Remembering Pat Tillman at Arizona State: A Great Sun Devil, a Greater Man

    It's been 20 years since Pat Tillman's death, but his legacy lives one. Just how good was he at Arizona State, and how have the sun Devils honored him?

    Most remember Pat Tillman for his short but bell-ringing NFL career and the controversy that followed his untimely death serving in the US Army in 2004. But how he died isn’t the story; how he lived is.

    A Look Back at Pat Tillman’s Time at Arizona State

    Tillman wasn’t always a star on the gridiron. In fact, he was told he was too small to play football and didn’t suit up for his high school team as a freshman. However, as the eldest of three brothers, Tillman was used to setting the example, and he exceeded expectations after focusing on the sport entering his sophomore year.

    Even despite the California native leading Leland High School to a Central Coast Division I Football Championship to conclude a highly productive three-year career, he was overlooked by major collegiate programs.

    Yet, before Tillman considered attending a smaller school or walking on at a big-name university, he received Arizona State’s last remaining scholarship. At 5’11”, he was an undersized linebacker and began his career as a special teamer in a disappointing 3-8 season. While Tillman’s first year was relatively quiet, he became the team’s top reserve LB and earned second-team All-Pac-10 all-purpose specialist recognition en route to a 6-5 record.

    Tillman also showcased his off-field intelligence by receiving an Academic All-Pac-10 honorable mention nod, something his undergraduate advisor Mike McBride wasn’t surprised by, “Whatever he did, it was about excellence. Between practices, he was a guy that wanted to learn and make himself better.”

    But that was just the appetizer. Tillman stuffed the stat sheet and was showered with numerous accolades across his final two campaigns in Tempe. From 1996-1997, he recorded 188 total tackles, 27 tackles for loss, seven sacks, seven interceptions, four fumble recoveries, 12 pass breakups, and one blocked kick.

    As for the accolades…

    • Second-team All-Pac-10 LB (1996)
    • Clyde B. Smith Academic Award Winner (1996-1997)
    • GTE District VIII Academic All-American (1996-1997)
    • Academic All-Pac-10 Member (1996-1997)
    • Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year (1997)
    • Arizona State Most Valuable Player (1997)
    • Second-team All-American (1997)

    As a junior, Tillman started every game en route to ASU’s last unbeaten regular season and the school’s second Rose Bowl appearance. Then, as a senior, he helped power the Sun Devils to a 9-3 campaign as a team captain, culminating in a Sun Bowl victory and Tillman winning the game’s MVP.

    It’s no surprise Arizona State only got better the more playing time he received, and his teammates rallied around him on and off the field.

    “He was a real special guy that left an indelible impression on everybody he met,” former ASU QB Jake Plummer said in 2020. “Not because of his good looks — which, he was a good-looking guy. Not because he drove a nice car or smelled good, but because he looked you in the eye and he made you feel special.”

    Tillman’s maturity left an impression on the locker room, making his captainship a no-brainer.

    “He thought about four, five, six, seven years in advance,” said WR Keith Poole. “He was so much more mature than all of us, even though he was a year younger (than me). He just was super mature in every way. The guy was just an honorable dude. He was almost perfect.”

    Being mature doesn’t automatically make you a leader, and while good looks certainly draw attention, Tillman’s authenticity a care for others is what garnered respect and adulation on campus.

    “Whatever you were interested in, he was interested in,” OL Kyle Murphy remembered. “I think that’s the thing that has always left an imprint on me. Just his willingness to want to know how you’re doing and what you’re into and genuine interest in that. It wasn’t fake. It wasn’t platitudes.”

    Doug Tammaro, a member of ASU’s media relations during Tillman’s time in Tempe, echoed a similar sentiment: “He was a no-excuse guy. He did the work; he took time for people.”

    On-field success and locker-room reputability are just two facets of Tillman’s life — a life that extended far beyond football.

    Upon the conclusion of the 1997 season, he graduated with honors as a marketing major, posting a 3.85 GPA across three and a half years. His prowess in the classroom and charismatic personality resulted in graduate faculty advisor Andrew Barnes believing Tillman had a future shaping the country.

    “A couple of conversations in, it’s pretty obvious: This is a rare intellect; this is a rare mind. … I always took for granted that Pat was going to be in the US House, the US Senate — that he was going to be a political leader.”

    Tillman did play a role in shaping the country, just not through politics.

    Tillman’s NFL Career and Ultimate Sacrifice

    In spite of his production, film, and rave reviews from coaches and teammates, Tillman fell to the seventh round of the 1998 NFL Draft. Yet, his landing spot made up for the long wait, as he was able to remain in the state he grew to love with the Arizona Cardinals.

    Scouts felt his lack of size and speed wouldn’t translate to the next level, but the Cardinals converted him to safety full-time. Just two years later, with the help of proper coaching, time to develop, and Tillman’s elite work ethic, he transformed into an All-Pro after generating 155 total tackles.

    However, the 2001 season would be his last, as following the 9/11 attacks in September, Tillman turned down a three-year, $3.6 million contract in the offseason and hung up his uniform to don a new one with the United States Arny Rangers.

    KEEP READING: 2024 Arizona State Sun Devils Football Roster

    He was killed in Afghanistan on April 22, 2004, giving his life for his country. The US Army and US Military awarded Tillman a Purple Heart and Silver Star, respectively, after his death.

    Tillman was posthumously placed in the College Football Hall of Fame in 2010 and the Arizona Sports Hall of Fame in 2018. Arizona State retired his No. 42 jersey in 2004 and continues to honor him in multiple ways:

    • Tillman Tunnel and Statue: The tunnel leading to Frank Kush Field is lined with photos of Tillman, and at the end is a 7′ 1/2″ tall bronze statue of his likeness with the quote, “Somewhere inside, we hear a voice. It leads us in the direction of the person we wish to become. But it is up to us whether or not to follow.” Players traditionally touch the statue as they charge onto the field, symbolizing their dedication to playing with passion.
    • Pat’s Run: An annual 4.2-mile race that raises support for Tillman Military Scholars. The main run is in Tempe, and shadow runs occur worldwide.
    • The Pat Tillman Veterans Center: A program that provides student veterans and dependents with support and service throughout their time on campus.

    Although he was a big dreamer with far-into-the-future goals, Tillman could not have envisioned how much of an impact he would ultimately have on the world in his short time on it. He created a legacy on the field, but it extends far beyond it. Pat Tillman the player and mortal being is gone, but Pat Tillman the inspiration and example to follow lives on.

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