American hero honored by College Hall of Fame

His story is known the sports world over, as his patriotism and sacrifices have made him an American icon. His retired jerseys hang in two Arizona sports stadiums, fans continue to wear replicas of his college jersey more than 10 years after his graduation and a scholarship foundation established in his honor has generated millions of dollars to help further the ideals he heroically personified.

Though he lost his life six years ago, for former Arizona State University linebacker Pat Tillman to achieve a sense of athletic immortality by being one of 14 members selected Thursday by the National Football Foundation to enter the College Football Hall of Fame this year enables college football fans to take time to recall Tillman as a college student wearing maroon and gold before he ultimately chose to don U.S. Army camouflage.

"On behalf of the entire Tillman Family, we are so excited that Pat is now part of the College Football Hall of Fame," stated Marie Tillman, Pat's wife, after the official announcement was made. "He would have been truly honored to be included alongside these other great players."

A text book student-athlete during his days in Tempe, the long-haired Northern California native was equal parts Aerosmith and Aristotle as Tillman was as prominently known around campus for his deep, existential conversations as for his athletic accomplishments and his cool, west coast disposition. His diverse demeanor, however, could never be mistaken for debility as his intensity and devotion toward all he did was second to none.

"Pat Tillman had a quiet intensity that would explode on the field," said former ASU Consensus All-American Juan Roque, who in 2009 joined Tillman, his former teammate, in ASU's Sports Hall of Fame. "He was respectful, courteous and carried himself with dignity off the field but when he stepped on the gridiron, poor you if you were facing him."

The quintessential fan favorite at the college level, Tillman was far from solely a spark plug on the field, boasting incredible accolades including All-America recognition as well as the Pac-10 Conference Defensive Player of the Year Award as a senior in 1997—an honor that would add Tillman as its namesake in 2004—while he earned similar notoriety in the classroom, gaining multiple Academic All-America awards and graduating from ASU in 3 ½ years with a 3.8 GPA as a marketing student.

Though All-America honors and similar distinctions are prerequisites to Hall of Fame election, in Tillman's case those awards are mere footnotes on the manuscript of his life, as his motives and efforts seemingly always focused on ambitions beyond personal accomplishments. However, the fact remains that Tillman's selection to the Hall of Fame is based on his athletic merits and abilities, which as any tried-and-true Sun Devil fan will agree, were as passionate and tenacious as ever will be witnessed on a football field.

"Pat's earned [his selection to the College Football Hall of Fame] as the talented football player he was," said ASU Vice President for Athletics Lisa Love. "We will be bursting with pride at the Hall of Fame induction when Pat's name is called."

Rarely will such a basic, yet so complete individual surface in today's society—let alone in today's collegiate or professional sports society. Humble and focused in a world that wished to urge him toward greed, Tillman's simplicity was borderline stunning as he neither looked nor acted like what has become today's elite athlete prototype, opting to lead and not to succumb to convenient mediocrity.

In a college football offseason where headlines were dominated by thieves and drunk drivers, selfish vagabond coaches and financially driven debates about conference expansion, to reflect on Tillman's life and football career reintroduces the true essence of the purity and marvel of collegiate athletics to a sports world all too obsessed with its high definition image.

Sports fans—specifically those native to the state of Arizona—unwaveringly maintain Tillman's memory with magnanimous regard because in many ways, his legacy represents what all men wish to achieve. In only 27 years of life, Pat Tillman accomplished more than many generations of men strive to; he made waste of no opportunity, he nobly valued relationships and he was compelled more by loyalty and duty than by the lavish lifestyle that many of his peers lived.

Like old drinking buddies that reunite and reminisce upon the ‘glory days', it's not uncommon in the Sun Devil society for fans—even if complete strangers—to crack a smile and draw back on the memories Pat Tillman helped create, as did Mark Brand, ASU Assistant Athletic Director for Communications:

"The stories and anecdotes about Pat are too numerous," Brand said, "but one that I would like to share portrays his unselfishness as a person. Pat had already left college and was an NFL player at the time. I was working with the publisher on the [former ASU journalist] Bob Eger book, "Maroon & Gold: A History of Sun Devil Athletics," and I had asked a handful of famous ASU alumni and legendary coaches to sign 250 copies to be leather bound. This entailed signing their name on 250 separate sheets of paper that would be bound into the book.

"Pat came over to the Carson Student Athlete Center one day, graciously signed his 250 sheets of paper, and left. The following week the publisher accidentally lost the pages signed by Pat. Hesitantly, I phoned Pat and explained what happened. Within 30 minutes of the conversation he returned to the Carson Center, signed 250 additional sheets of paper, thanked me and left. That was Pat Tillman...never too busy to be of assistance to anyone."

Tillman's spirit and values are perpetuated through many outlets, specifically in the general Arizona State University area. The Pat Tillman Foundation, created by Tillman's friends and family shortly after he was killed, was formed continue his vision of leadership and action, while also financially assisting similarly focused college students, active and veteran military service members and their dependents toward their educational goals. ‘Pat's Run', an annual charity race orchestrated by the Pat Tillman Foundation that was first held in Tempe in 2005, has grown exponentially since its debut and this April featured nearly 30,000 participants while other activists across the country and internationally have staged athletic feats in Tillman's honor.

Inside ASU's Sun Devil Stadium, Tillman's No. 42, retired in 2004, is featured on the façade along with the school's other football greats, while a mural of Tillman graces ‘Tillman Tunnel' which leads the Sun Devil football squad out of the locker room onto the field and each member ASU's football roster has ‘PT42' stitched inside the collar of his jersey as a constant reminder of the standards expected of all Sun Devils, a lasting legacy that embraced by all who represent Arizona State University.

"Honor, integrity and dignity: those weren't just adjectives in Pat Tillman's life," stated Dave McGinnis, former Arizona Cardinals head coach, at Tillman's funeral. "They were his life."

The irony with Tillman's service is that it was never meant to make waves; he turned down a multi-million dollar NFL contract to enlist in the Army, not to be an exalted celebrity icon, but to protect the sanctity and security of the American livelihood at its weakest recent point. He routinely dodged media inquiries as he never wanted to draw attention to his decision.

"Pat's sense of duty to his family and his country is why he left the NFL," Roque said. "Many criticize this choice and question why he would put himself in harm's way but that's because they did not know Pat Tillman. They don't know the committed, loyal and patriotic young man, [but] we did and therefore we were not surprised by his decision."

What made Pat so special was his genuine nature, his relentless drive and his selfless priorities. What makes Tillman's inclusion in the College Football Hall of Fame so important is that it is not just a form of recognition of his football feats, but it also provides a medium through which his story can continue to be told; for his legacy and values to continuously motivate and inspire. The permanence of Tillman's Hall of Fame status assures the ability of generations of fathers to take their sons to South Bend, Ind., to learn the story of perhaps the most compelling American athletic role model of the 21st century.

In an interview on Sept. 12, 2001, Tillman, introspectively and in an angered fashion declared, "I really haven't done a damn thing…as far as laying myself on the line."

Thousands, if not millions, of individuals across the world that have been and continue to be inspired by Pat Tillman's actions and sacrifices would devoutly beg to differ.

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