“Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist. He who would gather palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness. … Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind….” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
Let’s start with this: This essay isn’t intended to have any real political meaning.
We live in interesting times, and it seems everything is political these days. Everything is argued, and every argument is molded into two differing viewpoints. And only two. Every argument is black and white. And there is often little room for shades of gray.
Left vs. Right. Blue vs. Red. Yes vs. No. The NFL vs. Rush, and so on.
To often, Complexity is ignored.
OK, we had to put that out there. Unfortunately.
And it’s unfortunate because this post really isn’t about politics.
This is a post about Pat Tillman.
See, I’ve been thinking about Pat Tillman a lot lately. Thinking about his life. Thinking about his death. Thinking about football and Emerson and Afghanistan.
This will all make sense in minute. Probably.
So Pat Tillman’s story is well known to some. And I’m sure it’s only vaguely familiar to others. Just as I assume there are people who have never heard of Pat Tillman.
Well, I just finished reading Jon Krakauer’s* wonderful and brilliant book, “Where Men Win Glory.” It’s the story of Pat’s life. And I’d definitely recommend it. I’d also recommend an old Sports Illustrated article by the great Gary Smith.
*Krakauer also wrote “Into the Wild”, which of course was turned into a movie that featured Emile Hirsch and an incredible soundtrack by Eddie Vedder. He also wrote “Into Thin Air” and some book about a murder case in Utah. That last one was probably his least popular title, which probably explains why I can never remember the name of it.
But for our purposes, I’m going to do my best to tell Tillman’s story again, just for the uninitiated. Of course, this is difficult to do. Pat’s story has turned into a modern-day epic, a narrative with heroes and villains and an almost mythical protagonist.
But here, in the simplest terms, is the story of Pat Tillman.
He grew up in Northern California, lived in a normal middle-class family in a normal middle-class suburb. His Dad was a lawyer and his mother was a powerful free spirit. And he had two brothers. And they did little-kid things. They hiked. They played baseball. They played football.
And this is why we know Pat Tillman.
Eventually, young Pat would grow to become one of the best high school football players in Northern California during the early 1990s. Of course, he was undersized and very few colleges wanted him. But one school, Arizona State, would give him an opportunity. Pat would be a Sun Devil. And he’d grow to become one of the best defensive players in the Pac-10 conference.
But, of course, this is what Pat Tillman always did. So when Pat willed himself to be better, when Pat took control of the Sun Devil defense, when Pat ignored the girls on campus and went to the library instead — well, nobody noticed.
Because that was Pat. And Pat was different.
The story might have ended there. Not many people thought Pat was talented enough to play in the NFL. The kid from Arizona State was too small, scouts said. Not fast enough. We’ll pass.
But, of course, Pat would be drafted in the seventh round by the Arizona Cardinals. He’d start as a Rookie, and by the 2001-02 season, he’d become one the most underrated safeties in the NFL.
The story might have ended there. Pat had multi-million dollar contract offers. He could have taken them, played out his career, settled down, and well — we wouldn’t be writing about Pat Tillman right now.
But, of course, we are writing about Pat Tillman.
You see, something happened to Pat in late 2001. Maybe he was stirred by 9/11. Maybe he needed a new challenge. Maybe he was man who was simply searching for inner peace. And to find that peace, he decided he needed to fight.
Of course, there wasn’t just one reason. There never was — not with Pat.
The story continues in 2002. Tillman joined the Army. His brother, Kevin, did too. They’d both become Army Rangers. Elite warriors. They’d both serve a tour in Iraq, and then they’d both be sent off to the rubble in Afghanistan in 2004.
And of course, Pat never came home.
He was be killed in action on a rocky cliff in Afghanistan. Shot multiple times in the head during a skirmish near a small village..
He died instantly.
In Krakauer’s book, you can read a stunningly detailed account of that skirmish near that village in Afghanistan.
It started with a broken-down Humvee. Pat’s platoon was split. One group went to clear a village, the other attended to the Humvee.
Pat was in the first group, and his brother Kevin was in the second. The second group would be ambushed by Afghan insurgents, and members of the first group would quickly come to the aid of their platoon-mates.
In the ensuing firefight, the insurgents would vanish among the rocks and soldiers from the second group of Rangers would mistakenly fire upon their own men.*
*A member of the Afghan army, which was also fighting alongside U.S. forces, was also killed in the incident.
You’d think the story would end there, right? You’d think.
But remember, this is a story about complexity.
And, unfortunately, this is also a story about deception.
Seems that a few top leaders in the U.S. Military were a little worried about the fact that U.S. solders had accidentally killed one of America’s most famous soldiers.
So the next part of Tillman’s story would include military cover-ups, and poorly run investigations, and it would take weeks before Tillman’s wife, parents — and even his brother — found out the tragic news. That Pat — their Pat — had been killed by friendly fire.
“…Sometimes my need to love hurts — myself, my family, my cause. Is there a cure? Of course. But I refuse. Refuse to stop loving, to stop caring. To avoid those tears, that pain… To err on the side of passion is human and right and the only way I’ll live.” — Pat Tillman, March 19th, 2003, the night before America’s invasion of Iraq.
I can’t remember the time I first heard about Pat Tillman.
I don’t remember him playing at Arizona State. I don’t remember him playing for the Cardinals. And it’s strange. It’s strange because, while I don’t remember WHEN I heard about Pat Tillman for the first time, I do remember the first time I saw him.
I remember the long flowing hair and the high cheekbones and his piercing eyes. Those eyes were his gift. And, of course, I remember the iconic photo of him running out onto the football field with that warrior stare. Always that warrior stare.
You don’t forget Pat Tillman.
His body came home to the United States a few days after his death.
Perhaps it’s not surprising what came next. Tillman was hailed as an American Hero. He was honored as the true embodiment of patriotism.
This, of course, is all true.
But there’s more, because in a way, Tillman became a poster-child for the last administration’s “War on Terror.”
And while millions of people were being called unpatriotic for bringing up the mysterious lack of WMD’s in Iraq, Tillman was someone to be proud of, someone to cherish.
See that man, children? His name was Pat Tillman — the man who he gave up millions and then gave up his life fighting for his country in a faraway land.
See that man, children? His name was Pat Tillman — the man who sacrificed for our freedom. He was a simple man who gave up professional football to fight the bad guys.
But here’s the problem. This simple narrative smoothes over the rough edges on Tillman’s story.
This simple narrative sands down the paradoxes and contradictions that defined Pat Tillman’s life.
This simple narrative ignores intricacy and nuance.
And perhaps this is the one clear thought in this fog of questions and mysteries and contradictions.
I’m not fascinated and inspired by Pat Tillman because he was a hero. I’m fascinated and inspired by Pat Tillman because he was complex
“It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.” — Emerson
He loved beer.
He loved coffee, too.
And this is why I will always remember Pat Tillman.
There’s a great story about Pat Tillman and his wife Marie* taking a vacation to Paris with another couple. They were just out of college at the time. One night on the trip, they all went out to a nice French restaurant —one of those places that serves veal and fine wine — and Pat proceeded to get hammered. They drank bottle after bottle and told story after story — before they were politely asked to leave for being a little too loud.
*OK, I finally am mentioning Pat’s widow Marie. She probably deserved to be mentioned earlier. They were high school sweethearts and they were soulmates. And you can’t mention Pat without mentioning his wife.
Pat went back to the hotel, passed out, and puked red wine all over Marie’s suitcase.
Thing is, Pat loved to drink. But for him, alcohol wasn’t a coping mechanism or an escape.*
He drank because he loved people. He drank because he loved life. All he wanted to do was be with friends and share precious moments of life. He wanted to go on camping trips and crack open a beer and talk all night with friends.
*In fact, Pat was adamant that alcohol never ruin his regular routine. It didn’t either. The morning after he passed out in Paris, he woke up and ran five miles (or so) through the city.
He loved coffee for the same reason. He loved to go to coffee shops and have conversations, conversations that stretched the mind, conversations about philosophy and foreign policy and religion.
This is man who read Emerson and Thoreau and Chomsky and Nietzsche. This is a man who read the Bible and Koran for enjoyment. This is a man who kept a journal and ran marathons to cleanse his offseason boredom.
This is man who had moral concerns about the war in Iraq, but also complained in his journal when he was left out of a dangerous special operations mission.
And remember, this is a professional football player we’re talking about. He also ran a 4.6 40-yard-dash, and spent his Sunday’s lighting up NFL running backs.
But most of all, this is a man who loved his family. And that love illuminated his life.
He was a humble man of intense self-confidence. He was a man of compassion and kindness and joy, and he was man of a ferocity and sadness and sorrow.
There’s an old line in the book, “On The Road” by the brilliant Jack Kerouac. The book, of course, is about Kerouac’s travels through America in the 1950s — the era of beat. The two main characters, Sal Paradise (Kerouac) and Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady) are on a constant journey to explore life and people and emotions.
And well, the line goes like this:
“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!'”
Pat Tillman didn’t have to die to become an American legend.
He already was…
…we just never would have known.
You see, Pat Tillman burned like a yellow roman candle all his life.
And in the end, his fire was so great, and his explosion was so loud and bright… we all just went ‘Awww’.
Hell of a read, Rustin.
That Gary Smith article you mention is one of the reasons I pursued journalism. ‘Where Men Win Glory’ is also brilliant, like you said. This is a great read, too. Tillman was a fascinating man.