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Pat Tillman: Legacy of Service

Getty Images / Steve Grayson

Pat Tillman: Legacy of Service

For many young athletes who worship star athletes, making it as a professional football player is the ultimate dream. For Pat Tillman, playing in the NFL was just one facet of his life. In addition to being a starting safety for the Arizona Cardinals, Tillman was a U.S. Army Ranger who served multiple tours of combat before being killed by friendly fire 10 years ago this April.

Tillman died April 22, 2004, in Afghanistan at 27. He was the second NFL player to die in action, sharing that sad distinction with Bob Kalsu of the Buffalo Bills, who was killed in action in Vietnam in 1970.

Though relatively small for a linebacker at 5-foot-11 and 200 pounds, Tillman had a standout career at Arizona State University. He contributed to an undefeated season and a Rose Bowl appearance, and he was voted Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year, all while maintaining a 3.84 GPA, according to

After college, Tillman was drafted by the Arizona Cardinals in the seventh round. He played four seasons with the Cardinals, moving to play safety. In 2002, Tillman turned down a $3.6 million, three-year contract with the Cardinals, opting instead to enlist in the military with his brother Kevin, who was playing baseball in the Cleveland Indians minor league system.

When Tillman was killed, mistakenly gunned down by members of his elite Army Ranger platoon, the military initially said he had been killed in a firefight with enemy combatants.

Jon Krakauer, author of the book Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman, asserts that the government tried to hide the fact that Tillman had been killed by friendly fire to avoid taking responsibility for their mistakes. Shortly after his death, Tillman was awarded a Silver Star and a Purple Heart and was promoted to corporal. Krakauer argues that was an effort to deflect attention from what really happened to Tillman.

“When Pat Tillman was killed in Afghanistan, his Ranger regiment responded with a chorus of prevarication and disavowal,” Krakauer wrote. “A cynical cover-up sanctioned at the highest levels of government, followed by a series of inept official investigations, cast a cloud of bewilderment and shame over the tragedy, compounding the heartbreak of Tillman's death.”

Tillman's uniform numbers for the Arizona State Sun Devils and the Arizona Cardinals were retired, and in 2010 he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. The NFL and the Pat Tillman Foundation together created the NFL-Tillman Scholarship to honor a person who "exemplifies Pat Tillman's enduring legacy of service," according to A documentary about the athlete’s life, The Tillman Story, was released in 2010.

Written by James Nghiem. Originally published April 22, 2014.