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Former NFL Player Is Killed in Afghanistan

April 24, 2004|Sam Farmer, Thomas Bonk and John Hendren | Times Staff Writers

He was a nonconformist and a surfer dude, a football star and a scholar -- a 27-year-old with fame and fortune who traded both for life in a war zone.

On Friday, Pat Tillman was mourned as a fallen fighter in the war on terror and hailed as a hero who forsook celebrity in a society obsessed with it -- one who walked wordlessly away from the life of a National Football League millionaire and paid the ultimate price.

Tillman was killed in a firefight Thursday evening in southeastern Afghanistan when his Army Ranger patrol was ambushed near the village of Sperah, about 25 miles southwest of Khowst, the Pentagon confirmed Friday night. He was the only American soldier killed in the shootout. Two others were wounded, and an Afghan government soldier was killed.

Tillman was part of the elite 75th Ranger Regiment of Fort Lewis, Wash. Friends said he declined to be interviewed about his decision in 2002 to leave the NFL's Arizona Cardinals and enlist because he did not want to distinguish his sacrifice from those made by other troops.

He was lauded at the White House, where a statement called him "an inspiration both on and off the field."

On Capitol Hill a fellow Arizonan, Republican Sen. John McCain, said he was "heartbroken" by the news.

"The tragic loss of this extraordinary young man will seem a heavy blow to our nation's morale, as it is surely a grievous injury to his loved ones," McCain said.

Many American families have suffered the same sacrifice, McCain said. "But there is in Pat Tillman's example, in his unexpected choice of duty to his country over the riches and other comforts of celebrity, and in his humility, such an inspiration to all of us to reclaim the essential public-spiritedness of Americans that many of us, in low moments, had worried was no longer our common distinguishing trait," he added.

Tillman enlisted with his younger brother Kevin, a minor league baseball player in the Cleveland Indian organization.

Pat Tillman turned down a $3.6-million contract offer from the Cardinals, where he played four seasons after starring in football at Leland High School in San Jose and Arizona State University.

The brothers graduated from Army Ranger school in late 2002 and were deployed to the Middle East. They received the Arthur Ashe Courage Award from ESPN last year in Los Angeles -- an honor accepted by the youngest of the three Tillman boys, Richard, who attended the awards show with parents Pat Sr., an attorney, and Mary, a teacher.

On Friday morning, motorists honked as they drove past Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Ariz.

One person rolled down his window and screamed, "Go Pat!" said Mark Brand, associate athletic director at Arizona State, where flags flew at half-staff.

"We have been flooded with e-mails, voice mails, people that are not even football fans," Brand said.

Tillman enlisted shortly after returning from his honeymoon in Bora Bora with his wife, Marie, whom he dated at Leland High. They had no children.

While many pro athletes served in World War II and Korea, when a military draft was in place, Tillman was one of the few to interrupt a lucrative career to volunteer for war, especially since the Vietnam War, and his death places him in even rarer company. According to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, 21 active or former players were killed during World War II and two in Vietnam.

Tillman became one of more than 100 American soldiers killed in the line of duty during Operation Enduring Freedom, which began in Afghanistan in October 2001.

He was on a routine combat patrol as part of Operation Mountain Storm, part of a combined spring offensive by U.S. and Afghan troops to flush out and kill or capture Taliban and Al Qaeda forces believed to have spent the winter bivouacked along the Afghan border with Pakistan.The Rangers, named for the men who "ranged" the American frontier to protect settlers, are an elite special operations unit trained to handle some of the military's most difficult missions, including the raid on Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar's home in 2001.

"When [Pat] first came to talk to me about his decision, he said, 'There are men and women all over the country doing this,' " recalled Dave McGinnis, a Tennessee Titan assistant coach who was Arizona's head coach when Tillman left.

"He never really saw himself as unique or special."

But to those who knew him, Tillman was one of a kind -- a meticulous thinker, modest friend and ferocious tackler -- who rode a beach-cruiser bicycle to practice and let his long hair spill over his shoulders.

"I've been in this business for 25 years," said Brand, the Arizona State official. "He's the first person I have ever seen who came to college for four years and the college learned from him."

Tillman downplayed his achievements in the classroom at Arizona State, where he graduated summa cum laude in 3 1/2 years with a 3.84 grade-point average in marketing.

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