Commentary

Ex-coach, platoon mate recall Tillman

Osama bin Laden's death brings forth reminders of former Cardinal and Army Ranger

Updated: May 2, 2011, 5:41 PM ET
By Mike Fish | ESPN.com

Dave McGinnis was in his Tennessee Titans office late Sunday night, a television tuned to CNN, when news flashed across the screen that al-Qaida kingpin Osama bin Laden had been killed in a firefight. His initial thoughts were of one of his former players, Pat Tillman.

As the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals, McGinnis watched as Tillman, personally moved by the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, gave up an NFL career to join the Army with designs on becoming a Ranger. Seven years ago April 22, Tillman was killed by friendly fire while pursuing al-Qaida fighters in the rugged mountainous terrain of southeastern Afghanistan.

"When it flashed up, like every other American, it caught my attention real fast," McGinnis said of the news of bin Laden's demise. "My thoughts immediately went to Pat and what his convictions were and what he sacrificed. Every year about this time with the [NFL] draft, I think about losing Pat. That's when I found out. And I can tell you, Pat's memory and who he was and the influence he has had on my life are never very far from my thoughts.

"Clearly, when I got this [news] last night it fast-forwarded me clear back to when Pat was sitting there in our facility in Arizona after 9-11, just very intently watching on television what was going on. I recall when he came in, after he had gotten married and gotten back from his honeymoon, he closed the door and pulled his chair up around my side of the desk and said, 'Coach Mac, we need to talk.'"

In May 2002, soon after returning from a two-week honeymoon in Bora Bora, the 25-year-old Tillman enlisted in the Army at a Denver recruiting station. He and his younger brother, Kevin, a former Arizona State baseball player, both later qualified for and became Army Rangers.

Tillman's divorced parents each declined comment Monday on news of bin Laden's death. In the past, both have been critical of the Army and the government's handling of multiple investigations into their oldest son's death as well as the initial cover-up of his being hit by friendly fire. Tillman's widow, Marie, also declined comment.

Jade Lane, a platoon mate, was wounded during the firefight when Tillman was killed. He had a measured response Monday about bin Laden's death.

"It's a good thing, but it doesn't mean our guys are coming home," he said. "So it's not time to celebrate. If this means we're one step closer to that, it's very positive, but I seriously doubt we are. The ripple effect might not be too peaceful."

He said Tillman didn't enter the military solely to go after bin Laden, "but I think he would be very happy we caught him."

"… There are a lot of people like Pat Tillman who gave everything to make sure not just that incidents like 9-11 wouldn't happen, but that they don't happen again. There are a lot of people who put themselves in harm's way to protect the innocent."

McGinnis, Tillman's old coach, did find some solace as he took a late-night break Sunday from reviewing the just completed draft to catch up on the bin Laden news.

"As an American, there is huge sense of satisfaction," said McGinnis, a Titans senior assistant coach. "It can't bring back Pat. Just like it can't bring back all our young men and women [killed in the military]. Just like it can't bring back those people from the 9-11 tragedy. But as an American, knowing that this individual is the one that spearheaded and perpetrated that extreme, a horrendous tragedy on our country -- yeah, you sit there with some satisfaction.

"But it makes me mad. Makes me damn mad every time I think about it and what it cost all of us."

Mike Fish is an investigative reporter for ESPN.com. He can be reached at michaeljfish@gmail.com. Producer William Weinbaum in ESPN's Enterprise Unit contributed to this report.