Doom of the well-known soldier

Updated: April 24, 2004, 11:43 AM ET
By Adrian Wojnarowski | Special to ESPN.com

Pat Tillman never wanted to be a big story nor an American hero. He just wanted to do his duty, as proudly and anonymously as the soldiers who stood by his side.

There were no news conferences, no interviews, no parades, no self-congratulations. A year ago, Tillman left his new wife, Marie, his $3.6 million NFL contract and disappeared into the desert night.

He fought with the Army Rangers in Eastern Afghanistan, chasing al-Qaida and Taliban into the dark corners and dangerous shadows. In the end, he turned out to be one more soldier returning home to the sad, sad sound of Taps.

With his ultimate sacrifice, Tillman serves as a reminder that there are so many more coming home just like him: Draped under an American flag, tears flowing over the casket.

He never explained one of the most surprising stories in sports, an Arizona Cardinal leaving the glamour, the money, the good life for an enlistment wage of $18,000 and the risk of that firefight on Thursday that cost him his life.

September 11, 2001 didn't inspire Tillman to wear a flag on his football helmet or sing the "Star Spangled Banner" a little louder on Sundays. It inspired an epiphany that most Americans would've never stopped long enough to consider -- never mind act upon.

Without ever meeting him, without ever hearing him completely detail his motives, it seems that what Pat Tillman would've wanted today was for everyone to remember those Americans and allies dying every day in Afghanistan and Iraq. The ultimate sacrifice wasn't walking away from football and a fortune, because clearly his principles and priorities transcended the values of the culture. To Tillman, it seemed, the ultimate sacrifice belonged to the fathers and mothers who left families back in the States, whose deaths merit a story in the hometown paper and a red, white and blue wreath in the cemetery.

Tillman is a face for today, and maybe America needed that, because everyone had started to grow numb to the mounting losses overseas, that lost sense of the tragedy that unfolded every day there. The big, fancy battles that finished with the fall of Baghdad no longer fill television screens, and maybe Americans who became lost again in the every day minutia needed a kick in the stomach.

Today's loss turned out to be Pat Tillman. Maybe he never believed that this could be the result of his brave choice to enlist, but more than a year later, there is clearly a bright lining to his dark loss: The way that no one else could have -- for better or worse, for whatever it says of our society -- one familiar face made millions of Americans stop and consider the sacrifices of those serving with him.

Selflessness is thrown around too carelessly in sports -- ballplayers made out to be heroes when they're willing to switch positions. Pat Tillman, though, has transcended even the highest standards of selflessness and sacrifice, and his life and death will take on what they deserve: mythical proportions.

There will be no footage, no tape, no real records of him describing the details of his decision, of talking on and on about the choice he made. And maybe, he understood: Such navel-gazing was completely unnecessary.

In a climate where everyone talks so much about so little, Pat Tillman believed that sometimes a man needed to make a stand in his life. His spoke for himself, yes, but in the end, his death spoke too -- for the sacrifice of every soldier without a voice.

An American hero died in Afghanistan on Thursday, but what Pat Tillman was able to remind everyone back home was that, tragically, this isn't so unusual. They are dying every day.

Adrian Wojnarowski is a columnist for The Record and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPNWoj8@aol.com.

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