Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Tillman and Staat- the best of US..

In San Jose, Tillman's legacy lives on, but quietly By Marco R. della Cava, USA TODAY SAN JOSE, Calif. — By Mike Haskey, AP He took a fancy to Marie Ugenti, the daughter of a team coach, and wound up marrying her.He took offense when a friend was bullied and pummeled the aggressor so fiercely that he was sentenced to 30 days in a juvenile detention center.He took exception to being pulled from a Leland Chargers rout, so he sneaked back on the field and returned the kickoff for a touchdown. That sort of personality isn't easily forgotten. So it is not a surprise to come upon a shrine of notes and flowers in one of the school's sun-splashed courtyards. But on closer inspection, there's a shock: A banner reads, "Goodbye, Gumby Girl, we'll miss you!" The memorial is for a Leland student who died April 24, not the 27-year-old who lost his life April 22 in Afghanistan and whose statistics most Americans know cold. Gave up a $3.6 million contract with the Arizona Cardinals. Made the grade as an $18,000-a-year Army Ranger. First NFL player to die in war in 34 years. He is being publicly mourned today in San Jose. Nothing at the school hints at his death. And school officials, friends and many former teammates have acceded to the family's wishes for silence.This, too, is what Pat Tillman would have wanted. Despite wearing an outsized persona on a compact frame — his long hair and flip-flops screamed California cool — Tillman never played the prima donna. When he and his brother Kevin enlisted, they drove from Phoenix to a Denver recruiting station to keep the move quiet. Not only did Tillman shun interviews, but he even balked at autograph sessions where fans had to pay for the privilege."Pat would say, 'Tell that (promoter) dude to pound sand; I'm not having any kid spend money for my autograph,' " says his agent, Frank Bauer. "They talk about impact players — well, he was an impact person. Pat never talked about himself and always looked out for others. After he'd call our office, we'd joke that John Wayne just got off the phone." Just as the Duke became a national symbol, some might suggest the same iconography awaits Tillman — even though the concept would repel him. Beyond a Silver Star and the Purple Heart, the soldier also will be honored by the Cardinals, who announced they will name a site near their new stadium Pat Tillman Freedom Plaza. And his alma mater, Arizona State University, is deciding on a tribute that will last beyond an impromptu memorial. Popular sentiment also runs high. The online auction site eBay is brimming with Tillman memorabilia, such as a replica jersey ($152) and an autographed football ($640). Web chat rooms buzz with Tillman talk. Most of it features the word "sacrifice," but there is some dissent. Graduate student Rene Gonzalez, writing in the Daily Collegian at the University of Massachusetts, stirred controversy by suggesting that Tillman is less hero and more Rambo, motivated by "nationalist patriotic fantasies." Others say all soldiers who give their lives should receive such attention. But Tillman's choice certainly seems a rare, selfless gesture in Me-centric times. Put another way: Would you trade fame and immense fortune for danger and possible death? Those who take that gamble inherently embrace the heroic, says Gail Evenari, director of The Heroism Project, a non-profit educational foundation."The traditional definition of a hero is someone who leaves an ordinary life for a calling, overcomes obstacles and brings a contribution back to the community," Evenari says. "Certainly (he) seems a perfect example of that ethic." Men who shared sporting trenches with Tillman always considered him inspirational."I wasn't surprised" that Tillman had enlisted, says the Philadelphia Eagles' Darwin Walker, who was a Cardinals teammate in 2000. "In life, people that are great have a little something different about them. That was Pat." But the man had a sense of mischief as well as mission. Mark Brand, an assistant athletic director at ASU, never forgot one away game against UCLA. After a stunning comeback win, ASU players ran over to their fans. Not Tillman. By most accounts, Tillman was motivated by deep convictions with mostly unseen roots. Even Tillman's childhood home is hidden from view behind a sprawl of greenery that dominates this rural neighborhood. At one end of the winding country road — where new Stars and Stripes sprout from trees and utility poles — is the Almaden Feed & Fuel, a rustic steak-and-potatoes joint where patrons and staff alike are mum on all things Tillman. At the other end, a plaque commemorates an 1824 dig, the first time ore was mined from the state's hills. Though Bauer says his client had "high principles that underpinned everything he did," he doesn't think Tillman was formally religious. The Tillman household — which includes Pat Sr., a lawyer; Mary, a teacher; and a third son, Richard, who is pursuing a career in comedy — was strict but not obsessively so. Clues are hard to come by, but the biggest insight into Tillman's decision to leave the NFL came the day after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Facing an Arizona camera crew, Tillman uncharacteristically spoke: "My great-grandfather was at Pearl Harbor, and a lot of my family has gone and fought in wars, and I really haven't done a damn thing as far as laying myself on the line like that. And so I have a great deal of respect for those that have and what the flag stands for." Some speculated that Tillman lost a friend in the attacks, but that was never confirmed. Two years ago Tuesday, Pat and Marie were married; they honeymooned in Bora Bora. Shortly after, Tillman and his brother Kevin, who played minor league baseball in the Cleveland Indians' organization, decided to leave their sports careers behind. They volunteered with the Army; their target was the elite Ranger corps. Initiates like the Tillmans clean latrines for months, and fitness tests make even grueling pro workouts seem cush. This was Tillman territory."Pat was always about pushing himself to the breaking point, and then going beyond that," says Jeremy Staat, who played with Tillman at ASU and is now with the Los Angeles Avengers arena football team. "To know him is not to be able to describe him." Their bond was brotherly. As Tillman was deployed, he asked his agent to check on Staat. "Here he's going into a war, and he's making sure someone is going to check on me," Staat says. The two buddies were "headstrong, confident and arrogant," Staat says. This led to heated discussions that "were almost physical." This always impressed Staat, who at 6-foot-5 and 300 pounds towered over his 5-foot-11 pal. But Tillman never backed down.Staat says he has mixed feelings about sharing his thoughts, but "I also feel he needs to be remembered," he says. He describes a casual college kid who kept his mattress on the floor until Marie persuaded him to spruce up the place with a bed frame. A guy who would be contrary just to spice up a conversation but also have your back on the field the instant you needed help. And then there is a recollection of a keepsake, treasured long before today's climate in which national hearts often are worn on sleeves. Though Tillman was a football standout with a 3.84 GPA, the only trophy on his apartment wall was a small piece of paper with childlike artwork. "It was a hand-drawn American flag. That's all that was up there," he says. "Nothing about himself or what he'd accomplished. Just that flag."

No comments: