Pat Tillman Statue
dabruins07/ Flickr

When we talk about great American athletes, we talk about Michael Jordan, Joe Montana, Babe Ruth, Bobby Orr and Mohammed Ali. Yes, they all were great American athletes, but we also have great athletes who were great Americans.

This may sound confusing to some people, but to me there is a difference. In this article as well as my next, I’ll be writing about American athletes that sacrificed for their country.

This first American’s death was full of corruption and cover-up. While following the story of Pat Tillman’s death, I thought, how could he give up a professional career in football to enlist in the U.S. Army, which was currently at war? How many professional athletes would do that? That’s the difference between great American athletes and great Americans.

Pat Tillman was born on November 6, 1976 in Fremont, California. He was the oldest of three brothers. He excelled at football in high school, where he helped lead his team to the championship.

He then went to Arizona State University on a football scholarship and played linebacker. He was the 1997 Pacific Athletic Conference’s 10th defensive player of the year. He was also good in the classroom, where he had a 3.85 GPA. In 1997 he helped his team go undefeated and make it to the Rose Bowl. In the 1998 NFL draft, Tillman was drafted in the 7th round by the Arizona Cardinals as a safety.

He was an NFL All-Pro in the year 200 and finished his NFL career with 238 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 3 interceptions, 3 forced fumbles and 3 fumble recoveries in 60 games. He played for the Cardinals from 1998 – 2001. He turned down a 3-year contract worth $3.6 million to enlist in the U.S. Army in 2002. That’s what makes this story so special to me.

In May of 2002, Tillman and his brother enlisted and served side-by-side. He was sent to Afghanistan in April 2004. In a little over two years he went from the football field to the battlefield. It was first reported that Tillman was killed by enemy combatants in an apparent ambush. After his burial, the Department of Defense and United States Congress did an investigation and ruled his death was by friendly fire.

It was also reported that in the days following his death, Army investigators knew that he was killed by friendly fire. The investigation also reported that members of his unit burned his body armour and uniform to cover up that fact. Several soldiers were punished for their actions. Tillman’s comrades were also ordered to lie to his family about his death. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2010. His jersey number 42 was retired by Arizona State, as was his number 40 by the Arizona Cardinals.

When we talk about great American athletes, we can go deeper than what they did as athletes. What about the sacrifices they made for others. Pat Tillman is an American hero.