February 3, 2015
By Judy Battista
There is a wall in the head coach’s office at Arizona State University that features some unusual decor. It is a kind of wallpaper, displaying words and pictures, that coach Todd Graham points to whenever he sits down on his office sofa to woo a recruit and his family.
When Graham got the job in Tempe three years ago, he knew almost immediately that the school already had the ideal role model for the players he would coach. He had noticed that in the athletic department displays that listed the honors earned by Sun Devil players — All-American, Academic All-American, College Football Hall of Fame — just one name appeared on every one of the lists. And so Pat Tillman is the only player featured in Graham’s office, the only player every recruit hears about, the person — more than 16 years after he graduated from Arizona State and was drafted by the neighboring Arizona Cardinals, almost 11 years since his death — whose influence and impact continues to ripple out from a singular life story told on that wall.
“Every recruit, we sit down, we talk about the values of character, integrity, honesty, discipline and passion,” Graham said. “He embodied the values we are trying to teach. Not one player comes to our place that they don’t hear about his story. He competed and achieved at the highest level on the field and in the classroom; he did more community service. When we talk about heart and having the heart of a champion and about winning every day, Pat maxed out every day.”
As the teams and visitors alight on University of Phoenix Stadium for Super Bowl XLIX on Feb. 1, they will see the bronze statue, which often has red flowers stuck in its hands by fans, depicting Tillman running on the field and screaming, with his long hair flying behind him. They will be reminded of his extraordinary saga, about how Tillman came from Northern California to become an Arizona State legend at linebacker, about how he was a seventh-round draft pick by the Cardinals and became a starting safety, about how he walked away from his career to become an Army Ranger after the Sept. 11 attacks, about how he died in Afghanistan in April, 2004.
The statue is a static tribute to Tillman, but he was famously dynamic and unconventional, whether he was running marathons in the offseason or challenging his college coaches when they pondered redshirting him. Tillman remains the most visible Sun Devil and Cardinal — his jerseys are still widely worn by fans of both teams, often by people who never saw him play in person — and in an odd way, he still elevates and burnishes the profiles of those teams.
But it is most fitting that the reach of a man who spent time in juvenile detention following a teenage fight — but also read Thoreau — remains as wide-ranging as his interests. That reach is evident in thousands of gestures both small and grand, and in the ways that Tillman’s life is now shaping others.
More than a handful of people who never met Tillman have named their children after him. But John Eddy did know Tillman — they were acquaintances at Arizona State, having met at a famous local burger spot. Eddy grew up in subsidized housing not far from the Tempe campus, and football forged a bond between Eddy and his father, who had multiple sclerosis. Father and son occasionally were able to attend games and, while Eddy was not a strong student, his father always talked to him about the importance of going to college. Eddy said he was in awe of the atmosphere on a Football Saturday, and their love of the Arizona State team forced Eddy to take an interest in the school.
Eddy’s father died about 40 days before he began college, and Eddy admits that he struggled with many of his classes. He said he probably would never have gone in the first place — and probably would not have stayed — were it not for the connection to the school the football team gave him.
Eddy ran into Tillman occasionally on campus and followed his career after he was drafted.
“I had completed college, and really didn’t have direction and maybe even a decent moral compass through what I was doing,” Eddy said. “When he up and left the NFL to join the military, for some reason, and seeing him in college, having him do that, it made me realize I had to readjust how I approached life, what matters. It was just a great inspiration for me.”
Eddy is now a partner in a private equity company in Denver. He recently gave $700,000 to endow a scholarship for a football player in Tillman’s name, hoping that the money will help someone who might not necessarily make it to the NFL, but who could use the opportunity football provides to get an education and to make contacts.
“I completely changed my life,” Eddy said. “I went in a direction where I met positive people; I met my wife. Having success, I started thinking about all these young guys that play football that meant so much to me (and) the opportunity to get a four-year degree by playing football. I wanted them to recognize the type of person Pat Tillman was. He was not about celebrity or money. He was about being honorable, being well read. He just walked his own path.
“I knew this incredible experience of football would change a lot of lives.”
When Perry Edinger, a physician’s assistant at Phoenix Children’s Hospital who was Tillman’s athletic trainer at ASU, was helping to brainstorm ways to honor Tillman after his death, he advocated for a run, because that is what Tillman liked to do. He had no idea how many people would want to participate until he heard from a school teacher who was bringing 50 others to the run. That was how Edinger learned that Tillman had been quietly going to the school on his off days during the NFL season, without telling anyone, to read to children.
The 4.2-mile run — 42 was Tillman’s number at Arizona State (he wore 40 for the Cardinals) — raises money for the Pat Tillman Foundation, which awards scholarships for military veterans who want to continue their education. In 2008, Tillman’s widow, Marie, decided to direct funds to vets who frequently encounter additional costs from supporting a family while returning to school at an older age. There are currently 347 scholars at 98 universities with another class about to be selected. Last year, the foundation received nearly 8,000 applications, eventually providing aid for 58 servicemembers, veterans and military spouses. The scholars are pursuing everything from bachelor’s degrees to medical degrees to MBAs.
“What is incredibly amazing, 10 years on, is we are at 35,000 people (who) can run the race, and we get 35,000,” said Michelle McCarthy, the foundation’s director of brand and communications. “It’s incredibly inspiring. We get donations, large and small. It’s amazing the notes they send, people who are inspired by Pat’s story and are trying to educate their kids, who weren’t even born.”
Edinger believes those scholars are Tillman’s greatest legacy, because of the impact their education will have on society. But Jake Plummer, Tillman’s teammate with the Sun Devils and the Cardinals, thinks his friend’s impact is housed in those who run in Tempe.
“The run is big — it has spread across the United States, and most of those people think of him as a war hero and want to honor him for what he did for the country,” Plummer said. “At Arizona State, a lot more of those people met Pat. Pat really had a big impact on them. They’re doing it for all the right reasons, all the reasons Pat ran marathons in the offseason — challenging themselves to be better people.
“That will be his legacy in my eyes. Not that he fought for our country. What he did as a person for ASU and the Cardinals and the Valley, how he lived, people can still try to live up to those standards.”
Originally posted on NFL.com
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