Ex-Ram, Steeler Staat graduates as a Marine
SAN DIEGO -- A former college teammate of Pat Tillman is following his footsteps by leaving professional football to join the military.
Enlisting "is probably one of the best decisions I've made in my life," Staat, 29, told The Associated Press after his graduation ceremony.
Tillman, who played defensive back for the Arizona Cardinals, was killed by friendly fire near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border in April 2004. The Defense Department is investigating allegations of a cover-up, including failure by the U.S. Army to tell Tillman's family for several weeks that he had been killed by gunfire from his fellow Army Rangers, not by enemy fire as they initially were told.
Staat, who also played for the Los Angeles Avengers Arena Football team in 2004, said he was compelled to join the military after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks but Tillman advised him to stay with professional football until he qualified for retirement benefits.
"He told me, 'You're a good player, you need to get good play.' Then four months later, at his wedding, I learn he's going to the Army," Staat said. "I joked to him, 'You stole my idea,' and he said it had been in the process for a while."
Tillman's death gave him "more motivation" to enlist, said Staat, who was born in Bakersfield but resides in Scottsdale, Ariz.
"I should have been there for him," he said, adding he was disappointed that Tillman's enlistment drew wide attention because he gave up a $1.2 million NFL contract to join the Army Rangers.
"People missed the whole concept. It wasn't about the money," he said. "He was there to help liberate a country.
"I never felt right about making the money I was making," Staat continued. "We pay millions of dollars to professional athletes and entertainers, yet we pay military service people pennies to a dollar, and they're the ones risking their lives."
To enlist, the 6-foot-5 player said he dropped from 310 to 260 pounds. He said going through three months of rigorous, boot camp training gave him a deeper appreciation for team camaraderie.
"It's about looking out for your fellow soldier, and being ready to take a bullet for someone," he said.
Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press
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