The fallen soldier of fortune

Updated: April 22, 2005, 10:58 AM ET
By Adrian Wojnarowski | Special to ESPN.com

All those people, all over the country, searched for someone to send an offering to so it would reach the eyes of an American hero's family. They would do Google searches and see the same name pop up again and again, the one quoted in the stories on Pat Tillman: Doug Tammaro.

Inside his office at Arizona State University's sports information department, the boxes of envelopes and cards stacked higher and higher, arriving in the hours and days and months after Tillman's death. There were letters and poems and sheets of music. There were copies of the Sports Illustrated cover shot as an Arizona Cardinal, the senders figuring that the family in San Jose, Calif., would want an extra copy or two around the house.

Pat Tillman
That Pat Tillman gave up a NFL jersey for a soldier's uniform tells but only a little bit about his courage and convictions.
Someone turned the cover of a pizza box into a papier-mâché memorial for the old ASU Sun Devil No. 42.

One kid wrote: "You said you didn't want to be a hero. Too bad. You're mine."

They were the simplest, strangest and most wonderful tributes. With nowhere else to turn, it would be the college publicity man, Tammaro, turning into something of a traffic cop on the life and legacy of his close pal. Before the Pat Tillman Foundation was set up, so much would travel across Tammaro's desk, a work space framed by an immense action photo of Tillman on the football field that hung on his wall long before it became so fashionable.

"You wanted to tell all these people that there was no way that the family would get all of this stuff, or be able to go through it all, and you wanted to tell them too, 'But keep it coming,' " Tammaro said with a laugh by phone the other day.

"Keep it coming."

In the year since Tillman died during a firefight in Afghanistan, Tammaro has told a thousand stories that have undoubtedly reached millions of people. He's determined to make sure that people know all about the man Tillman was, about all the dimensions of his life and character that went far beyond the headlines and sound bites centered on the million-dollar football player for the Arizona Cardinals who left it all behind in the wake of September 11th to fight for his country.

They were close friends, but even the closest were never too near to see it all with Tillman. A year later, that's still the most amazing thing of all: The vastness of the man's legacy is that the world still has as much more to tell Tammaro about Tillman as he has to tell the world.

Just this week, there were those Tempe, Ariz., fourth graders who had come to "Pat's Run," the charity road race that Tammaro helped organize. Fifty-four hundred entered, raising $100,000 for the Tillman foundation and inspiring a field of runners as diverse as the man they were running to honor. And those fourth graders? Four years ago, they were kindergartners whom Tillman would visit every week to read stories in class. Tillman told no one, never had his agent invite television cameras to publicize it.

There were the three soldiers running the race wearing boots, 40-pound military packs and carrying eight-pound simulated weapons. "There were just so many people, from so many walks of life who felt like they had to honor him," Tammaro said.

As much as anything, Tillman's gift has been to allow so many to see so much of themselves in his heroism. He was the football star. And a 3.8 GPA college student. And the graduate of 30 days in a Northern California juvenile detention center, his sentence for beating up a guy who had been picking on one of his high school buddies.

No one could label him, and no one could make him fit neatly into a box. He stopped and talked to everyone on the street, always leaving you stunned that he had asked more questions about your life than you were able to ask about his.

Tillman would've hated this fight in the NFL to get his uniform number on players' uniforms. Nice gesture and all, but if you wanted to honor his memory? Really wanted to honor it? "He would just say, 'Go out and do something for someone,' to remember him," Tammaro said.

Tillman was never into empty symbolism, but genuine, lasting gestures. That's why people remember him, and why they still hold the legacy of his selflessness and sacrifice so close to their hearts.

In the end, Pat Tillman was the best kind of hero.

The kind who felt like one of us.

So, it was a year ago on Friday that the United States' most famous fighting face did something in death that he could've never done in life: Delivered all those anonymous American faces so much more context, color and gratitude back home. Tillman made the public stop skipping so quickly past those newspaper stories of soldiers who died for them, reminding them that every life had its own story of family and sacrifice and heroism. If some thought that devoting so much time and space to Tillman's death would overshadow those troops dying next to him on the battlefields, well, they would eventually discover that just the opposite happened.

Tillman and Tammaro had a long, beautiful talk on that warm winter's night in Seattle in the months before his death. They met at 6:45 p.m., and it wasn't until 11:45 that Arizona State's sports information director remembered signing the check. There were no war stories from Tillman's first tour in Afghanistan, mostly just his probing Tammaro about everyone back at ASU, from the equipment managers to the football coaches to the secretaries in the offices.

"You just had dinner with someone that Larry King would give anything to have on his show right now, and that's what you talked about?" Tammaro's wife said when he returned home.

Well, yes, but that was Pat Tillman. All the way to the end, that was him. The most fascinating man in the room made everyone else feel that it wasn't him, but them. Ultimately, it wasn't until Tammaro was back in Seattle over the summer, visiting his sister Brooke, that the personal loss pounded him. Together, they took a drive past the Flying Fish on First Street, the restaurant inspiring Tammaro to grow as sad and sorrowful as he ever had over Tillman's death.

He remembered the end of that last night together, remembered Tillman's telling him to say hello to everyone back at ASU, remembered hugging him good-bye. The last thing Tammaro remembers is Tillman walking away, up a hill, looking like the most invincible ass-kicking machine in Uncle Sam's Army.

Every now and again, Tammaro digs into the thick folder of stories and letters written about Pat Tillman, balancing his own memories of the man with everyone else's. So many more are still out there about an American hero, so many more that Tammaro hopes will cross his desk at Arizona State. He's lucky to have his own memories of Pat Tillman, but he was so grateful to share yours too.

Keep them coming, he said.

Just 'em coming.

Adrian Wojnarowski is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPNWoj8@aol.com . His new book, The Miracle Of St. Anthony: A Season with Coach Bob Hurley And Basketball's Most Improbable Dynasty, is available nationwide.