I have never quite gotten the Pat Tillman story out of my system. Only now am I understanding why.
It has been six years and two days since he died, his head blown off amid a pile of rocks on the side of a hill in Afghanistan, killed by guys on his own team, other U.S. soldiers. After lying about it, the military eventually called it friendly fire and treated it as a mistake. Horrible, yes, they said. But a mistake.
He was a football hero, a star safety for the Arizona Cardinals. Before that, he was a free spirit linebacker at Arizona State, whose hair flowed out of his helmet and whose tackles left physical and mental imprints.
When he walked away from a fat pro contract to become a soldier, fighting in the front lines of Iraq and Afghanistan, we all swooned. What a guy, what a hero, what a story.
We are so used to pro athletes being incapable of gazing beyond their own navels, unable to fathom anything of importance beyond their next contract and ensuing trip to the jewelry store, that we couldn't get enough of Tillman. Journalism celebrates the unusual, and this sure was.
Like other writers in the West, I had a head start. I had been face to face with Tillman, had met him, had a feel for him. Once, after an otherwise unmemorable UCLA-Arizona State game, my postgame question, as we walked along, brought him to a stop. I had danced around something controversial and he did what no other athlete, before or since, has done. He called me on it.
"That's not what you really want to know," he said. "Ask it again."
For the record:
An earlier version of this column said Pat Tillman had been "murdered by guys on his own team," which was subsequently changed to "killed by guys on his own team" to match the version that appeared in the print edition.
I did, this time straight to the point. He answered the same way. I was now a Pat Tillman fan. Veteran scribe learns from long-haired linebacker.
I laughed when he was taken near the end of the NFL draft and the babblers at ESPN assured all that he was too small to make it. They had likely never talked to him, certainly never been hit by him.
I loved the stories about him riding his bike to training camp and, when he drove, parking his junky old car next to the Beemers and Mercedes in the team lot.
When he died, when the tragedy dripped from the front pages and wept from the TV screens, I fell right in line. It was a story of heroics, the red, white and blue kind. It was more apple pie and Chevrolet than Don McLean, more American than John Wayne.
He wasn't just a hero. He was our hero.
In June 2006, I flew to San Jose to see Alex Garwood, Tillman's brother-in-law, who had been acting as a family spokesman in the absence of much speaking of any kind by the rest of the family. Garwood was cooperative, friendly and clearly a person who knew lots more than he was saying. By then, the story of Tillman being killed by the enemy had changed to friendly fire. Still, I didn't press Garwood much. I was looking for tears, when I should have been looking for facts.
My column ran on the Fourth of July. I blathered on about barbecues and water skiing with the family, about cherishing the freedoms we have because of heroes such as Tillman. All I missed were some rockets red glare. I was so pleased with myself. Heroes are a columnist's best friend.
Thursday night, on the sixth year anniversary of Tillman's death, I went to a screening of "The Tillman Story." It is a documentary about the quest of Tillman's mother, Mary (Dannie) Tillman, to get the real facts of what happened on that hillside. Halfway through, I was mortified. I realized why the Tillman story has stayed in my gut.
Dannie Tillman did what a nation full of high-paid, overblown journalists should have done. She went after the real story while the beautiful people on TV and the nerds with notepads broadcast and wrote morality plays. She got in the military's face, in the government's face. She didn't let up. She was doing journalism while journalists were doing what we mostly do now — chase Web hits and take short cuts to higher profits.
A housewife got the real story, or as much of it as anybody probably will. Professionals trained to do so gathered moss and wrote slop.
The youngest of the three Tillman boys, Richard, said of his mother, "She hit the ball out of the park, but the government kept moving the fences back."
The documentary won't be out until August. It won't be in many theaters, and it won't be around for long. You need to watch for it. It will make you angry and ashamed. Like I am.