An Introduction to the Life and History of Pat Tillman

Categories: GovernmentMilitary

The Poster Boy

Three point six million dollars. Ninety-two times the median 2002 income.1 Enough money to buy fifteen average homes in that year.2 Pat Tillman passed on a three million, six hundred thousand dollar three-year contract to play strong safety for the Arizona Cardinals in the National Football League.3 Instead of receiving over a million dollars per year, he signed on with the United States Army for less than twenty-thousand dollars per year for three years.4 This pay cut of nearly two hundred percent is only the first sign of Pat Tillman’s great American heroism.

Tillman’s heroism extends even past his decision to join the military and also arises in his athletic career, and his humility and dedication in all aspects of his life make him one of the most powerful American heroes of the twenty-first century.

Pat Tillman’s heroism was a product of not only his military service, but also his football career. On their own, either of these aspects of his life have the potential to provide enough inspiration and earn enough admiration to garner heroic status on their own, but combined Tillman’s actions as an athlete-warrior5 make him truly stand out as a figure for heroism and inspiration.

1 De Navas-Walt, Carmen Robert W. Cleveland, Bruce H. Webster, Jr. Income in the United States: 2002,, (accessed 18 April 2015).

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2 “Median and Average Sales Prices of New Homes Sold in United States,”, (accessed 18 April 2015).

3 Krakauer, Jon. Where Men Win Glory, (New York.: Random House, 2009), 165.

4 Alex, Dan. “2002 Military Pay Scale – Effective January 1st, 2002”,, (accessed 18 April 2015).

5 Altheide, David L. Terrorism and the Politics of Fear, (Lanham, MD.:Altamira Press, 2006), 189.

In football, he was told that he would never be big enough to compete, even at the high school level.6 However, this only inspired Tillman to work harder, play smarter, and do his best to prove his naysayers wrong. After he reached the Division One collegiate level at Arizona State, he was still undersized but worked hard enough to earn Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year. Then, when it came time for the NFL draft, he refused to let the professional scouts leave his tryout until he was satisfied with his effort.7 His dedication paid off, and he reached the National Football League, where he again proved his doubters wrong and not only won the starting job for the Arizona Cardinals, but again excelled to become one of the best players in the NFL. Tillman’s football career has all the makings of a Hollywood movie; Tillman was the handsome, undersized, under-recruited yet hard-working athlete who went on to find great success through hard work and dedication, but in fact there is still more to Tillman’s heroism that ultimately immortalized him as one of the great American heroes.

September 11th, 2001 marked the first major assault on American soil since the attack on Pearl Harbor almost sixty years before. Across the country, there was a surge in patriotism and this patriotism especially resounded with Pat Tillman. Despite his successful and prestigious career as a professional athlete, Tillman felt drawn to serve his country and avenge those who had been killed by Osama bin Laden and his colleagues. For his “unexpected choice of duty to his country over the riches and other comforts of celebrity,”8 Tillman was vaulted from the stage of sports idol to American demigod and heroic poster boy. The awards poured in for Tillman,

6 Krakauer, Where Men Win Glory, 4.

7 Ibid., 86.

8 Altheide, Terrorism and the Politics of Fear, 190

even as he upheld the belief that his choice was not so much a choice as a duty to change what he saw as an injustice in the world around him.

Pat Tillman’s unique intersection of athletic and military fame is paralleled by few people in American history, and his military sacrifice is even more significant as he chose to enlist entirely out of his own impetus at the height of his career. As amazing as his announcement to enlist was, his heroism is even further inflated by his humility throughout his process and decision to choose to do what he felt was right. Americans across the country were outraged by the events of September 11th, and football players were no exception. Many spoke out against the events and in support of the victims, but Pat Tillman felt even more strongly than many of his peers. He was perturbed that his colleagues made “no discernible sacrifice” and simply continued to play football throughout the aftermath of the September 11th tragedy.9 His obligation to make a sacrifice after the attack on his country motivated Tillman to attempt to make that difference by joining the United States Army Rangers. Tillman delved into the details and carefully considered the pros and cons of such service.10 One of the biggest concerns, as with any job, but specifically for someone leaving such a high-profile occupation was the departure in pay, especially as Tillman reached the peak of his career. He had been offered 3.6 million dollars as part of a three year contract to continue playing for the Arizona Cardinals11, an offer that his agent strongly recommended he accept. Instead, Tillman made the decision to enlist in the Army with his brother, Kevin, for the base pay of one thousand, two hundred and ninety dollars per month.12 

9 Krakauer, Where Men Win Glory, 155.

10 Ibid., 156.

11 Ibid., 165.

12 Ibid., 166.

At the very moment in his life where he had reached the success for which he had worked so hard and overcome so many that did not believe he could do it, he walked away from it all. And in a society where military service is valued as heroism on its own, Tillman’s opportunity cost redoubles the sacrifice he made for his country with his service.

The manner in which Tillman enlisted and subsequently left his day job in the NFL in favor of an enlistment in the army is truly what illustrates his inspiring character. Tillman’s due diligence into the endeavor is evidence to the fact that he was truly dedicated to the cause rather than simply motivated by the prestige he would receive from his enlistment. His true intentions were proven by his reluctance to provide media interviews,13 and even his brief quotes show that his concern for and knowledge of the geopolitical climate at the time had made football seem increasingly unimportant to him.14 In no way was Pat Tillman motivated by the popular idea of a “G.I. Joe”-type war figure, but rather, his intentions were firmly rooted in a genuine desire to serve his country and to do what he believed was right in the wake of the atrocity that was September 11th.

Despite his best effort, the media and the nation eventually caught on to Tillman’s enlistment in the Rangers, and soon support and praise poured in from around the country. Even the secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, sent him a personally signed letter noting his patriotic service.15 From the highest echelons of the American society, Tillman had become a celebrity and hero that even eclipsed the potential for football stardom. However, Tillman dodged the praise because he viewed his decision to join the military as the morally right thing to

13 Ibid., 165

14 Altheide, Terrorism and the Politics of Fear, 190.

15 Donald Rumsfeld to Pat Tillman, June 28, 2002, Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, accessed online 20 April 2015.

do for his country. He made an effort to flee the public spotlight and asked that the Army avoid using him as a “poster boy.”16 Even when he and his brother were selected to receive the Arthur Ashe Courage Award as a part of the annual ESPY awards on a national broadcast, the Tillman brothers respectfully declined to attend the ceremony. Pat Tillman’s humility in the face of potentially endless fame and glory emphasizes the genuine nature of the sacrifice he made and the unselfish virtue of his actions.

Tillman’s decision and sacrifice was not incredibly surprising to those who knew him well, as those who knew him regarded him as a “once-in-a-lifetime kid,”17 whose upbringing led him to a principled stand to protect the vulnerable and uphold his promises.18 Both these virtues played out in Tillman’s military career as he made the decision to enlist because of the innocent lives that were lost on September 11th and he later made a decision to stay with the Army despite being offered the opportunity to return to the National Football League by opting out of his three-year contract with the Army. Pat was unafraid to step away from the norm and challenge himself with military service in the pursuit of justice, and he was known as a man of unwavering self-assurance,19 a trait which undoubtedly led to his decision to enlist and serve his country.

One of the first major challenges for Tillman during his service came when he was deployed to Iraq instead of Afghanistan as he had planned. His original decision to take such a principled stand and leave football for the military came in light of the actions of Osama bin Laden and his Afghanistan-based al-Qaeda terrorist network. Instead, Tillman was thrust into the

16 San Jose Mercury News, May 30, 2002.

17 Krakauer, Where Men Win Glory, 130.

18 Ibid., 23.

19 Ibid., 4.

war against Saddam Hussein; a war that he viewed as intensely illegal.20 Despite his opposition, he remained dedicated to his three-year commitment to the Army as he had promised and dutifully finished his deployment there. Tillman prided himself on not conforming to the typical jock stereotype and was widely read and enjoyed engaging in deep and independent thought,21 a quality that would contribute to his disdain for the war in Iraq. Tillman had a particular interest in the writing of anti-war professor Noam Chomsky and even had a meeting scheduled with him. Unfortunately, Tillman was killed in action before he could meet with Chomsky. Nonetheless, despite Tillman’s interest in independent and anti-war thought and his resulting objection to the controversial American invasion of Iraq, he remained dedicated, especially to the men and women around him and on the ground beside him as he served.

Tillman’s dedication was again tested when his agent, Frank Bauer, approached him with an opportunity to return to the National Football League for the 2004 season. Not only did he have the opportunity to return to the comfort and fortune of America, but it was to a team only minutes from his beloved wife and cottage in Washington state. The Seattle Seahawks offered to use their influence to convince the Army to offer Tillman the opportunity for honorable discharge a year before he was due to finish his service. Tillman set aside his own self-interest, the comforts of home, his wife and family, and wealth to continue his service and uphold his word and commitment to service.22 Any offer to play professional sports can be a convincing one, but especially so when that athlete would able to leave such a difficult lifestyle of service abroad and return to the comforts of home. Tillman could have taken the easy way out; he could have taken

20 San Francisco Chronicle, October 24, 2005, 6.

21 Ibid.

22 Krakauer, Where Men Win Glory, 256.

the fame of his partially completed service and returned to his status and safety under the bright lights of the Sunday night gridiron. Instead, he remained true to his word and refused to let down the men and women alongside whom he had served.

The great tragedy of Tillman’s decision to stay in the armed forces is that the opportunity to return home ultimately could have saved his life. Pat Tillman would have been a great hero, a model citizen, and a walking legend had he simply returned to his life in the NFL in 2004. Instead, he became a victim on the battlefields of the Middle East, the icon of fratricide for a generation, and an unwitting symbol of the military ineptitude that was the American involvement in the Middle East during the 2000s. Tillman’s death, tragically at the hands of his own platoon-mates, would be the final piece in an already convincing story that would elevate his status and heroism even past the unsolicited stardom that the athlete-warrior had already attained.

Not all heroes need to die in order to be immortalized, but Pat Tillman’s passing expanded his legendary status because the very worst scenario, the scenario that prevented so many other from following his footsteps, had occurred and he was killed in action. For all his potential, all his talent, and all his dedication, Pat Tillman would never be able to return home from the battlefields of Afghanistan to play football. Tillman did not need to die to become a hero, but his death created a catalytic moment that enthralled the country’s attention on a man whose heroism led to the ultimate sacrifice.

On April 22, 2004, Tillman and his platoon of Army Rangers were tasked with securing the village of Mana when one of their Humvees broke down.23 This forced the platoon to split into two groups, one to continue on with the mission and the other to drag the disabled vehicle to

23 Ibid., 282.

a paved road where it could be towed by allied forces back to the base for repairs. The two split at a fork in the road, but the group pulling the broken armored vehicle soon realized that their tow operation would not make it over the rugged path. This forced them to turn around and take the more circuitous pass to the paved road down the same road that the other group had taken. Further down that path, Pat Tillman and the other half of the platoon had taken fire from enemy forces hidden along the road. After successfully navigating, but never engaging those enemies, Tillman and his platoon spread out on high ground further down the road. However, unbeknownst to Tillman’s group, the other half of the platoon had changed their course to follow Tillman’s group. The second group also received fire from the enemy ambush, and upon reaching Tillman’s position, fired upon him and two other coalition servicemen. After a barrage of fire, both Tillman and an Afghan ally lay dead at the hands of their own platoon-mates.24

Tillman’s death had come at the hands of his friends and allies, but this fact would not be made known until almost a year later, even to his family. Tillman’s death would be caught up in the political battle to control the public opinion of the war. His death had become an important political battle because from the very first moment that news of Tillman’s decision to enlist broke until well after his death, his public image was as much a media construction as truth in order to fulfill the archetype of the American hero.25 Pat Tillman, as much as he avoided it, had become the face of the wars in the Middle East.

While this persona had not been of much importance to the mild-mannered Tillman, it did matter to the United States Army, the Department of Defense, and President George W. Bush’s administration. Bush was preparing to seek re-election against John Kerry and was already

24 Ibid., 286-319.

25 Altheide, Terrorism and the Politics of Fear, 187.

weathering the blowback against the military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. For President Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, framing the Tillman incident as a valiant but unfortunate sacrifice against the nation’s enemy would make people feel good about the country and its military.26 This was especially important as the Bush administration hoped to distract from the Abu Ghraib scandal that had broken months earlier, and was being brought into the limelight as a result of a 60 Minutes feature that was scheduled to air only weeks after Tillman’s death.27 From their point of view, Tillman’s death at the hands of his own comrades was just another sign that America was failing in the Middle East. Unfortunately, this resulted in a chain of lies and deceit regarding the actual circumstances of Pat Tillman’s death in an attempt to rally national morale.

The scandal surrounding Tillman’s death is important to his legacy because of the publicity it brought to his true story of heroism. There was no longer a need to build the media persona of Pat Tillman. From his very early days in the military he had been regarded by high ranking state officials as a “great recruiting tool,” as John McCain put it in 200228, but after his death he was immortalized alongside the failed search for weapons of mass destruction and the Abu Ghraib prison scandal as a testament against America’s infallibility29 However, Pat Tillman is a hero not by the way he died, but by the way he lived. He lived humbly and honestly and followed what drove him, and for that he deserves to be remembered. By a cruel twist of fate, it

26 Krakauer, Where Men Win Glory, 350.

27 Ibid., 348.

28 Los Angeles Times, May 30, 2002.

29 Herbig, Art. “Discursive Characterization,” in The Rhetoric of American Exceptionalism: Critical Essays, ed. Jason A Edwards and David Weiss (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co, 2011), 149.

is likely that a man who lived so well and strived to make his life so virtuous will be remembered for the unfortunate way he died, and the subsequent response from the United States government.

Pat Tillman could have become a legend for so many reasons. For his dedication and prowess on the football field, for his sacrifice and continued dedication to his country, and for his tragic death. Instead, he is a hero because of the collaboration of all three of these facets. His humility allowed him to walk away from his comfortable and envious life as a professional athlete to serve his country and his dedication helped him not only to get to that position in the National Football League, but also to turn down the easy way out from his commitment to military service. Not everyone has the opportunity to turn down millions of dollars to serve their country, but Pat Tillman provides an idol from which every American can pull inspiration on how to live as a great citizen.


Works Cited

Books and Articles:

  1. Alex, Dan. “2002 Military Pay Scale – Effective January 1st, 2002”,, (accessed 18 April 2015).
  2. Altheide, David L. Terrorism and the Politics of Fear, (Lanham, MD.:Altamira Press, 2006).
  3. Herbig, Art. “Discursive Characterization,” in The Rhetoric of American Exceptionalism: Critical Essays, ed. Jason A Edwards and David Weiss (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co, 2011), 149.
  4. Krakauer, Jon. Where Men Win Glory, (New York.: Random House, 2009).


  1. Los Angeles Times, May 30, 2002.
  2. San Francisco Chronicle, October 24, 2005, 6.
  3. San Jose Mercury News, May 30, 2002.

Public Records:

  1. De Navas-Walt, Carmen, Robert W. Cleveland, Bruce H. Webster, Jr. Income in the United States: 2002,, (accessed 18 April 2015).
  2. Donald Rumsfeld to Pat Tillman, June 28, 2002, Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, accessed online 20 April 2015.
  3. “Median and Average Sales Prices of New Homes Sold in United States,”, (accessed 18 April 2015).

Cite this page

An Introduction to the Life and History of Pat Tillman. (2021, Oct 10). Retrieved from

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