Pat Tillman was never ordinary or dull. When he was five, he climbed onto the roof of his family's two-story house, wrapped himself around a slender tree trunk, and swayed in the wind for the fun of it — during a windstorm. He took up rock climbing and invented a weird personal game of leaping from treetop to treetop like Tarzan — but without vines or ropes.
In high school, he was the toughest player on the football field. While a senior, he ran to the aid of a buddy in a fight outside a pizza parlor and beat the daylights out of his friend's assailant. It got him 30 days in juvenile detention. "I'm not proud of what happened, but I'm proud that I learned more from that one bad decision than all the good decisions I've ever made," he said later. "It made me realize that stuff you do has repercussions. You can lose everything."
Told he wasn't big enough for Division I-A football, he went to Arizona State as a "marginal recruit." There he scrapped and hustled and prepared for every game with ferocious intensity. He was the Pac-10's defensive player of the year in 1997 — and graduated in three and one-half years with a 3.84 grade point average. Told that he wouldn't be able to make it in the NFL, he played for the Arizona Cardinals from 1998-2002.
Then he shocked everybody — except perhaps the people who knew him best — by walking away from a $3.6 million contract offer to join the U.S. Army to fight against terrorism after the 9/11 attacks on the United States. He and his brother Kevin, also a professional athlete with the Cleveland Indians organization, became Army Rangers. In the words of a "FAX of Life" for June 3, 2002, he had "motives beyond money" for his young life.
"What a waste!" some have said. No, what devotion to duty and patriotism! The loss of his life is no greater tragedy than the deaths of others who have made the supreme sacrifice in war — and certainly no less. His death reminds us all that war is serious work carried on by men and women who believe their calling is higher than athletics, money, or personal comfort. Join me to pray for them today.
"He just viewed life through a different prism than a lot of other people do," said Tim Layden, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated. Maybe more of us should look at life through that prism to get clear about what really matters.