Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Card's Super Salute

Arizona pays tribute to Tillman even if NFL does not

By Gary Myers

TAMPA - There are only two players on the Cardinals' roster who remain from Pat Tillman's final season in 2001. Despite that and the fact that Tillman was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan nearly five years ago, his presence is still felt on this unlikeliest of Super Bowl teams.

"He's not a forgotten man," says safety Adrian Wilson, a rookie in Tillman's final season. "He's an inspiration for the whole organization."

As the Cardinals prepare for their first Super Bowl appearance, there are reminders of Tillman all around. His No. 40 has been retired. There are pictures of him in the lobby and hallways at the team's training facility in Tempe. An eight-foot bronze statue of him was unveiled on Nov. 12, 2006, outside the University of Phoenix Stadium. It captures the quintessential Tillman: emotional, long hair flying, helmet in his outstretched right hand, a determined look etched on his chiseled face. It is located in Pat Tillman Freedom Plaza that surrounds the stadium where the Giants won the Super Bowl last year.

"The Arizona Cardinals meant a great deal to Pat and I know he would be so proud to see them take the field on Super Bowl Sunday," his wife Marie tells the Daily News in an e-mail. "I am personally grateful for all the support the Cardinals have shown the Pat Tillman Foundation as we continue to carry forward Pat's legacy and civic action."

Tillman, the Cards' starting strong safety who abruptly quit football to join the elite Army Rangers in May of 2002, said at the time he made the decision in part because he was deeply affected by the Sept. 11 attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.

Marie Tillman, the high school sweetheart who married him shortly before he made the decision to join the Army, was a guest, with her mother, of commissioner Roger Goodell in his suite at the Super Bowl in Arizona last year.

Marie Tillman is a private person and neither she nor the Cardinals would say whether the Bidwills, who own the team, extended an invitation for her to attend Super Bowl XLIII against the Steelers on Sunday. Mary Tillman, Pat's mother, said late last week from her home in northern California that nobody from the Cardinals had contacted her about coming to Tampa.

The NFL does not have anything planned to honor Tillman this week or on Sunday. It contributed $250,000 for the construction of the Pat Tillman USO Center on the Bagram Air Base near Kabul in Afghanistan. The recreational facility, the first USO center in Afghanistan, opened in April of 2005. Inquiries were being made to see if it was feasible to have a live television shot of the center during the telecast of the Super Bowl.

On the NFL's annual USO tour last summer, Goodell, making the trip for the first time, visited the Tillman Center with Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora and Saints quarterback Drew Brees.

"Pat Tillman will be very much on our minds because of what he means to the Cardinals, the NFL and all Americans," Goodell tells The News. "He was an inspirational leader, not just as a football player but as an American citizen. He represents the highest level of service and sacrifice to his country. His legacy will be with us forever and I am grateful that I had the honor of visiting the Tillman Center in Afghanistan last July."

Tillman was 27 when he was killed. Had he chosen to continue in the NFL, he conceivably could have still been playing in what would have been his 11th season. He was drafted by the Cardinals in the seventh round out of Arizona State. He was a linebacker at ASU, but the Cardinals figured he would be able to make the transition to safety. They liked his toughness. They liked his attitude. They loved his intensity, despite his being a bit quirky. After he was drafted, he rode his bicycle to the Cardinals' facility.

He was an unrestricted free agent after the 2001 season and the Cardinals offered him a three-year, $3.6 million contract. He traded in his $1.2 million-a-year NFL job for $18,000 per year with the Army.

"There've been so many times that I've thought of Pat in the last month," Cardinals president Mike Bidwill says. "Believe me, no one would have enjoyed this moment or the run that the team is on more than Pat Tillman. When people called this ‘the worst team that's ever made the playoffs,' I can only wonder how Pat would have responded. When describing this team, people mention heart and passion and overcoming odds. Pat was the embodiment of all those things and much more."

Dave McGinnis was the Cardinals' defensive coordinator when Tillman was drafted, and he was the coach when Tillman called him two weeks after skipping a mini-camp in the spring of 2002.

"Mac, I'd like to come and see you," Tillman told McGinnis.
He walked into McGinnis’ office, closed the door behind him, took a chair from the front of the desk and pulled it around to the side right next to his coach.

“Mac, we need to talk,” Tillman told his coach.
He told McGinnis that he and his brother Kevin were preparing to join the United States Army Rangers.
“As well as I knew Pat, I would say it was surprising, but it wasn’t shocking,” says McGinnis, now an assistant coach with the Titans. “This guy, his waters really ran deep. I know his decision had not come on a whim. It was well-thought out, well-planned. There was a deep conviction and meaning behind it. I respected him.”

As Tillman got ready to leave, he said he would be back playing football in three years.
“I want to play for you again,” Tillman said.
McGinnis promised him wherever he was coaching, he would find a spot for him.
Tillman and his brother qualified for the Army’s elite 75th Ranger Regiment. He was deployed to Iraq and stayed for three months. He and his brother came back home for special training in preparation for being shipped to Afghanistan to hunt the Taliban and Osama Bin Laden.

Late in the 2003 season, while he was stationed at Fort Lewis in Seattle, Tillman called his old team asking for four tickets to the Cardinals’ road game against the Seahawks. Bill Bidwill set him up in his private box and arranged for rooms at the team hotel. The night before the game, Tillman declined McGinnis’ offer to speak to the team, not wanting to be a distraction.

He came to McGinnis’ suite after the team’s Saturday night meeting and a group of them talked for three hours. The next morning, McGinnis met Tillman at a Starbucks across the street from the hotel at 6 a.m.

He invited him to the team breakfast at 8 a.m.
“Pat, there are men on this football team that would love to see you,” McGinnis said then.
Tillman relented and walked across the street with his old coach.
“I’m telling you, when we walked in with Pat, there was dead silence,” McGinnis says now. “You could feel the admiration and respect.”

One by one, the players came over and shook his hand.
“It was an awe-inspiring moment,” McGinnis says.
After the game, Tillman entered through a back door of the locker room to say goodbye to McGinnis. The Cardinals players came over and hugged him.

McGinnis’ voice cracks as he details his conversation with Tillman.
“I’m going to come back and play,” Tillman said.
“Wherever I am, I will always have a place for you,” McGinnis replied.
“I’m going to hold you to it, coach,” Tillman said.
They hugged. Tillman left the locker room.
“I’ll never forget it,” McGinnis says, his voice still cracking. “I never talked to him again.” Four months and a day later, Tillman was a casualty of war. He was shot in the forehead on April 22, 2004, in the hills of Sperah in Afghanistan, less than a month after being deployed.

Initially, the Army said he was killed by enemy fire. But later it admitted that he had been accidentally killed by one of his own men. A huge controversy ensued, with the Tillman family claiming a coverup by the government to hide the cause of death knowing “their recruiting efforts were going to go to hell in a hand basket if the truth about his death got out,” Patrick Tillman Sr. said back then. “They blew up their poster boy.”

The Patrick Tillman Foundation, with McGinnis on the advisory board, was created to carry forward “Pat’s legacy of leadership and civic action by supporting future generations of leaders.”

It is done through “specific programs that educate and engage leaders of today and tomorrow: service members, their families and the youth of America.” he two Cardinals who remain from Tillman’s days are Wilson and long snapper Nathan Hodel, also a rookie that year. Wilson was going to compete with Tillman for the starting job if he had returned to the team in 2002.

“We always think about Pat,” Wilson says. “To play with him and to see what he went through, it’s an inspiration. For us to finally get here, it’s a long road, a lot of people were involved in it, and he was definitely one of those guys.”

Even for those Cardinals who didn’t play with Tillman, his presence is felt.
“I understand he’s a great human being, a great individual and he meant a lot to this organization,” KurtWarner says. “Not only with what he did on the field, but what he did off the field.”

Mike Bidwill adds, “In a very real way he will be with us on Super Bowl Sunday in Tampa. I said to Marie that he is looking down both excited for the team and at the same time ticked off that he cannot play in the game.”

No comments: