget Pat Tillman.