Friday, April 23, 2004

The real thing...

Pat Tillman 11/6/1976-4/20?/2004

I don’t know, and have never met, Pat Tillman. I knew who he was, of course. I still remember hearing that he had enlisted in the Army after turning down a multi-million dollar contract. My first reaction was “What the hell?!?” This was immediately followed by “That guy is my fucking hero.” And yes, those were my exact words. If I remember correctly I was standing outside the 1st Brigade gym at Fort Campbell, KY when I said them.

It wasn’t just the fact that he turned down the money to serve his country. It was the fact that a professional athlete in any of the three major sports would remember his own humanity long enough to feel that he owed something to this great country. I will generalize some things here, and probably do a great injustice to a great many people, but my perception of most professional athletes is of pampered, spoiled, whining drama queens. They seem to revel in their own shallow greatness, preening and prancing like muscular royalty and displaying an enormous affection for the shiny things in life.

In no way do I believe that the pretentious buffoons who make the most headlines ACTUALLY represent ALL of the players behind the headlines, but they are usually the ones on the front page, for good or ill, and therefore shape the way we see them. Simeon Rice, now playing for Tampa Bay, reinforced this perception when he made light of Tillman’s decision to join the elite 75th Ranger Regiment. He suggested that Tillman “wasn’t all that good anyway” (He set a Cardinals record with 224 tackles in 2000) and that he may have seen too many Rambo movies. I’m not going to attack Mr. Rice here, but it says a lot that he could not respect a decision to lay your life on the line for the country that gave you the opportunity to realize your dreams in the first place.

And please don’t think that I have anything against professional athletes in general. I am a huge Titans fan and have played and watched football since I was a little kid. I only bring up the culture of the “Superstar Athlete” to contrast with someone who saw through the material wealth and excess, and made a conscious decision to stand up for what he believed in.

The real story here is Pat Tillman’s moral character. When he enlisted, along with his brother Kevin, they effectively swore their family and friends to secrecy. There were no interviews or talk shows. They didn’t want the fame and admiration that they deserved, and most likely didn’t want to be thought of as anything other than American Men answering the call to arms. He didn’t just walk away from money… he did an about-face and double-timed away from the fame that would have accompanied a legitimately amazing story. And he walked into an $18,000 a year profession where he would be expected to suffer amazing hardship and deprivation, humiliation and physical breakdown, just to earn the right to wear the black and gold Ranger Tab and the scroll of the 75th Ranger Regiment in the service of his country.

Something even more amazing in my eyes, is the fact that the Army reportedly offered to allow the two college graduates the opportunity to enter the service as Commissioned Officers… and they turned it down to enlist as Specialists. I don’t presume to know the reason for their decision. I do know that the pay difference is substantial, and the Officer corps doesn’t spend much time mopping floors or taking out the garbage. The only thing I can think of is that they didn’t want to be seen to have any advantage over their fellow Rangers, and wanted to earn their own way, based on the merit of their actions.

I have to mention here, that in my opinion, they must have had an outstanding family. They appear to have been brought up with a strong moral compass and a sense of duty and patriotism. They also seem to have had an amazing work ethic that would have served them well in whatever course they took in life. I extend my deepest sympathies to their family and friends, along with all the grieving people in the country who have lost their loved ones in the most important fight of our time.

All the soldiers who have given their lives in this fight are heroes. Pat Tillman is not a hero just for the way he died. Pat Tillman is a hero for the way he lived. He lived for something beyond material success, in a time when most of our time as a society seems to be spent pursuing the next sports car or the bigger television. He was surrounded by the worst victims of excess and selfishness, and stood alone among his peers to offer service to his fellow Americans in a time of war.

Too often Americans pick their heroes from the spoiled, selfish and morally ambiguous members of society. It’s time we realized that we shouldn’t look up to people who look down on us. We need to raise up those who never asked for the recognition they so richly deserve. Pat Tillman will always be one of those Americans.


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