Commentary

Pat Tillman to Canton? It isn't necessary

The intent is certainly good, but the debate about his worthiness is uncomfortable

Originally Published: July 8, 2011
By Johnette Howard | ESPN.com

The re-energized campaign to get Pat Tillman into the Pro Football Hall of Fame undoubtedly springs from a well-intentioned place. Tillman's heroic life choices and tragic death symbolize a lot of things to a lot of people. His character and motives were unimpeachable.

Talk about getting Tillman into Canton crops up every now and then, and it's been a topic in the blogosphere again lately. (The College Football Hall of Fame inducted him in December and will honor him in its annual Enshrinement Festival in South Bend, Ind., next weekend.) But after the U.S. government subverted the real story of how Tillman died on a battlefield in Afghanistan in 2004, and after Tillman's family had to doggedly push until it got the truth, part of me looks at this current inside-football debate about his "worthiness" for the NFL's Hall and thinks this: If this is how "remembering" Pat Tillman is going to be, can we please leave him alone already? Before what he stood for gets hijacked again?

[+] EnlargePat Tillman
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesPat Tillman was a very good football player and, by all accounts, a great person. Perhaps that's the way he should be remembered.

The last thing Tillman's story needs is another phony narrative about his life. A story such as his should need no embellishing. He enlisted because he wanted to help fight Osama bin Laden and terrorism. He was a hero, pure and simple, a millionaire athlete and deeply philosophical man who left the high school sweetheart he had just married and gave up his ascending NFL career at age 25 to become an elite Army Ranger shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks of 2001.

Even now, seven years after Tillman's accidental death by friendly fire during an ambush in Afghanistan, it is hard to overstate the deep feelings he still evokes, especially among people who personally knew him. Glen Lacroix got to know Tillman during a seven-hour conversation with him in the field shortly before his death. An accomplished man in his own right, Lacroix -- a 38-year-old former Army sergeant who did undercover intelligence work in combat zones and was twice wounded during tours in Iraq and Afghanistan -- spoke with Tillman just weeks before his death about whether he might want to pursue intelligence work someday.

"I have two heroes in my life," Lacroix says now. "My father is one. And Pat Tillman is the other. That's it."

But getting Tillman into Canton pales next to the many, many more meaningful ways of remembering him. If someone really wants to really honor Tillman's memory, why not start with some of the programs that the Pat Tillman Foundation runs to help military veterans and their families? Lacroix is among the many people the foundation has touched. (More on that in a minute.)

As Tillman's dear friend and former Arizona Cardinals head coach Dave McGinnis points out, Tillman was an All-American at Arizona State and a bona fide choice for the college Hall of Fame. But Tillman never had time in his four-year NFL career as a standout Cardinals safety to fully establish himself as Canton material before he chose to enlist.

McGinnis, now a Tennessee Titans senior assistant coach, stresses that no one should presume to say what Tillman might think of the push to get him into the Pro Football Hall.

"But," McGinnis says, "I do know from my close association with him that Pat Tillman was never about any honor or fame for Pat Tillman. Never."

We also know from things Tillman wrote and said before he died that he was adamant about wanting no special treatment because he felt a calling to service. He and his brother Kevin (who enlisted with him and survived the same ambush firefight in which Pat died) refused to grant interviews before they left for the war. Pat signed papers saying he did not want a full military funeral. He told a fellow combat soldier that one of his fears was that the U.S. government would parade his body through the streets to gin up feelings against America's enemies. And he was right. It tried.

Next to all of that, the debate going on right now about Tillman's football abilities seems trite. And the way Tillman is being singled out for a distinction that none of the previous 22 NFL players who died in battle received seems to be exactly what Tillman said he didn't want.

McGinnis says that when he thinks of Tillman, what comes to mind is "integrity. Honesty. Bravery. Conviction." He can tell stories about walking into the Cardinals' public relations office the day the 9/11 attacks happened and finding Tillman fixated on the coverage "with his eyes just burning a hole into the TV screen." McGinnis remembers the next day, when Tillman tore out a full-page American flag printed in the Arizona Republic and taped it up in a team meeting room. He recalls Tillman coming to him months later to say he was turning down a $3.9 million new contract to enlist.

[+] EnlargeDave McGinnis
AP Photo/Jason WiseHis head coach with the Cardinals, Dave McGinnis, eulogized Tillman at a memorial two weeks after his death.

The coach still can see Tillman when he visited before a 2003 Cardinals game in Seattle, too. Tillman had just returned from his first combat tour in Iraq and was about to ship out to Afghanistan. They had a long heart-to-heart and hugged after the game. Then, as McGinnis told me a few years ago the first time I spoke with him: "That's the last time I ever saw Pat."

Something else McGinnis told me back then never left me, and it sounded a lot like something Lacroix said Wednesday: "You didn't know Pat Tillman," McGinnis said. "But you'd have liked him.

"I loved Pat Tillman."

Lacroix now says, "I refuse to say Pat Tillman 'was,' because he's still alive to me, and in me." It's another example of how Tillman's impact goes far beyond football and remains a profoundly vibrant, active force. If anyone really wants to throw himself into doing something important to honor Tillman, helping his foundation or other veterans programs would be a terrific place to start. Not Canton. The promotional geniuses and purse-string gatekeepers at the NFL also could re-evaluate whether the money they put into those military jet flyovers at big games -- they cost $500,000 a pop, according to a Washington Post report during this year's Super Bowl -- could be better spent. The cost of one flyover represents more than half of the $900,000 the Pat Tillman Foundation is giving this year to its Tillman Military Scholars alone. So far, there are 171 of them.

Lacroix was medically discharged from the military in December 2005, and thanks in part to financial help from the foundation, he's now a year from finishing his degree in psychology at the University of Arizona. After that, he intends to get his doctorate in physical therapy because, "Every time I was injured, it was one of those things where they treat the mind and they treat the body, but they don't treat both at the same time." He's also student director of the study and resource center at UA's Veterans Education and Transition Services program. And he's heading to the three-day Legacy Summit the Tillman Foundation will hold this weekend at the University of Maryland's main campus and nearby Washington, D.C.

Lacroix -- an intelligent, passionate, committed man with a strong loyalty to the sports teams in his hometown of Boston -- is the sort of man Tillman was talking about when he emphasized that he considered himself to be just like any other person who chose to serve his country.

[+] EnlargePat Tillman
AP Photo/Roy DabnerThe Arizona Cardinals inducted Tillman into their Ring of Honor in 2006.

Lacroix knows from firsthand experience that the needs of returning vets and their families are great but often underfunded. It can be hard for them to integrate back into the community, hard to pay for college or find jobs in this economy, hard to shake the ghosts of war. But don't use the word "can't" around Lacroix. Part of the message he'll take to Capitol Hill again this year -- to anyone, really -- is how he believes this generation of returning veterans can match the accomplishments of World War II veterans.

"They were known as 'The Greatest Generation,' and what drove that was the GI bill," Lacroix says. "Given the opportunity, we can create a 'greatest generation' again. But we need educational resources and opportunities for our veterans coming back."

It sounds like the sort of conscience-driven remark that Tillman might've made had he lived. In April 2002, shortly before he joined the Army, Tillman sat down at his computer and wrote something meant to explain his decision to enlist. It later appeared in Jon Krakauer's 2010 book, "Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman." The entire entry is worth reading, but part of what Tillman wrote was this: "Many decisions are made in our lifetime, most relatively insignificant while others are life-altering. … Somewhere inside, we hear a voice, and intuitively know the answer to any problem or situation we encounter. Our voice leads us in the direction of the person we wish to become. …

"For much of my life I've tried to follow a path I believed important. Sports embodied many of the qualities I deem meaningful: courage, toughness, strength, etc. … However, these last few years, and especially after recent events [such as 9/11], I've come to appreciate just how shallow and insignificant my role is. I'm no longer satisfied with the path I've been following. It's no longer important. … My voice is calling me in a different direction."

Remember Tillman for that.

Isn't that enough?

Johnette Howard is a contributing columnist to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com, and is the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at jphinbox@yahoo.com.

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Johnette Howard is an award-winning writer and author who previously worked for Sports Illustrated, The Washington Post, and Newsday. She contributes general sports columns to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com.