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The greatest Sun Devil

ASU figures share memories of Tillman

 by Christopher Drexel
 published on Monday, April 26, 2004

Specialist Pat Tillman marches as he performs the honor of being the guidon bearer during graduation ceremonies Friday morning, Oct. 25, 2002 on Sand Hill at Fort Benning, Ga. Tillman, the former Arizona Cardinals star who walked away from a multimillion-/issues/sports/671105
Specialist Pat Tillman marches as he performs the honor of being the guidon bearer during graduation ceremonies Friday morning, Oct. 25, 2002 on Sand Hill at Fort Benning, Ga. Tillman, the former Arizona Cardinals star who walked away from a multimillion-
 

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The news of former ASU star linebacker and Arizona Cardinals' strong safety Pat Tillman's death has made waves on a national level. But the news perhaps carried no more of an impact than at Sun Devil Stadium, where Tillman's football career took off at both the collegiate and professional level and where his name separated itself from other soldiers serving in the Middle East.

On Friday, ASU Athletic Director Gene Smith said that Tillman brought a face to many Americans who did not know anybody specifically serving in Afghanistan or Iraq. In the athletic department, however, those who did know Tillman -- a native of San Jose, Calif. -- from his days as a Sun Devil, were quick to share their memories and point out what kind of a man he was.

Tillman -- the former 1997 Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year for the Sun Devils who also registered over 200 tackles in one season for the Cardinals -- was killed during a firefight Thursday on the east coast of Afghanistan while serving for the Army Rangers. Tillman turned down a $3 million dollar contract with the Cardinals to join the Rangers in the summer of 2002.

"He didn't think he was doing anything super special. I think he thought he was doing what he was supposed to do," said Associate Director for Media Relations Doug Tammaro, who knew Tillman well.

ASU Manager for Academic Services Mike McBride agreed.

"Pat did this after 9/11," he said. "I think he viewed it as something that absolutely had to be done. When Pat made a decision, Pat made a decision for what he felt was right for him. He wouldn't be there if he didn't feel like he was doing what was right. You got to love and respect a guy like that."

Throughout his time as a Sun Devil, Tillman was repeatedly referred to as a "free spirit," and was one of the few football players to sport hair that extended past his shoulders. Stories of him climbing the light towers at Sun Devil Stadium to read and telling former ASU head coach Bruce Snyder he would not redshirt his freshman year because he had "things to do" with his life have become part of ASU lore.

Perhaps not as well known was Tillman's success as a student. He graduated with honors, and in three-and-a-half years, with a degree in marketing from the W.P. Carey School of Business, and carried a 3.84 GPA.

"He absolutely excelled as well as any student athlete that I've seen since I've been here," McBride said. "I don't think it came natural to him. What came natural to him was his hard work and competitive nature and his desire to learn. He taught a lot of lessons to people who didn't put out the effort all the time.

"He was a balanced guy in every aspect of his life. He could talk to any guy from any background in any culture, and he could find a way to connect with you one way or another. But he wasn't going to cut short his own view of the world. If he believed in something, he believed in it."

McBride was able to develop a relationship with Tillman that lasted after his ASU career was done. When Tillman was on the Cardinals, McBride's family opened up a business in the Valley, and Tillman came to the grand opening to sign autographs.

"Being the student that he was, there was very little I could to do to help him," McBride added. "He was taking care of business all the time."

The last time McBride spoke with him, Tillman was getting off a military plane in Seattle during a break from serving in Iraq last year and called McBride. The reason -- to have McBride help one of his friends from high school apply to get into ASU.

"He was calling me to try to help her understand what she had to do to turn in the application and all that kind of stuff," McBride said. "So he's getting off the plane after serving in Iraq, and he's helping out one of his high school buddies.

"That's what kind of guy he is, and that's why he's important to a lot people here you talk to. Everybody has a story on Pat, everybody."

While Tillman was far from the biggest player on the field, he will always be remembered for being one of the toughest players to ever go through ASU's program.

"He was undersized for his position, just like I was, so we kind of understood each other," said Ricky Boyer, a teammate of Tillman's on the 1996 Sun Devil team that went to the Rose Bowl.

"He just went balls-out every single play. I remember watching Pat go take out linemen just because. The play may have been over there, but he's not going to quit. He's going to find someone of an opposite color to hit. He didn't care how big you were or how fast you were -- he was going to try to take you down. And I just imagine he was the same way over there (in the Middle East)."

Boyer went on to talk of Tillman's straightforwardness and his abilities as a leader.

"Pat was quiet, but he would let you know how he felt. He was not the type of person that would beat around the bush. If he had a problem with you, he would come talk to you face-to-face, as a man. He would let you know if you needed to get in gear.

"I was on the offensive side, and I had to face him. He never, ever took a play off against me. It could be Thursday before a Saturday game and he was going to be physical. He would always tell me, 'if I take a play off, do you think Nebraska or Washington or USC is going to take a play off?' "

Boyer added that while Tillman was tough on the football field, nothing could have prepared him for war.

"A football game is even on both sides," Boyer said. "Right now, our guys are over there fighting blind. They're going off of intelligence, which I'm quite sure is pretty good, but at the same time, there is only so much intelligence you can have.

"Our guys may study, they may look over maps, but once you get in those hills and in those rocks and over in Iraq in those cities where there are people hiding in huts -- my heart goes out to them. They're doing a tremendous thing out there, and I couldn't do it."

Tammaro said that he met with Tillman in January, when Tammaro was in the Seattle for an ASU basketball road trip. The two had dinner along with Tillman's brother Kevin, who is currently still serving as a Ranger.

"Pat was asking me more questions than I was asking him," Tammaro said. "He wanted to know how everyone in this building was doing. He wanted to know how the strength coach was doing. He wanted to know how the academic people were doing. He asked me about the football team and basketball team.

"He went through his whole '96 roster and asked me who I was still staying in touch with because he hasn't been able to as much, but he wanted to."

But amongst all the mixed emotions and memories of Tillman, the feeling of shock was the one that was most prevalent.

"Pat had that certain invincibility aura about him where you think, 'nothing could happen to that guy,' " McBride said. "That's another thing that brings shock value to the whole thing. You were like, wow, you thought he was superman."

Reach the reporter at christopher.drexel@asu.edu.



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