On this date, April 22, 16 years ago, former NFL star Pat Tillman lost his life in Afghanistan while serving as a member of the U.S. Army Rangers.
Tillman was killed in action as his 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, was involved in Operation Mountain Storm in southeastern Afghanistan. The former Cardinals player was “an inspiration both on and off the football field,”the Bush White House said in a statement at the time, the Mercury News reported.
Tillman left a successful, four-year NFL career to join the U.S. Army after the horrendous terror attacks perpetrated by radical Muslim terrorists on September 11, 2001. After graduating from boot camp in September of 2002, he began preparing to become a Ranger.
Tillman’s unit was ambushed by enemy forces and split into two tactical units to respond to the attack. Tillman’s contingent turned back when they heard their companions under fire, but when they neared their fellows, they were fired upon by their own troops. Tillman was hit during the brief salvo of gunfire and died from his wounds.
The former NFL player’s death hit his home community hard.
Randy Zimmer, Tillman’s Leland High School coach, said that the player was “bigger than life” for the kids in San Jose’s Almaden Valley. “Even more important than that, for those of us that knew him, he was just Pat. He wasn’t Pat, the football player. Just Pat. Somebody we loved,” Zimmer added.
Tillman’s family were devastated, but they also worked to honor the soldier’s wishes by not making his death a political issue.
“I spoke with his mom and dad today, and it’s been really tough,” Terry Hardtke, the coach at Leland, when Tillman was a senior, told the media at the time. “They want to respect Pat’s wishes of not talking to the media, so I’m going to honor that, too.
“There were things that he thought were phony, and he thought news conferences about joining the Army were phony,” Tillman’s college coach, Bruce Snyder, added. “I think it’s worthwhile for all of us to gain an appreciation for him. He was not created by the media. This stuff was very real. I’ve never been around anybody like him.”
Tillman was not thought to be a great college prospect, but he proved to be a hard worker and an excellent player despite the naysayers.
When it came time to move on to the NFL, the Cardinals drafted him in the seventh and final round, with the 226th selection. Tillman joined the Cardinals as a safety and soon became one of their most popular players. He quickly set a franchise record with 224 tackles in 2000. Tillman was so loyal to the Cardinals that in 2001 he turned down a five-year, $9 million offer from the St. Louis Rams. He stayed with Arizona, even though the Cardinals paid him only $512,000 that season.
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