The portrait hangs on the wall just behind the middle of three taping stations players use inside the training room of the Cardinals’ Tempe practice facility.
Pat Tillman’s face, frozen in his 1999 team headshot, looks out into the room. The picture carries no description, although one isn’t needed.
“I know on days when I am feeling sorry for myself getting ready to go to practice, I see his picture and remember his sacrifice and I try to think of his mentality,” veteran center
Next week – April 22, to be exact – marks the 10-year anniversary of Tillman’s death. His story is a famous one, the football player who walked away from a three-year Cardinals contract offer to join the Army. That alone would have etched him in history. Then came his tragic end, killed in Afghanistan in a sobering turn the day before the 2004 NFL draft. Tillman didn’t even need to be there, having instead agreed to spend one more Middle East tour after his first had ended.
It turned out Tillman had been lost to friendly fire (ESPN will air an interview with one of the accidental shooters next week) but that day a decade ago, it was just a stunning loss in wartime of a man who had meant so much in Arizona.
The morning the news got out, Cardinals then-vice president Michael Bidwill and center Pete Kendall, who had played with Tillman before he had joined the Army, addressed the media. Tillman hadn’t played for the team since the 2001 season but still remained friends with many in the organization. During the Cardinals’ road trip to Seattle at the end of the 2003 season, Tillman – at that point stationed in the area – stayed at the team hotel for the weekend and made a quick visit to the locker room after the game.
“I remember coming out of the meal room (at the hotel) and seeing him, and that was cool for me,” said Damien Anderson, a running back on the 2003 team who now serves as the Cardinals’ manager of alumni programs. “You hear stories and you understood what he represented. Everyone gets fixated on professional athletes and don’t get me wrong, it’s a great profession, but there are not many people I would tell my son to aspire to be like. Pat was one of those people. He was willing to sacrifice for something greater than himself.”
The last Cardinal to have played with Tillman was fellow safety Adrian Wilson, who would have taken Tillman’s starting job in 2002 even if Tillman actually signed that three-year contract he had been offered. Wilson was released last year, putting further distance between the team and his one-time place with it.
Still, Sendlein remembers. He grew up in Arizona, grew up rooting for Tillman when he played for Arizona State, and even met Tillman a couple of times while playing high school football.
“I always admired his passion,” Sendlein said. “I didn’t know him off the field but they say he carried it through his workouts and everything he did. To grow up (watching) a guy like that, with the work ethic and passion, it was a sad day when he died.
“I remember the interview he gave where he was talking about how he hadn’t done anything. To this day, that gives me chills. It’s inspiring. It makes me want to do more than what we do.”
That interview (shown below) was done by the Cardinals’ broadcasting department the day after the 9/11 attacks, at a time most consider the genesis of Tillman’s eventual move to the military. Tillman battled for coach Dave McGinnis through that 7-9 season, playing his final NFL game in the freezing rain of Washington D.C.
Less than three years later, he was gone.
Tillman has been put into the Cardinals’ Ring of Honor, and the annual Pat’s Run race – this year held April 26 – puts his story back in the spotlight this team every year. He is only a story for many around here now, only a face on a picture hanging in the training room.
Yet his tale still resonates, even to someone like
“I don’t know much about him, but the first thing that comes to mind is courageous,” Mathieu said. “To walk away from football, I can’t fathom me ever doing that. That’s a tough decision to make and then to go fight in the war, to lose his life. You give up a certain life for the greater good of our country and that’s really what it is. Most football players wouldn’t do that.
“When I think about him, I think about a person willing to sacrifice anything for a better cause. Because of that, his legend will live forever.”