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20 Years After Tillman Drafted by NFL, His Legacy Lives On

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By Tom Konecny

Twenty years have passed since Pat Tillman was drafted by the Arizona Cardinals into the National Football League, and you might be surprised just how much you didn’t know about this American hero. It’s well-documented how Tillman received acclaim for leaving a lucrative sports career and enlisting in the United States Army following 9/11, and about his tragic death that ended a military calling far too soon.

But you’d be surprised at the Pat Tillman you never knew. There’s a lot of important things to remember about him, and some of the details that didn’t regularly make the press are even more astounding when you consider them some two decades later.

Tillman turned down a lot of money when he enlisted

He didn’t just leave a successful and rising career in pro football, nor a starting safety position and all the fame and glory that comes with playing in the NFL. He also left a lot of money on the table. At the time of his decision to enlist, Tillman turned down a contract offer from Cardinals ownership for $3.6 million over three years. While today’s typical NFL safety makes around $5 million and the top-rated safety makes $13 million, to receive an offer for $1.2 million twenty years ago was no small feat.

He was also incredibly loyal to his team, once turning down a five-year, $9 million offer from a different team because he insisted on remaining faithful to the Cardinals, the team that drafted him into the NFL. And it wasn’t just about the large sum of money he declined, it was also the significant drop he took in pay; as a soldier, he earned about $1,000 a month.

He followed his brother to the Army – who also gave up pro sports

One of Tillman’s brothers, Kevin, was also a rising sports star. Kevin was drafted by the Los Angeles Angels in the 31st round of the 1999 Major League Baseball Amateur Draft. He had been playing second base in the Cleveland Indians organization when he decided to enlist after 9/11. The brothers were extremely close, and it was Kevin who first talked about enlisting, and then Pat decided to join him.

They enlisted on May 31, 2002, they both completed training and were together assigned to the 2nd Ranger Battalion in Fort Lewis, Washington. Later, both Kevin and Pat were deployed to South West Asia as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. Pat, of course, received more media attention, as he was believed to be the first NFL player since World War II to leave football voluntarily for military service. Kevin would accompany Pat’s body back to the United States after his death in Afghanistan.

There have been numerous memorials and tributes to Tillman

Tillman was initially reported to have been killed by enemy combatants on April 22, 2004, but investigations a month later would rule his death as friendly fire. It didn’t take long following the tragedy for honors and tributes to pour in. The Cardinals retired his number 40, as did his collegiate team, Arizona State, for the number 42 he wore there. The Cardinals also renamed the plaza surrounding their stadium after Tillman, and they revealed a bronze statue of Tillman in 2006. Arizona State also added a permanent feature to its ever-changing collection of uniforms by adding a “PT-42” patch on the neck of their jerseys. There have also been foundations, highways and scholarships named in honor of Tillman, a fitting tribute to a remarkable soldier.

When ESPN awarded Pat and Kevin with the Arthur Ashe Courage Award in 2003, neither attended the ceremony, nor granted interviews. Their other brother, Richard, accepted the award and told media that they didn’t think they were better than anyone else.

A rare breed

There haven’t been many to do what Tillman did. He was the first pro football player killed in combat since the Buffalo Bills’ Bob Kalsu, who died in the Vietnam War in 1970. Tillman’s legacy lives on in so many ways as the military world will always mourn the loss of a soldier who made the ultimate sacrifice in the war on terror.

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