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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.

Pfc. Jeremy Staat, a former NFL defensive lineman who played for the Pittsburgh Steelers and the St. Louis Rams, graduated from the San Diego Marine Corps Recruit Depot on Friday.

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.